Vanessa Zahner

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Juvenile pink and chum salmon diets and species interactions
Old Massett
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I wanted to learn more after my BSc in Earth and Ocean Science! Specifically, I wanted to do more hands-on work, and I was really interested in analyzing salmon stomachs. It's highly niche work to identify digested zooplankton and other strange things that salmon eat, like insects or plastic, but to me it was a story of the salmon's experience. I picked salmon because of their cultural importance, I wanted to give back to them.

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

I pursued graduate studies at UBC because I had an overall positive experience during my undergrad. I felt very supported by my family (who lived far away but Vancouver was a good central place to visit), my partner, my lab mates and supervisor, and the Indigenous community that I got to know through the First Nations House of Learning. If it weren't for that Indigenous-specific space, I wouldn't have wanted to go further.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

Oceanography and the field of ecology is essentially a study of interconnectedness. The ocean is everything to me as a Haida woman and I want to keep spending my life learning more about it, and all of the ocean's complex connections to land and beings. I wanted to do holistic research on salmon, how the shape of the coast, the currents and the plankton (tiny marine plants and animals) affect salmon and also vice versa.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

The community was certainly the best part, I made a lot of amazing friendships and had many shared experiences I wouldn't have had if I hadn't chosen graduate studies. The students especially inspired me, we supported each other throughout all of our struggles and triumphs, and created space where we could really be our whole selves. Those experiences were definitely the make or break on making grad school survivable.

What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

The moment where my experience shifted from a place of only receiving knowledge to also being able to provide expertise and mentorship was an amazing feeling to have. When I started being asked to speak as a fish stomach expert or to mentor Indigenous students as a role model, the imposter syndrome was real but you bet I did it anyways. It meant the world to me to be the representation in science that I never saw before.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

Opportunities. In a rural community like Haida Gwaii, it has the opposite problem of Vancouver, where there isn't a lot of people but simultaneously, not a lot of jobs. Especially in marine research, there are amazing monitoring programs and marine planning but the scientific research isn't as extensive as places with research stations. But I do have hope that the research capacity will continue to increase over the years!

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

The courses I took on presenting and coding were really helpful for me to improve my skills to better communicate my research in more clear and understandable ways. Then I furthered those skills by volunteering, co-authoring a paper on a class project, and presenting at conferences, which involved amazing travel to places like Japan. Making connections and accessible science are really helpful for working in community.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

I would say my upbringing on Haida Gwaii in Haida culture and ways of knowing and being both helped me prepare and also left me unprepared for a science education. The experiences I had growing up made me very resilient and stubborn, where being the underdog didn't scare me but excited me, if something is hard, it should be done. So I really did push back on the notion that there is only one right way to do science.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

During my Masters, I didn't have a lot of spare time. I spent time playing video games since activities can be hard to access in the city if you don't have money and a vehicle. But now that I'm back home on Haida Gwaii, I spend as much time as I can in the forest or on the beach, listening to the eagles and ravens calling, and searching for agates. How I spend my time now is what I constantly dreamed about while I was researching.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Don't be afraid to take charge - of your time, your wellbeing, your research project. There may be unrealistic expectations to finish in 2 or 4 years for a Masters or PhD, and that's simply not the reality, let your research take the time that it needs to take. Don't overextend yourself, find mentors who support you taking evenings and weekends off! Never compromise on your vision for your project, be unapologetically yourself.


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