Pictured: Professor of Biology Kristen Cecala. Photo by Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21).
By Vanessa Moss
If you have spent much time at all in Spencer or Woods, you have likely heard of an illusive “Salamander Army” that stalks the halls armed with nets, rain boots, and bags full of squirming salamanders.
Now in her sixth year at Sewanee, Dr. Kristen Cecala is notorious for infecting students with an unexpected love for the slimy, squirmy, and scaly critters across the Domain. As the resident herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) professor, her lab is often home to at least a few salamanders, and occasionally the odd snapping turtle.
Like any kid gifted with a good backyard, Cecala spent her childhood traipsing up and down a local creek with her brother. She never found a salamander, or a frog; there was only one fateful day when she stumbled across a box turtle, and, concerned for its safety, brought it home to Mom and Dad as a new member of the family. She suspects they were somehow involved in its mysterious overnight disappearance.
Her time at the creek waned while interests in school and horseback riding grew, and by high school she was far from a mud-slicked, snake-wielding ecologist. In fact, when her guidance counselor from highschool heard where her career led, they remarked, “But she was so prissy!”
Her dreams were set on veterinary studies; laughing, almost apologizing for naivety, she explained, “It was before I knew there were other ways to work with animals.”
With that dream and the weather in mind, (“I wanted some place where it wouldn’t snow in April.”) she found her way to Davidson College. Her freshman year, she stumbled into a stream survey project as a means to an end on her way to a “real research lab” that’d be more relevant to her studies in genetics. It wasn’t until a few months into the project that she realized, “Oh wait–this is a real lab.”
She went immediately from Davidson into a PhD program at University of Georgia. “I thought, ‘I’ll do this now and figure out my long term plan later!’” She laughed and clarified, “which is the exact opposite of what I advise students to do now.”
She seems to have found a good long-term plan: post-doc she was able to replace a professor on sabbatical and teach a few courses, working with undergraduates in research labs, and shortly after was hired as an assistant professor of biology at Sewanee.
“I wanted to teach,” Cecala explained, “Once I got the experience and got over my fears of TA-ing, I wanted to continue it. I’d seen how it was done at a R1 school.” She’d taught 75 students for a 300-level biology seminar, and seen how difficult it is to get student funding. “Liberal arts was what I wanted. You can’t really help push the needle in students’ lives when you’re teaching that many people. You can want to, but you can’t do it.”
Mentorship is what Cecala prioritizes most in her time as a professor. “I love my colleagues, but the people who I work with on a day-to-day basis are students.”
Now in her sixth year at Sewanee, she already has 12 graduated “Lab Survivors,” all of whom are now working in the realm of Ecology, both in the field and in policy, through state governments and NGOs. One went on to be a Fulbright researcher, Maggie Bliss (C’16), and three others are now pursuing PhDs. Saunders Drukker (C’17) is now at Texas State University, in his first semester of a 5-year PhD program. Hoping to focus on the effects of fire on native herpetological communities, his time working for Cecala had resounding impact:
“Cecala is probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. She is driven, efficient, demanding, and thoughtful,” Drukker said. “She is my ideal professor, very kind and reasonable, yet she is excellent at pushing you towards success.”
High praise flooded in from other “Cecalamanders” (as her research students are dubbed on their Animal Ecology Lab website,) including Katie Kull (C’17): “She’s somehow both the most intimidating and the most relatable ecology person I’ve ever met. She reminded me that my secret love of math has a place in field-based ecological research. She’s one of the best professors I’ve ever had.”
Lily Reece Castle (C’17) studied natural resources and only took a few classes with Cecala, and still wrote in to The Purple to comment on how “her passion for ecology is contagious. She shows students the challenges and joys of research, motivating even underclassmen to pursue ambitious projects and expand their skill set.”
In her office, with plastic salamanders lining the windowsill and a collection of herpetology-related knick-knacks across her desk, it’s easy to see how her passion could permeate into the lives of students. Her office door is almost always open while she works. When closed, there’s a student inside who she’s nodding to and scratching notes down for.
Recently, service beyond mentorship has become a larger aspect of her work at Sewanee. “I’m on a million boards,” she groaned, “But I can’t not be busy.” Beyond teaching, assisting with undergraduate research, and being on a “million” boards, she’s also currently the head editor for the Tennessee Journal of Herpetology, and an associate editor for both the Herpetological Review and the Southeastern Naturalist.
After such an energetic entry to Sewanee, it’s no wonder that Cecala was recently granted sabbatical for the 2019-2020 school year. But even then, her sabbatical will be far from a break: Before interviewing with The Purple, she was working on her three-month plan post-graduation. Only one month into the outline, there was a noticeable absence of blank space.
“I’ve just committed to a long-term turtle project,” she explained. This summer she’ll begin monitoring terrapin turtle populations in South Carolina, where two of five known communities have already gone locally extinct. “I’m excited to do it, and totally anxious to make it work.”
She hopes to return in the fall of 2020 with new insight to inform current projects, and inspire new ones. “It’s not that there aren’t a ton of possible research questions already, it’s what I want to spend my time doing.” With concern for water scarcity and intermittent flooding events across the eastern U.S., her work in freshwater ecology may sway toward the ephemerality of water on the Cumberland Plateau. “I want to read and process what we’ve done so far,” she said, “then think about long-term project ideas for Sewanee.”