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Exit Interview: Zach Steele

Zach Steele is a recent WEC MS graduate who completed his program in summer 2020. He successfully defended his thesis entitled “Understanding Public Perception, Support for Management Actions, and Knowledge of Non-Native and Invasive Species In Florida”. He will begin a doctoral program in Ecological Sciences at Old Dominion University this fall, where he plans to study a novel approach to estimating animal water intake and metabolism by conducting field and lab-based research with model species such as kangaroo rats in the Chihuahuan desert. Zach was advised by Dr. Elizabeth Pienaar.

The Pienaar Lab (left to right): Ben North, Diane Episcopio-Sturgeon, Zach Steele, Andrew Glass. Photo courtesy of Zach Steele

Where are you from and where did you receive your previous degrees?

I grew up in Safety Harbor, Florida and I received my BS from the University of South Florida in Tampa.

 

When did you become interested in wildlife ecology or conservation?

I became interested in conservation-based research at a young age from trips to different zoos and aquariums throughout the state of Florida.

 

Why did you decide to come to WEC?

I was working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in North Dakota in 2018 when I saw Dr. Pienaar’s posting about a spot in her lab. I loved the sound of the project, so I applied but never really expected to hear back. Luckily for me, I heard back not too long after I applied and had a great conversation with Dr. Pienaar over the phone and then she flew me out to Gainesville a couple weeks later. After meeting with her in person and getting to know some of her students and how highly they spoke of their experience so far is when I decided to come to WEC.

 

What did your research focus on?

My research focused on Florida residents’ perception of non-native and invasive species. I examined how support for invasive species management actions varies depending on the specific target species. I also looked at how Florida Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facilities provide information about invasive species and how effectively educators and guests perceive this information is being communicated.

 

Why did you choose to study that particular topic?

Growing up in Florida I’ve always been around different invasive species, so it was a topic that really hit home for me. It’s always been interesting to hear people’s thoughts about different invasive species (some they like, others they hate) so the project was a perfect fit. 

 

Zach Steele and Martial Kiki on an airboat while TA’ing for Dr. Romagosa. Photo courtesy of Zach Steele.

What was your most memorable experience at WEC?

I think my most memorable experience was TA’ing. I was lucky enough to TA two really cool courses with Dr. Pine/Dr. Martin and Dr. Romagosa so I had a lot of fun with the students out on the boat or in the field.

 

How have your advisor(s) shaped your experience and research? 

Dr. Pienaar really encouraged me to take on challenges and expand my research based on my interests. This is what allowed me to incorporate the zoo/aquarium aspects of my research and to utilize different statistical analyses. I really appreciate that she pushed me so much to try new things and expand my horizons because it helped me grow as a researcher and as a person.

 

What are your plans moving forward?

I will be starting my Ph.D. in the fall at Old Dominion University.

 

How do you feel that WEC prepared you for your next steps?

I think WEC prepared me for my Ph.D. by giving me the opportunity to learn from some amazing professors who really encouraged interdisciplinary research. Within the department, people like Dr. Baiser, Dr. Hull, and Dr. Romagosa really taught me a lot and made their courses fun and interesting. I also appreciated how WEC professors, especially my advisor Dr. Pienaar, encouraged me to go outside of WEC and get different perspectives from other researchers. Taking courses with Dr. Swisher (FYCS), Dr. Kahler (Sociology & Criminology), and Dr. Miller-Cushon (Animal Sciences) really helped prepare me for my Ph.D .