Focus on Faculty: Anne Marie Zimeri

Anne Marie Zimeri, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health, inspires students to pursue careers in environmental health, whether in practice or in research and academia.

Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
My undergraduate degree was in biology with a minor in chemistry from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Prior to finishing my degree there, I attended Louisiana State University and the University of Louisville. I earned my Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Georgia in the laboratory of Dr. Richard Meagher. Go Dawgs!

I am currently an assistant professor and undergraduate coordinator in the department of environmental health science in the College of Public Health. I teach two required courses and two EHSC electives in the major. I also provide internship and independent study credit for students whose interests align with my research. My roles as undergraduate coordinator and instructor allow me to get to know all of the students in the major quite well, which helps me better advocate for them in recommendation letters and finding internships in the field. The major is small, and I often stay in touch with students for years after they graduate.

When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I moved to Athens to attend graduate school at UGA in 1998. I came to the university to work with a professor who was a leading expert in the field of phytoremediation, Dr. Richard Meagher. Athens was my first experience with a small town, and I loved it so much that I decided to stay and complete a postdoctoral fellowship here at the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. My research and teaching interests have always focused on the application of genetics to provide a safer, more sustainable environment, so I was thrilled to secure my position in the environmental health science department in 2007.

What are your favorite courses and why?
I really enjoy teaching “Introduction to Environmental Health Sciences” because it gives me the opportunity to meet students outside of the EHS major. It is required for all students in the College of Public Health, it is an option in several minors and certificate programs and it meets the environmental awareness requirement. It gives me the opportunity to expose students to the field of study and make an impact on their environmental stewardship, especially if they haven’t already been exposed to the material previously. I also look forward to my “Genetic Applications in Environmental Health” course, which I teach in the spring of odd years, because it is a great way for me to keep up with advances in my field of study. We discuss many fun topics in EH that use genetics to solve environmental health problems. We discuss everything from identifying dog poo so that owners can be penalized for not picking it up (and contributing to the enteric bacteria load in aquatic ecosystems) to identifying meats that unscrupulous vendors may be passing off as exotic and may conflict with dietary restrictions due to allergies and religious beliefs. The class is usually small (fewer than 20 students) so I get to know everyone really well. It also allows me to create assignments that are more time consuming to evaluate because of the small class size. I am always incredibly impressed with the students’ abilities to read and understand the scientific literature by the end of the course.

What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
The best moments of my career are the times when I feel as if my work impacts students in a positive way. When current or past students contact me to tell me that they have changed their habits or are being better stewards of the environment and are happier and healthier because of it, I am elated. My greatest honors also have come from the impact my courses have had on students and resulted in student-invited  speaking engagements or student-nominated awards.

How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
I have two focuses on research and scholarship, both of which are related to providing students with learning opportunities in environmental health. I have always studied and been interested in persistent environmental contaminants, which are things like heavy metals and chlorinated pesticides that remain in the environment for years. Metals are distributed among soils in the U.S. in various combinations both naturally and from anthropogenic sources, so the concentration can vary by location. I think there is an opportunity to find out which types of produce are more likely to retain toxic heavy metals in their edible portions and match that to soil data to make sound agricultural decisions.

The chlorinated pesticides that I study have all been banned for agricultural use in the U.S. but can remain on soils for years after application or can deposit on the soil from atmospheric sources that arise from spraying outside of the U.S. I am currently studying how these agents make it into the USDA-certified organic food system. With each study, I have the opportunity to engage students in research and the scientific method. The broader goal of the research is to inform regulatory agencies and the public about exposures to persistent environmental contaminates in U.S.-grown food.

I also am interested in the scholarship of undergraduate environmental education and have been studying how classroom activities and approaches to learning outcomes can impact students’ abilities to relate to the material and possibly make behavioral changes based on what they have learned. There is a whole field of study on the psychology of sustainability, and I’m excited to contribute to that with data from undergraduate education.

How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
In each of my classes, I can use examples of my research in the field or in the scholarship of undergraduate education to better inform my students in their classes. I am passionate about preserving the environment in a sustainable manner to better public health and I have developed my courses such that this is always the overarching focus. In my classes, I have students looking to the primary literature for assignments and presentations, which informs not only the class, but helps keep me in the know with current literature. I enjoy learning each semester as my classes develop around new discoveries in the field of environmental health.

What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I hope that students feel empowered to make changes in their behavior that will promote sustainability for their futures. Many members of the population either are not aware of the ways that they can lessen their environmental impact, nor do they understand the impact that an individual can have on the environment. Armed with modern science-based information, I hope that students can exact changes in themselves and others.

I also hope to inspire interest in careers in environmental health, whether in practice or in research and academia. This degree program will prepare students for well-paying jobs that exist in a job market desperately looking for practitioners who have graduated from EHAC-accredited programs, like the UGA Bachelor of Science in Environmental Health major. This degree also can qualify students for graduate studies in many fields, including environmental health and toxicology and professional schools like medical or dental school.

Describe your ideal student.
I think that the ideal student is one who seeks out information grounded in science to formulate their opinion or point of view on a topic. Students who question information and seek out credible resources and then act on that information will excel in most any field and be excellent citizens.

Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
When I have out of town guests, after spending time downtown, I like to take them to the Founders Memorial Garden on North Campus. It is not a well-known spot on campus, but it is beautiful. In my day-to-day, I like to have a snack and get a breath of fresh air at the pond by the ecology building. It is close to my office and peaceful.

Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
Spend time with my dog, Louis (#ehspitbull), knit and watch documentaries. I have always loved the Athens music scene and regularly attend shows at the downtown venues. Local Athens bands are so talented, and seeing well-known artists at our small venues like the 40 Watt Club and the Georgia Theatre is amazing.

More recently, I have been learning to write in Arabic. I’m convinced that I need to exercise my mind to stay sharp to keep up with my amazing undergraduates.

Community/civic involvement includes…
I have held an officer position on the Athens PRIDE Executive Board for many years. Athens PRIDE is a nonprofit responsible for several fundraising events throughout the year as well as the main PRIDE festival held in Athens each fall. We exist to support the LGBTQ community in Athens and the 19 surrounding counties. I became involved after several years of students looking for LGBTQ resources in the community outside of UGA (we have a great LGBT Resource Center here!) and who needed guidance that I could not provide. I wanted to learn more and help my students. My students aren’t the only ones who have benefited from my involvement. I have made lasting friendships and have become more connected with the Athens community since my election to the board.

Favorite book/movie (and why)?
I like to stay up way too late to read almost every night. I mostly read historical fiction, but my favorite author is John Irving, who is a general fiction writer. Of his collection, my favorite is “A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Irving really shows his mastery of foreshadowing in this book, and I think it brings out a whole continuum of emotion. I generally don’t read a book more than once, but I read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” every few years.

As for movies, I will watch a documentary on just about anything. I especially enjoy environmental documentaries. I share many of these films when I teach a FYOS entitled “Environmental Film Festival.” The last time I taught the class we watched an array of films including “Bag It,” “Cowspiracy,” “Fuel” and “Gasland.”

The one UGA experience I will always remember will be
My experience as a graduate student was really special to me. I finished my undergraduate degree almost 10 years after I graduated high school and I worked full time throughout. As a non-traditional student, I didn’t feel as if I had the same social experience that the typical undergraduate has, but as a graduate student, I made lasting, lifetime friends and felt the camaraderie that I would have liked to have had as an undergraduate student.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I would love for more faculty and students to be aware of our great degree programs in environmental health. Our department has started to profile alumni on our Facebook page (UGA Environmental Health), document student activities and environmentally friendly products on Instagram (@uga_environmental_health) and share our scientific achievements on Twitter (@uga_ehs). Please check us out!

Posted on April 1, 2019.

Originally published March 31, 2019 for UGA’s Focus On Faculty feature: