Herpetologist Highlight

Me and my bae. #salamanderselfie

Herpetologist Highlight

Name:
Amanda J. Zellmer

Age:
36

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

Where do you work?
Occidental College

Position:
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

 

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

On the academic end, being a science major at a big public university was tough. I went to high school in a small town in New Jersey, and I wasn’t prepared for a 1,000+-student organic chemistry course in my first semester. After a particularly abysmal exam, my professor basically told me that I didn’t have what it takes to be a scientist. I thought I was the only one struggling; then I joined a study group and realized that a lot of other students found the material difficult, but we could solve the problems by working together. That was a hard experience but I’m glad that I had it early, because it taught me when and how to ask for help. No one got to where they are on their own!

Additionally, doing fieldwork as a woman can feel like you have something to prove, or that you don’t belong. I imagine this circumstance is similar or enhanced for minority students, and historically fieldwork, especially in herpetology, hasn’t been the most inclusive. “Jokes” about your appearance or not being able to change a tire/lift heavy rocks, etc. can be hurtful. I may not be particularly strong, but I have small hands that can fit into crevices, which is pretty awesome for catching lizards, frogs, snakes, and even tortoises. I walk slowly, but that makes me good at finding cryptic animals. So find your strengths – you belong in the field as much as anyone else. In my experience, diverse field teams are always more successful and more fun anyways!

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? 

You can get experience wherever you are! I remember being frustrated as an undergraduate by advertisements for faraway field expeditions that cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but provided little to no financial aid. So for a while, I just assumed fieldwork cost a ton of money and wasn’t feasible for me (and really, these experiences are not feasible for the average student). Then I found out about mailing lists such as “Ecolog” and wildlife job boards that advertise paid positions. I couldn’t believe someone was willing to pay me to catch snakes, but it happened. So I would recommend signing up for those types of services and keeping an eye out for local positions. It’s totally fine if you don’t have any prior field experience! Just express an interest and willingness to learn. Same goes for research experience - if you had a professor or graduate student instructor whose research seemed interesting to you, reach out! If you are close to a museum, they often have positions as curatorial assistants as well.

It’s okay if you don’t land your dream job at first – I started out working with pollinators, which was great, but I really wanted to work with herps. Luckily, my mentor was friends with folks in the herp lab, and wrote me a great letter of recommendation. Everyone has a different path, but it’s likely that you will learn something every step of the way.

If you are from an underrepresented group, I would say look for a mentor that will support you as a herpetologist and researcher but most importantly as a person. Find someone that understands that the academic system was designed for certain demographics that may not apply to you, and wants to help you in every way they can to overcome that. Remember that others can be mentors, too, not just your PI – some of my most influential mentors have been post-docs and graduate students. Try to cultivate a community of people that you admire and respect, both peers and those at different levels of the process. Often, those folks will have the most helpful advice on how to navigate the system because they have been in your position more recently. It’s likely that you will be able to help others, too, especially those that are just getting into herpetology or research.

Finally, if any field or research experience doesn’t feel right to you, it’s okay to say so, or to leave altogether. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking out, try to find an ally that will vouch for you. And if you are a person with authority or privilege in a given situation and you notice that something is happening to a lab mate, be an ally.

What’s your favorite herp? I quite like arboreal snakes. I don’t think I can pick one, but I’ll give you my top three genera: Oxybelis, the vine snakes, Imantodes, the “blunt-headed” snakes, and Dipsas, the “snail-eaters.” And of course, I love Sceloporus lizards, the focus of my graduate work.

Why are you an HL member? I love talking about herpetology, so I am always looking to connect with other researchers and students, through forums like this or at conferences! Plus, some of my favorite publications have been published in Herpetologica. I think it is important to support the societies that make these opportunities possible.

Is there anything else you would like to add? Some thoughts on making herpetology more inclusive…if there are local collaborators that contributed significantly to your ability to collect data in the field, or shared knowledge about native herpetofauna, include them as authors on resulting publications (or at least ask if they would like to be involved in the process – mostly likely they will!). If you worked in another country, disseminate major results of your research in the native language(s) so that residents can read your work and take pride in their wildlife. If you are reviewing a paper written by a non-native English speaker, remember that the author is surmounting a huge barrier already by trying to make their research understandable to you: respond with courteous and constructive comments. We all stand to gain when herpetology is more inclusive.

Is there a good caption for your attached photograph? This was my first interaction with a brown vine snake, one of my most coveted species, in the northern highlands of Nicaragua. We found many more on the trip, but this was my favorite!

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