Kat Zelak is currently in her second year of the ACEL Master’s program where she serves as a Graduate Teaching Associate and President of the Graduate Student Association.
Kat Zelak was born in Burlington, Vermont where she lived until her family moved 300 miles east to Rochester, New York when Kat was four. Here Kat lived with her parents and her younger brother on a three-acre lot of mostly wooded swamp on the edge of a wetland. Kat took full advantage of growing up so close to a wetland and spent a great deal of her childhood chasing deer trails and wading in the wetland to find snapping turtles with her brother. Kat was given the freedom to explore as a child, which helped instill a sense of independence. Kat credits her parents with helping to nurture her inquisitive nature. Her mother was especially supportive of her quest for knowledge and love of animals. If Kat found a baby bird, her mother would encourage her to identify which type of bird it was and how she could care for it. These early experiences helped Kat to realize that she wanted to help animals in her future.
Kat attended high school in Rochester, New York where she was involved with robotics as well as the marketing and communication team. As a high school junior, she earned her Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest achievement in Girl Scouts. For her Gold Award project, Kat started a summer camp, which focused on robotics and alternative energy. This summer program was so successful that the program ended up expanding and is still going strong today. In addition to these achievements, Kat was also involved with ice hockey as both a player and a referee. As a referee, she was able to referee for the girl’s national game, which was played in Rochester. Kat also found time to run varsity and worked as a state official. Kat’s high school experiences reflect a wide range of interests and a willingness to tackle large projects and take on leadership roles.
After high school, Kat enrolled in Cornell University as an Animal Science major. Kat’s early experiences and her love of animals led her to believe that she wanted to become a veterinarian. This is the path that she pursued for the first few years at Cornell until she realized that she was increasingly filling her calendar with activities that would “look good for vet school” not because they were these were experiences she would enjoy. She realized that while she was passionate about animals, she was not passionate about the prospect of becoming a veterinarian. Kat stayed in Animal Sciences but began to explore other courses and look for other career paths. She found that she enjoyed her major more once it was no longer a competition. Her wide interests led her to take on additional majors in Natural Resources and Biology.
Kat was able to participate in several research opportunities at Cornell including a summer at the Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine studying defensive responses in moon snails and some time at a coagulation lab at the vet school working on different blood disorders. One of her favorite research projects was for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where she spent a summer in the remote Northern Territory of Australia studying the impact of fire ecology. Locals were battling an invasive and combustible species of grass. In an effort to determine if controlled burns or natural burns were the best option, Kat and her group looked at the impact that controlled burns had on the local bird populations as well as the ecological impacts of frequent wildlife disruption. This research kept Kat in the remote Australian outback for four months where the she cooked on a camp stove and the remote location limited her e-mail contact to one time a week. While Kat enjoyed her research experiences, she found she was more interested in talking and sharing about the research. This helpful insight led Kat to explore ways to combine her love of animals with non-formal and outreach education.
After graduation from Cornell, Kat took a position working at a songbird rehabilitation center in Burlington, Wisconsin. In this position, Kat worked to rehabilitate as many as 130 birds at a time, a marked increase from the number of birds she would rehabilitate in the wetland as a child. While Kat enjoyed this work, it did not contain the outreach and education portion she was looking for. This led her to accept a position back in New York at the Seneca Park Zoo, a place she had volunteered and interned while she was in high school. She was hired as a Part-time Educator, but quickly moved up to Assistant Outreach Coordinator and then Outreach Coordinator. In this role, she was the educator for any outreach program, school, festival, troop, or class that was scheduled with the zoo. She enjoyed this work and liked the balance between program management and education itself. After a year in the Seneca Park Zoo, Kat moved cross-country and began working as an Education Specialist for the Los Angeles Zoo. The L.A. Zoo was a much larger zoo than the Seneca Park Zoo and Kat was able to see how regional differences, zoo size, and politics can change the programs and educational outreach offered at a zoo.
After working in Los Angeles for a year, Kat decided she would like to go to graduate school and was interested in both Cornell and Ohio State. She liked the large size and flexibility at both schools as well as the high level of community involvement and research. Much to Ohio State’s benefit, Kat selected Ohio State where she is in the second year of our Master’s program. For her Master’s Thesis, Kat is taking some of her experiences working at different zoos and looking at the various influences that zoo educators have when selecting programing and presenting information to guests. She is looking at the five large zoos in Ohio: Akron, Toledo, Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. She has already finished a survey of zoo educators and will follow up with focus groups. Her hope is that the information gathered from this research project can be used to improve training practices. Kat is busy finishing this work this semester and hopes to defend her project in April.
After graduation in May, Kat plans to take the opportunity to travel cross-country exploring our county’s national parks. Kat will end her month of national park hopping in Los Angeles where she is working at a summer camp until August. After that, she will start job-hunting for a position in non-formal environmental education. Ideally, Kat would like to be at a zoo, but could also be at a nature center or similar environment where she could combine program management, curriculum development, and community outreach. Until then, Kat can be found most days in the graduate student office in 109 Ag Admin working on her thesis. Kat is also the 2017-2018 President of the ACEL Graduate Student Association, where she has made great strides in building community among all ACEL graduate students. If you have a strong effort to build community among all graduate students, she is interested in working to improve GSA events, any ideas or suggestions can be sent to zelak (.1).