What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“First: Dream big. Explore. Play. If you can see one thing that’s way over here and another that’s way over there working together somehow, and nobody else sees it but you? Follow that. Second: trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel good to you, there are other places you can go. Trust that feeling. That’s you looking out for you.”
Picture a snake: big, beady eyes and intricate, jewel-toned scales, peering down from its perch on a tall tree branch. Then, it jumps — soaring and slithering through the air on its graceful journey toward the ground. Although this image might feel make-believe, these flying snakes not only exist, but also constitute one of the diverse animal species Dr. Shaz Zamore (they/them) has studied in their vibrant scientific career.
Shaz (“Dr. Z”) — now the STEM Outreach Coordinator for the ATLAS Institute at CU Boulder — discovered their fascination with animals at an early age, initially captivated by the continuous stream of National Geographic documentaries they consumed with their dad. “[My parents] got me this biology encyclopedia, which I read cover-to-cover so many times that the binding fell off,” they remember.
This interest in biology (and eventually neuroscience) endured as Shaz moved through college and beyond, spurred on by two immersive and hands-on research experiences. First, they joined the Winkler Lab as an undergraduate at Cornell University to explore the migratory behavior of tree swallows. After completing their bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences, they then became a full-time lab technician in the Feldman Lab at UC Berkeley, where they investigated the somatosensory system of the rat.
Through these positions, Shaz developed an extensive research skillset, including the ability not only to work with animals and run experiments, but also to analyze data and design new, innovative neuroscientific tools — the latter of which Shaz defines as their preeminent passion. “I claim that I am a neuroengineer. Along all of the steps that I [went] through in my neuroscience research career, I was always building, designing, prototyping, iterating, testing… and I was really good at it,” they reflect. “I like making the tools that help us ask the questions.”
The diversity of skills embedded within scientific research ultimately helped cement Shaz’s decision to pursue a PhD in Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of Washington (UW), where they studied theoretical and behavioral neuroscience using flying insects. However, their transition to a new program and city proved jarring and difficult, marking the start of a years-long challenge to remain resilient in the face of an environment that seemed unwilling to embrace what it could not easily define.
Juxtaposed against relatively diverse settings like Berkeley and Cornell, the reaction Shaz received in Seattle and at UW as a Black, nonbinary scientist was often far from welcoming. “All of the sudden I was having to have these conversations that I was not used to having, having to change my behavior. It was the first time I realized that people got threatened by me existing,” Shaz remembers. “I made the foolish error, as many do, of thinking I could change so [people didn’t] feel as threatened by me.”
“I made the foolish error, as many do, of thinking I could change so [people didn’t] feel as threatened by me.”
The pressure Shaz faced to alter their behavior for the comfort of others was compounded by a toxic relationship with their primary PhD advisor, who also appeared unwilling to accept or understand their identity. Shaz quickly realized that the way they were treated by their advisor hinged heavily on their appearance , rather than on what they contributed. “If I dressed effeminately, I would always get a compliment,” Shaz recalls. “I would get fewer interruptions. I would be heard more. It was like flipping a switch.”
‘It’s not you. I see the work that you’re doing, and you’re talented and smart. It’s your situation.’
Thankfully, Shaz found invaluable support from their secondary advisor, Dr. Tom Daniel. He rightly affirmed that it was Shaz who was being failed by their advisor, and notthe other way around. Shaz explains, “Tom was the first person to say, ‘It’s not you. I see the work that you’re doing, and you’re talented and smart. It’s your situation.’” The Daniel Lab became Shaz’s primary home at UW — a shift that made the prospect of completing their PhD studies feel notably less daunting.
After finishing graduate school, Shaz began an ambitious postdoctoral research program at Virginia Tech with Dr. Jake Socha. There they aimed to understand the visual system of the animal with which this story began: the flying snake. Shaz’s work investigating the flying snake offered a thrilling opportunity to unite their long-standing love of herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians) with their proclivity for engineering and innovation. In order to study how snakes perceive their visual environment while gliding through the air, Shaz began to construct a novel VR (virtual reality) arena to start prototyping immersive VR for a black box theater. Such a system would make it possible to track snakes’ movements through the air while controlling the stimuli they perceived within the VR environment. The VR arena was a success, but the black box immersion ultimately proved to be a bit too ambitious for Shaz to finish before the end of their postdoctoral studies. Nevertheless, they remain hopeful that they will complete the project one day.
Although Shaz’s interest in the neurobiology of flying snakes has far from abated, their current focus at CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute has shifted to an issue that they consider deeply close to home: using outreach to increase access to science education. As an Outreach Coordinator, Shaz divides their time between teaching undergraduate and graduate level classes (primarily in engineering) and spearheading initiatives to make STEM education more innovative, accessible, and equitable. Having grown up in a school district that served primarily low-income students, Shaz knew first-hand how often such schools could be overlooked by scientific outreach efforts. “I was like, ‘No, we’ve got to change this,’” they recall. “The kids need to know that we’re out here.”
One notable outreach project is Craniate, “a STEM kit that uses visual and kinesthetic learning to incorporate more types of kids into STEM education,” which is likely to be launched early next year. Craniate combines comics (illustrated by Harly Ellis and Arva Syed, and featuring a diverse and representative cast of middle school-aged characters) with mail-out experiment kits. Critically, these kits are designed with inclusivity in mind: “A lot of our instructions are picture-based, because a lot of the students who are truly underserved in STEM education are not going to be at the same reading level. It has to be something that a kid can do on their own.”
“The kids need to know that we’re out here.”
Craniate has also provided Shaz with a way to engage with their long-held love of art — which provides an outlet for expression and relaxation, and shapes their overall approach to science. “I say to people [that] in my past life that I was an artist, because I was so immersed in art all the way up through high school,” they explain. “It helps me have a visual eye for how data should be sorted and presented. I draw things out and see 3D structures in my head all the time.”
Outreach efforts such as Craniate are welcome additions amongst the dynamic and open-minded environment of the ATLAS Institute. Shaz describes ATLAS as “radically anti-disciplinary,” reflecting the tendency of its scientists to focus on collaborative projects that extend outside their original areas of expertise. “It makes [for] a really wonderful environment, because [people are] willing to learn about anything,” Shaz clarifies. “And that extends to social rules, to how we teach, and how we look as a university.”
Shaz finds that this willingness to remain open to one’s own gaps of knowledge is a core component of the way they mentor their own students (both graduate and undergraduate) at CU Boulder. “That’s one thing [my past advisors] taught me: keep that ear open. Listen to criticism and know that it doesn’t necessarily reflect on you. A lot of the time, the things that you’re doing wrong are just [aspects] of society that naturally manifest through you.”
Throughout Shaz’s time as a scientist, they have demonstrated an unceasing curiosity and a refusal to submit to intolerant or unsupportive voices. Perhaps above all, their experiences reveal a resilient commitment to “keeping the door open” — to new critiques, new research tools, new people, and new ideas.
by Camille Gasser