Herpetologist Highlight

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Herpetologist Highlight

Amanda J. Zellmer


Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram:
compbio.oxycreates.org / @ajzellmer / @ajzellmer

Where do you work?
Occidental College

Assistant Professor

How did you get there?

As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with wildlife and the outdoors, but it wasn’t until graduate school when I bought my first pair of hip waders and dipped my toes into one of the many ponds scattered across the University of Michigan’s Edwin S. George Reserve that I developed an interest in studying amphibians. I had read about research on amphibian declines, but there in southeastern Michigan the frogs seemed plentiful. Why was it that some places seemed little affected by the declines while others went unimpacted. That question sparked my passion in understanding how urbanization and land development impact amphibian populations – a question I’m still trying to answer today.

After my PhD, I packed away my waders and made my way across the country as I tried to figure out where my future was headed. My first postdoc took me to Baton Rouge to study carnivorous pitcher plants at Louisiana State University where I learned about long-leaf pine savannahs and Mardi Gras parades. I then took a year off to spend time with my two-year-old daughter when our family moved to California. During that year, I contemplated alternative career options – perhaps I could work for a non-profit, or I could be a barista (I do love coffee after all). But the frogs were calling and I needed to find my way back. I spent the next three years as a combined postdoc/adjunct at Occidental College studying marine ecosystems and teaching biostatistics. At 8-months pregnant with my second child, I interviewed and then landed an Assistant Professor position.

As soon as I was back from maternity leave, I brushed the dust off my waders and hopped back in. Metaphorically I mean, because I now study terrestrial salamanders that live under rocks and logs across Los Angeles. Plus, I’m pretty certain people would look at me funny if I wandered down Sunset Blvd in my hip waders.

Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position?

My biggest challenge has always been self-doubt. To be honest, I’m kind of an expert in it; I’m highly skilled in convincing myself that I won’t get that grant, my paper will get rejected, or my science isn’t good enough. I’ve taken great ideas and projects and sat on them so long that they’ve become obsolete (hey, could someone please cite my 2018 paper on gene flow and local adaptation in wood frogs that took me 10 years to publish? #please #thanks #shepersisted).

Over the years, I have learned how to cope with and manage the doubt. Most importantly, I stumbled upon amazing mentors who believed in me when I had all but given up. So maybe my advice isn’t for newcomers to herpetology, but instead it is for those who are already here. Encourage young scientists. SHOW them that it is okay to be wrong by admitting your own faults. Welcome them to the field, not by competing with them, but by listening to their hypotheses and ideas. Write constructive reviews. We are all here to learn.

What advice do you give to someone interested in your profession? What advice might you have for someone from an underrepresented group who is interested in entering your field?

Find and create a network of support, but make sure you find the right type of support. It is easy to get caught up in toxic circles plagued by competition and negativity. Look for mentors who support you unconditionally. Start collaborations with your peers to keep you connected as well as to keep you accountable. Most importantly, do what makes you happy.

What’s your favorite herp?

Batrachoseps nigriventris, the black-bellied slender salamander. Not only is this minute salamander adorable – how tiny are those legs anyway? – but also it lives in pristine habitat up in the Angeles National Forest all the way to downtown LA right near Dodgers Stadium. I am fascinated every time I find a salamander living in the heart of this megacity. How do they do it?!

Why are you an HL member?

I joined the HL to be connected with a community of academics who strive to understand the nature of amphibians and reptiles. It took me a while to find my way to the HL, but the moment I got here I felt like I was at home. The community is warm and welcoming – if you’re crazy about amphibians, you’re one of them.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

If I could offer any piece of advice, it would be to connect with your local citizen/volunteer scientists, especially kids. There are many young girls that love digging in the dirt to look for anything slimy and fun to hold, but they need to see scientists that look like them to help keep that passion alive. You may even spark a new passion which that little girl may have never known was a possibility for her to have.

Is there a good caption for your attached photograph?

Me and my bae. #salamanderselfie

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