New faculty profile: Alexandra Protopopova
Assistant Professor Alexandra (Sasha) Protopopova wants to know why some animals are adopted into new homes while others are left behind.
As the inaugural BC SPCA Chair in Companion Animal Welfare, she wants to understand how adopters make choices in animal shelters and what can be done to increase adoptions. With a PhD and MSc in Behaviour Analysis (Psychology) at the University of Florida and two Bachelor of Science degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst (one in Pre- Veterinary and Animal Sciences and the other in Neuroscience), Protopopova aims to improve the welfare of companion animals in shelters, pet homes and service work.
As a new faculty member at UBC, she is excited to collaborate with our leading animal welfare experts and to mentor the most enthusiastic students she has met thus far.
One of her current projects, led by PhD student Allison Andrukonis, is to validate a new, non-invasive measure of cat stress in animal shelters, and find out if this measure can predict success in foster homes. Another project, led by PhD student Megan Arant, investigates the effect of various handling techniques of therapy dogs on dog welfare outcomes, as well as the children’s received benefits from these dogs.
Her most fulfilling research projects combine community engagement with applied research.
“Last year, my lab organized 10 community pet adoption events, in which we collected marketing data on consumer perception of various variables within the event,” said Protopopova. “The aim of the study was to establish best-practices for conducting off-site dog adoption events with the goal of understanding how adopters make choices to increase adoption rates and decrease unnecessary dog euthanasia.” Not only did they collect lifesaving data, but 40 dogs were also successfully adopted.
She is collaborating with Wesley Dotson, an autism expert and behaviour analyst from the Texas Tech University Burkhart Centre for Autism Education and Research. They are in the middle of a National Institutes of Health-funded clinical trial on the effect of therapy dogs in social skills group classes for children with autism spectrum disorders.
With her educational background in behaviour analysis, Protopopova relies greatly on single-subject experimental designs control for experimental variability, which is ideally suited to investigate any interventions that affect behavioural change in humans and animals.
In such designs, each participant experiences both the experimental and control (baseline) conditions repeatedly until data differentiation is seen. “We can be convinced of the effect or lack thereof of the intervention on that specific individual,” she said. “We repeat these studies across individuals to obtain generalization. In the end, one can say, ‘for seven out of 10 people, this intervention was effective,’ rather than saying, ‘this intervention was, on average, effective,’ which is less precise.”
Some of the planned projects she will do in collaboration with the BC SPCA span various topics such as pet dog import, behaviour and welfare of rabbits and pet rats, rehabilitation of cats from hoarding cases, and the human aspect of the animal-human bond.
“A close collaboration with the BC SPCA is a dream come true,” said Protopopova. “I get to focus on applied research while making a real difference in the community.”