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Catherine Schaeff Associate Professor Biology

PhD, Conservation Biology and Population Genetics, Queen’s University, Canada
MS, Behavioral Ecology, University of Ottawa, Canada
BSc (H), BSc (H), Animal Behaviour, University of Toronto, Canada

Dr. Schaeff ‘s training is in evolutionary biology and behavior. Her current research* explores how sex, gender and sex/gender inform one’s identity or sense of self, and how one’s sense of self shapes and is shaped by one’s relationship with their body. Dr. Schaeff’s ongoing studies incorporate quantitative and qualitative methods, integrating the strengths of the natural and social sciences.

Dr Schaeff’s previous research focused on behavior, molecular ecology and conservation, a with specialization in marine mammals (see CV for details).

Without understanding our body, we cannot understand our self.

Ongoing projects:
(participant recruitment ongoing: http://IdentityResearch.Info)

Gender Affirmation: Expectations and Satisfaction
Physical affirmation procedures facilitate the embodiment of one’s ‘self’, one’s identify. To what degree does successful gender affirmation require more than a medically successful intervention? As the number of individuals identifying as transgender has increased so too has individuals’ ability to access procedures to physically affirm their gender, with more and different types of venues participating. It is unclear whether, under these conditions, individuals’ post-procedure expectations are being met and if not, what consequences it might have. The primary goal of this project is to explore trans feminine adults’ experience physically affirming their gender, to ascertain how expectations about procedures are established and the relationship between fulfillment of expectations and individuals’ post-procedure satisfaction. Using semi-structured interviews, we are exploring the experience of trans feminine adults who had had one or more affirmation procedures over the past five years.

The Experience of Asexuality: Its complicated
Sexual attraction can be understood both as an evolved trait and an experience that is strongly influenced by our environment and experience. The number of individuals identifying as asexual has risen significantly in recent years, especially among young women. At this point we don’t know to what to degree this represents a shift in reporting (e.g., increased social acceptance and sexual awareness) or an increase in individuals not feeling sexual attraction. Nor is it clear if asexuality is best understood as a neutral state (i.e., a pattern of attraction or sexual orientation) or reflects a level of distress. Our preliminary data suggest that there are a range of experiences among those under the asexual umbrella and that how individuals report “not-feeling-sexual-attraction” may reflect important differences in their experience. Using anonymous online surveys, the goal of our research is to learn more about the self-reported experience of individuals who “do-not-feel-sexual-attraction”. In particular, we want to gain a better understanding of the ‘quality of life’ anchors for life with little or no sexual behavior and less engagement in sexual or romantic relationships.

Embodying our Sex/Gender
To social scientists, gender is connected to an individual’s sex mostly through socially constructed links. To natural scientists, it is partially that and partially a flexible behavioral trait that evolved because it facilitated obtaining high quality mates and maximizing one’s reproductive success as either an egg or sperm donor. How do we use what we know from both of these fields to better understand and support the complex experience of sex/gender? For this study we are exploring the relationships among sex, sexuality, and body to better understand why and how individuals desire to modify their bodies to align with their self.
See Also
Biology Department
For the Media
To request an interview for a news story, call AU Communications at 202-885-5950 or submit a request.


Spring 2024

  • HNRS-151 AU Honors Research Experience: Understanding Quality of Life

Fall 2024

  • BIO-396 Selected Topics:Non-Recurring: Animal Behavior

  • CORE-105 Complex Problems Seminar: Imagining the Good Life

  • CORE-106 Complex Problems Seminar: Desire

  • HNRS-150 AU Honors Exper Learning

Scholarly, Creative & Professional Activities

Executive Experience

  • 2021-present: Co-Chair, CAS Dean’s Advisory Committee

  • 2020-2022: Chair, Faculty Senate Undergraduate Curriculum Committee

  • 2001-2006, 2018: Acting Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, College of Arts and Sciences

  • 2010-2014: Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, College of Arts and Science, American University

  • 2000-2007:Chair, Department of Biology, American University

Selected Publications

  • Schaeff, C. 2022. Assigned-Female-at-Birth Trans Masculine and Non-binary Individuals Differ in Their Body Satisfaction and Desire for Gender Affirming Treatments 2022 Jan 31; DOI 10.1007/s10508-021-02178-3. Archives of Sexual Behavior (

  • Best, PB, CM Schaeff, D Reeb, PJ Palsboll. 2003. Composition and possible function of social groupings of southern right whales in South African waters. Behaviour 140 (11-12): 1469-1494

  • Steeves T, J Darling, CM Schaeff & R Fleischer. 2001 Population structure of gray whales that summer in Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia based on sighting and molecular data.  Conservation Genetics 2:379-384.

  • Schwartz. M, DJ Boness, CM Schaeff, P Majluf, EA Perry & RC Fleischer. 1999. Female solicited extra-pair matings in Humboldt penguins fail to produce extra-pair fertilizations. Behavioral Ecology 19(3):242-250.

  • Schaeff, CM, DJ Boness & WD Bowen. 1999. Female distribution, genetic relatedness, and fostering behavior in harbor seals (Phoca vitulina). Animal Behaviour 57:427-434.

Grants and Sponsored Research

  • (2000) Senate Research Award, American University
  • (2000) CAS Mellon Research Award, American University
  • (1997) Pittsburgh Zoo Conservation Fund
  • (1997) Senate Research Award, American University
  • (1995) CAS Mellon Research Award, American University
  • (1995) Senate Research Award, American University
  • (1994) Senate Research Award, American University

AU Experts

Area of Expertise

Sex, gender and sexuality, gender affirmation and body satisfaction, human and animal behavior (emphasis on sexual and social behaviors), evolution of human mate choice, genetics, conservation, behavioral ecology, and marine mammals

Additional Information

Cathy Schaeff's main research interests are conservation biology, molecular ecology, and behavior. She uses molecular DNA techniques in conjunction with behavioral data to investigate gene flow patterns within and between populations (e.g., right whales and gray whales), determine mating strategies (e.g., penguins, right whales), and understand the evolutionary significance of various behaviors (e.g., fostering). She is also conducting a number of studies on fluctuating asymmetry to determine whether morphological asymmetry is a useful tool for assessing population health in endangered species (right whales, manatees, Sable Island ponies) and recently began studying mate choice in gays and lesbians.

For the Media

To request an interview for a news story, call AU Communications at 202-885-5950 or submit a request.

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