Zanethia Barnett

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Portrait of Zanethia Barnett

Taking water samples in a Florida lake. (Courtesy photo by Jaron Jones, University of Florida)

Meet Zanethia Barnett, a natural resource specialist from the Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research in Oxford, MS. She holds an M.S. in Interdisciplinary Ecology from the University of Florida, where she was a Forest Service Chief Scholar Fellow, and is a PhD in Biology Candidate at the University of Mississippi. Barnett’s specialty is freshwater fauna. Her research works towards a better understanding of stream ecosystems with a special interest in crayfish. Those small crustaceans, otherwise known as crawfish, are an important food source for larger animals, and can be indicators of good water quality. Barnett has also studied how disturbances, such as fertilizer runoff, impact aquatic ecosystems.

What do you do for the Southern Research Station?

I am a natural resource specialist who investigates how environmental factors impact biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems. As a natural resource specialist, I conduct research on freshwater aquatic organisms and ecosystems, focusing on fish and crayfish in streams of the southeastern United States. My research focuses on understanding the relationship among fish, crayfish, and their environment, as well as how disturbances, both natural and anthropogenic, impact these relationships. Because basic life history data is not available for numerous aquatic species, I also conduct studies to improve the life history and distributional knowledge of crayfishes.

When and why did you come to work for the Southern Research Station?

I began working for the Southern Research Station (SRS) while a graduate student at the University of Florida. I was accepted into the Forest Service Chief Scholar’s program and interned with SRS Center for Integrated Forest Science during the last semesters of my master’s program. After completing this internship, I was offered a full-time position as a natural resource specialist with the Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research. This position gave me the opportunity to continue conducting research in an area with rich freshwater diversity.

Barnett SCUBA diving among school of fish

SCUBA diving in Blue Grotto Cavern in Williston, FL. (Forest Service photo by Kevin Leftwich)

What led you to pursue this field of study?

I grew up in a small, rural town where I gained a love for the environment. My daily activities included fishing and hunting with my dad, climbing trees, spending summers on the beach, and simply enjoying the wildlife and wilderness around my small town. This love pushed me to further my education in both economics and ecology: a background that would help conserve the environment and the valuable resources it provides. I received my bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. This experience, as well as internships with a veterinarian, entomologist, economist, and ecologist, pushed me to pursue my master’s degree in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida. While pursuing this degree, I learned about the numerous factors impacting aquatic ecosystems and became passionate about conserving aquatic environments and eager to better understand the dynamic nature of these systems.

What is a typical workday like for you in the field, lab, and/or office?

What I love most about being a natural resource specialist is that there is no typical day. I am responsible for developing research questions, collecting data to answer those questions, analyzing that data, and presenting this data to the public. While this does include time in the office writing manuscripts and proposals and analyzing data, time in the lab and field collecting and processing collections are what most excite me. My field work often occurs in streams and lakes where we use numerous sampling methods including seining, electrofishing, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, digging burrows, and setting traps, to collect crayfish and fish. Once fish and crayfish are collected, they are often measured and weighed. Water quality and stream habitat characteristics including, stream depth and width, substrate size, water temperature, and pH are also measured. Numerous sites are often sampled each day. These sites can range from a stream or lake 5 miles to 500 miles away, where days traveling and nights in a hotel are necessary. Crayfish and fish are sometimes brought back to the lab for experiments. Other laboratory analyses include DNA extractions and PCR amplifications. I also enjoy informing the public about the field of aquatic biology. I give presentations to groups as well as work with students in the lab and field who have never been exposed to aquatic biology.

Barnett holding a bass

Collecting fish on the Bankhead NF in Double Springs, AL. (Forest Service photo by Gordon McWhirter)

Have you had any unexpected, unusual, or exciting opportunities or experiences as a result of your work?

I have had numerous story worthy experiences. One of the most rewarding parts of working for the Forest Service has been travelling internationally to present research and work with collaborators. I was afforded the opportunity to participate in a night snorkel in Spain to view crayfish in a very unique lake habitat. Before this experience, I had never seen so many crayfish at once in any natural environment. The crayfish in the lake were the top predators so there was no need to look for shelter and hide like crayfish in habitats in the Southeastern US. Furthermore, I was able to observe them interacting with one another and foraging for food. Another memorable experience occurred during a morning dive in the Tennessee River collecting crayfish. While collecting, I noticed that bass and catfish were beginning to follow me. The longer I swam the more bass and catfish gathered. I had crayfish, previously collected, in a mesh bag attached to me. I was unsure if the bass and catfish were trying to get to the crayfish in the bag, but once I flipped over the next rock to see if there was a crayfish under it I quickly realized why I was being stalked. A crayfish shot from under the rock I flipped, and a bass shot right in front of me and devoured the crayfish. So, all the fish following me were waiting for an easy breakfast!

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I enjoy the variety of tasks that come along with my research, and that I don’t have to conduct the same tasks every day. I enjoy exploring new environments and conducting research that will help conserve these areas for future generations. I also enjoy exposing students to a new field and providing them with new experiences.

Barnett digging a burrow in the ground

Digging burrows to collect crayfish in the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in Jackson County, MS. (Forest Service photo by Mickey Bland)

To reach your current position, have you had to overcome challenges or barriers that may be unique to being a woman in science?

Being a young African American woman in my field can be very challenging because I am often the only woman, only African American, and youngest person in the room. Being the minority on 3 different levels makes me feel like I have to work harder than others to prove that I am as knowledgeable as the majority. There is often a feeling of not being able to truly relate to anyone in the room, but because of this I can often provide a unique perspective to discussions. Even with this, my colleagues have been very supportive and encouraging and great opportunities have been afforded to me.

What women have inspired you?

Numerous women have been an inspiration to me throughout the years. My greatest influences include my grandmothers (Regenia Peterson and Mary Choice), mom (Rose Choice), undergraduate advisor (Kenrett Jefferson-Moore), and supervisor (Susan Adams).

My grandmothers were two of the most tenacious women I knew. They showed me what it means to work your hardest and strive for excellence despite all adversity. They spoke the truth no matter the situation and were always there for family and friends. They showed me that although one may not have much monetarily, if you have great family and friends you have more than enough. My grandmother would often say to me “Child you’re free until you’re fool”. And although I did not truly understand what she meant at the time and thought she was calling me a fool, I realize now that she was proud of my creativity and ability to try new things despite what other’s thought. There is a saying “You are your ancestors’ wildest dreams” and this is what I feel my grandmother was saying. They grew up in a time when there was little to no opportunities for African Americans or women so to see that I am taking advantage of the opportunities that they didn’t even dare to dream of is very fulfilling.

My mother has shown me how to be a great leader and catalyst of change. She always pushes me to give my all and never lets me forget that I can do anything I put my mind to. She’s taught me the importance of building relationships and not only focusing on science, but connecting with people. My mom is a social worker, and building relationships, and assisting the less fortunate is her passion. Through her work I have learned that simply doing science is not enough but being able to connect people to your science and using science to help better the lives of others is essential.

My undergraduate advisor and current supervisor have both demonstrated to me the hard work that it takes to conduct sound, reliable research in male dominated fields. They have demonstrated how to balance raising a family while excelling in your career, which is often daunting in my eyes when thinking of starting a family. They have shown me that your work ethic and attitude are important in succeeding. They have pushed me to take advantage and give my all in every situation, but not to take myself too serious and have fun throughout it all.

What advice do you have for others interested in this field or another career in science?

  1. Participate in opportunities to volunteer, job shadow, or intern in scientific fields (not just your field of interest). We often don’t know what we truly enjoy until we experience it. So even if you have your mind set on a certain field, if the opportunity arises try out something new. I never dreamed of being an aquatic biologist, but it was these priceless experiences that led me to this field.
  2. Don’t give up when things get tough. If you are passionate about a field don’t let obstacles deter you from pursuing your dreams. One of my favorite ways to collect organisms is by SCUBA diving, and because everyone I knew that dove were elite swimmers I did not feel capable of earning my certification. Nonetheless after a conversation with my father where he made the statement, “Has it been done before?... Then if someone’s done it before then you can do it too!”, I decided to give it a try and I excelled!
  3. Find someone that is excelling at what you dream of doing and develop a relationship with them. Finding a mentor and having someone to talk and share your ideas with is invaluable. This will often cut down on the mistakes and wrong turns taken and will give you the push needed when you may feel deterred.
Barnett and team using a seine to collect fish in a stream

Kick seining to collect crayfish and fish in Shades Creek in Jefferson County, AL. (Courtesy photo by Earl Choice, Hampton School District 2, South Carolina)