Meet Julia Zeh CC’18, an environmental biology major from Port Washington, NY. Zeh’s extracurricular pursuits have mirrored the wide-ranging nature of the College’s liberal arts education, from her involvement in the Columbia Science Review to interning at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program to stage managing the 124th Annual Varsity Show.
After graduation, Zeh will pursue a Ph.D. in biology at Syracuse University, studying marine mammal acoustic behavior as a Marilyn Kerr Graduate Fellow.
What are your favorite memories from your time at Columbia College?
My favorite memory of my time at Columbia College was a night I spent with my best friend [Briley Lewis CC’18] exploring the interdisciplinary nightly activities open to us here on campus. We went to the Department of Astronomy’s public outreach talk, followed by stargazing on the roof of Pupin. We explored the telescopes and then stood on the roof looking out at Columbia’s campus below us, talking about what the next four years might bring. We talked about our interests, our goals for the next four years and the things we wanted to work on together.
After leaving the roof of Pupin, we wandered around the brightly lit campus at night, something I’ve done again and again during my time here. We found our way to St. Paul’s Chapel, where we decided to explore Postcrypt Coffeehouse. In the basement of the church, the two of us sat and watched someone sing and play guitar as the only audience members, before stepping out to continue talking about our ideas and aspirations, the books we read in Lit Hum, the introductory science classes we were taking, the research we wanted to get involved in and how we would make the most of every moment on this campus — academically and creatively. The day after our exciting night of exploring Columbia’s campus, I came home to find a small notebook perched on my door handle. On the notebook was handwritten “Julia’s Idea Notebook.”
In the past four years, we have accomplished so much, both individually and together, and I see a lot of the root of my inspiration from that night stargazing and listening to music in the Postcrypt Coffeehouse. Both of us were interested in science writing, and found ourselves writing together in courses and for campus publications. Next year, both of us will be starting grad school and our next adventures. My Columbia College experience has been about the ideas my time on this campus has inspired, and I can’t wait for it to continue to inspire me even after I’ve left.
What surprised you most about your Columbia College experience?
I am most surprised by how much I’ve grown since my first year here; I am a completely different person than I was when I first walked through these gates and I am a better person because of my College experience. Everyone tells you that most of your growth as a person is during your undergraduate career, but that didn’t really resonate with me until now, as I reflect back on who I was four years ago.
When I started at Columbia College, I had never been away from home for more than a weekend, I’d never been out of the country and I was scared of going to dining halls to eat on my own. Now, I’ve studied abroad in a completely new country, flown on a plane alone, traveled around Europe and have become an independent person prepared to take risks. I’ve reached out to professors individually, secured a research position while I was abroad and completed a senior thesis which involved field expeditions to survey whales.
The epitome of the person I’ve become, thanks to my Columbia College experience, is captured in my ability to participate in the Varsity Show this semester. As a first-year, I never imagined that I would stage manage a show, commanding the attention of an entire room of students. As a science major at Columbia, I have been able to both study abroad and be on the creative team of a musical, two things I never would have thought I could do. But, now I am graduating having been a part of some of the most amazing and caring communities that I never thought I would be a part of, and that I never thought would accept and support me through my time at Columbia.
How has your experience prepared you for your postgraduate plans?
Through my environmental biology major, I have received an amazing background in ecology and evolution, which has prepared me for a career studying marine biology and conservation in academia. But what makes my preparation as a scientist unique is that, as a Columbia College graduate, I have liberal arts skills to support and heighten my scientific skills. Thanks to the Core, I can connect my scientific research to ethical and global implications. Also, unlike many scientists, I have the ability to write well and to communicate about the work I do to non-scientists.
What will you miss most about Columbia College?
After graduation, I am going to miss the people I’ve met at Columbia. From the theater community, which embraced me late in my College career, to my environmental biology friends, to everyone who spent time talking about Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization readings with me during their free time when I had deep, existential questions.
I’m going to miss having such a diverse group of people to talk to about the Core with — to challenge me and to help me explore the world. Most importantly, I’m going to miss the friends that I’ve made here and that I’ve lived with for the past four years, who have supported me and inspired me from our first nights wandering around campus, exploring our dreams and aspirations.