SAU Buzz

Beeswax: Dr. Anita Zahs

by Rachel Wiedman
Posted on Sep 21, 2017


Dr. Anita Zahs

When did you first come here to St. Ambrose, and why did you come here?

The first time I came to St. Ambrose was for my interview. I wanted to come here and applied to come here for two reasons: one, I’m from Iowa, so it was returning home. I’ve been in Chicago and Denver. Two, I went to a small liberal arts college, so I wanted to come back to one and teach.

You got your doctorate at Loyola, Chicago. How is it different from here? Which area do you prefer?

I’m a farm girl from Iowa, so I prefer my wide open spaces, but one of the things I did was going from a very small high school to a small liberal arts college, and then I moved to Chicago because I didn’t really know where I wanted to be. I figured I would try all of my options. It’s a very different experience there. It was loud all the time, it was a concrete jungle where I worked. It’s a different atmosphere. The priorities are different, the attitudes to life are different, things are a little bit calmer here, where things are a little bit rushed there.

What first piqued your interest in biology?

My parents are both environmental scientists, tso I grew up with parents who thought it would be normal for a child to know what the word “strata” meant [layers of rocks in the ground], and my dad was a farmer, so one of the things we did a lot was going out and testing soil samples, so it just became part of what I was around all the time. We raised pigs, so there’s your animal/physiology kind of thing, and we grew most of our own food, so we had lots of plant biology?I guess I was just surrounded by it all the time. All of my siblings are in a form of science, and two of them are also in biological science, so apparently my parents did something!

Has it ever been difficult being a woman pursuing a STEM field?

To be honest, for me no, and I’m lucky because I had a fantastic set of female instructors in college, so they pushed me to do whatever you want and push the boundaries. Then my mentor in graduate school was the most optimistic, pushy female in the science world. People despised her because she was like, “No, you’re gonna do this because you’re this.” She just kind of defied the boundaries. She was one of those people that said, “Just go do it, what’s the worst that could happen?” Her motto was, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get,” so the worst that you could do was you just don’t get it. So, I was lucky to have a lot of strong mentors in the sciences, and then having my mom who was a scientist and a teacher, plus my dad being a scientist as well, he never said, “Don’t do science,” he just said, “Do whatever the heck you want.”

How do you try to engage and excite students taking various biology classes? What do you think the subject has to offer to those with non-biology majors?

So the great thing about biology is that it explains things that you already know. There are things you take for granted in the world but I can explain most of those with biology. It seems like it’s not tangible, but biology is everywhere. It’s not something that has to be limited to something microscopic, it can be environmental science, ecology, something very big, and it really explains most of what’s going on inside of you as well as around you. I think it’s something that applies to really anything. The good thing about science as well is that even if you’re not a scientist, one of the skills you need as a human being is critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills?that’s what science is. It’s taking something and trying to figure it out. Now, getting students to buy into that is the real challenge, but it’s just getting them to realize that it does apply to their everyday lives. Just the little things, making them aware of where it is in their lives, is probably the easiest thing for me to do.

What do you like best about being a professor?

The reason I wanted to teach is because I like explaining those type of things. I like explaining how things work to people. When I was growing up, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, I kind of set my sights on it, and then I realized I don’t have the correct personality to be a doctor. It wasn’t where my passion was, but my passion is training the next people who want to be doctors, nurses, physical therapists, environmental scientists, or whatever the case may be. That’s where my passion is. It wasn’t so much in treating, it was in training. I like being the person who can connect those dots in their lives, so that’s why I like being a professor. I like having that community of students, but also that community of my colleges as well, and learning new things.


What advice would you give to students?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Like my mentor said, “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” Listen to yourself and pursue your interests. I spent two years in college trying to figure out what I wanted to do because I didn’t. So listen to yourself, because that’s what will lead you to a fulfilled life.