Zeitler pictured in the Sewanee wilderness. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).
By Luke Gair
Emma Zeitler (C’20) was bit by a stiletto snake during her first week abroad in South Africa, and within hours the cytotoxins seeped into her bloodstream. When her professor identified the snake as potentially venomous, Zeitler keeled over after losing her hearing and vision in succession of one another. Though the featureless, stringy creature was comparable to an earthworm, the potent venom ballooned her right hand and forearm into something uncannily familiar to the Hamburger Helper mascot.
“I didn’t even get a scar,” she joked, “and I went through all of that. I deserve one.”
For all 18 years of her pre-college life, Zeitler was convinced that the English major was right for her. After participating in English programs and “thinking [she] was going to be whatever [she] was going to be,” one trip to Yellowstone National Park was all that it took to flip the switch. She took note of the “work, attitudes and passion” of the scientists throughout her time in the park, and in this moment she started to change her mind.
She began her freshman year still carrying an inclination toward English, but the idea of studying biology lingered. In a meeting with her advisor, Professor of Biology Dr. Deborah McGrath invited Zeitler to get involved with research. She recalled that she didn’t have considerable research under her belt at that point, calling to minimal experiences in high school. With a smile, she said that “since [that meeting], it has completely become my life.”
Throughout her undergraduate career, she has contributed significant work to the Sewanee Constructed Wetlands project based in the Sewanee Utilities District. “They [run waste water through] man-made wetlands, which serves as a tertiary treatment… it’s not only a conservation construction, but it’s also helping a low cost and low maintenance way of treating waste water,” she explained.
Since the project needed an ecologist’s take on how the wildlife community was responding to the wetlands, Zeitler stepped in to “monitor the frog populations and then compare the frog populations to the natural wetlands around Sewanee.”
Along with Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Cecala, they had cattle tanks, which are essentially large “kiddie pools of water,” and filled them with waste water, lagoon water, and water from Lake O’Donnell. After setting these up, they spent a year observing how frogs were affected by the different environments.
Now, her part in the project has begun to wrap up. In looking back on the research, she reflected how “it is contributing toward a pool of knowledge that will help us with water scarcity and conservation.”
“[This experience] has introduced me and eased me into the world of science and academic research. I’ve been able to go to conferences, write grant proposals, and be awarded grants and publish papers,” she added. “I honestly don’t think that could have happened at a larger school. It was such a personal and intimate experience.”
While the future holds a plethora of uncertainties, Zeitler sees academia as a viable career path, but emphasized how important the research aspect is to her: “I hope to always be involved with [it], and particularly where it can connect on an integrated level.”
She noted that while teaching may occasionally be a thankless job, it still proves effective even if she was to reach a single student. “You’re also setting up a future,” she said, “and it’s a lot like research in that way.”
Looking across the Saint Andrew’s Reservoir, Zeitler watched the wind carry leaves into the water’s gentle wake. The trees secluding the swimming hole were just beginning to blush with the first signs of fall, and in the distance birds chirped. “Those are blue jays, you know,” and laughed, as if she was taken aback by her own quick insight.
“It’s so easy to fall in love with the place here, and that’s a lot of what science is,” she concluded, “everything you research, you inevitably fall in love with. Sewanee is perfect for that.”