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Dr. Naida Loskutoff’s impact reached far beyond the walls of the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
The director of reproductive sciences at the zoo created a patented process for in-vitro fertilization that removes disease pathogens. The process was designed to help breed endangered species safely, but her work is also starting to affect humans by lessening the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis.
Loskutoff, 59, died last month from complications of an abdominal condition. She was found in her Bellevue home on May 26.
“Naida was really good to work with, easy to work with, and we will for sure miss her,” said Dr. Lee Simmons, the zoo’s longtime director, who hired Loskutoff in 1992. “It leaves a hole in the scientific world.”
Loskutoff’s research was aimed at preventing the spread of hoof-and-mouth and other diseases. Her process filters pathogens out of semen samples, which are then frozen and shipped for breeding. This means that capturing, quarantining and shipping live animals are no longer required for breeding.
The process wound up applying just as well to human semen, with a near 100 percent success rate at eliminating diseases like HIV and hepatitis B and C when using in-vitro fertilization. And her results showed fertility isn’t damaged along the way.
Loskutoff’s process recently became available as the commercial product ProInsert by Nidacon, and she had just received her first royalty check. The World Health Organization recommends her process for all human fertility clinics.
“This very well may end up having huge benefits for humans,” Simmons said.
Loskutoff was born May 21, 1956, in San Francisco to parents Mikhail and Maria. At about 8 years old, she and her family moved to the Los Angeles area. Around that time, she found her calling. “This is what she wanted to do as a child, go into helping animals,” said Vera Johnson, her sister. “She actually did that. A lot of us start off doing things and change along the way. She did what she set out to do and then some.” Loskutoff earned her bachelor’s degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and her master’s and doctorate from Texas A&M University, finishing in 1989.
She got her first zoo experience interning at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, where she worked with okapi, a central African animal closely related to the giraffe but with zebra-striped legs. She had a lifelong love of the animal, so much so that the license plates on her Jeep Liberty read “OKAPI,” and two small stuffed okapis sat in her rear window.
“We kind of joked in the lab that it was her spirit animal,” said Jonathan Aaltonen, who worked and traveled with Loskutoff over the past eight years as the supervisor of reproductive sciences.
Over the course of her 23 years at the Omaha zoo, Loskutoff established three South African reproductive laboratories, created the zoo’s reproductive cryobank and worked with other scientists to produce the world’s first test-tube gorilla, which lives at the Omaha zoo.
Loskutoff served as the president of the International Embryo Transfer Society and founded the Companion Animal Non-Domestic and Endangered Species subcommittee. She served as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ species survival plan coordinator for okapi, gorilla and gaur and also worked extensively with cheetahs, tigers, elephants and camels.
Outside of work, she had an affinity for nature and travel and collected items such as maps and masks while on African expeditions. She donated to charities including the Nebraska Humane Society and the Wounded Warrior Project, loved watching “Judge Judy” and in recent years began making jewelry from African gems for her family.
She was preceded in death by her father. She is survived by mother Maria Donaldson, sisters Vera Johnson and Luba Mitchell, one niece and three nephews.
Loskutoff’s ashes will be scattered at a large tree in Northern California at her request. Private services will be held for family in California at a later date and at the zoo on June 26.
In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made to the Omaha Zoo Foundation or the Center for Conservation and Research Endowment Fund at the zoo.
Anneke Moresco spent the last year doing post doctoral work at Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden in the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). Anneke and colleagues participated in a conservation and reproduction project for the black-footed cat in South Africa. See the spotlight HERE. Photo credit Dr. Alex Sliwa (curator at the Cologne zoo)