It all started in grade eight, when Zinta Zommers did a science project about Birute Galdikas, a scientist who worked with orangutans in Indonesia. What struck her about Galdikas was how the scientist “devoted her life to a cause.”
When Zommers came to U of T, she had planned to study genetics. But a first-year biology course changed her direction, and Zommers decided to focus on ecology. Galdikas’ name resurfaced. Zommers e-mailed her professor, Mark Gross, about Galdikas’ research and “a lucky door opened.” Zommers became involved in what was then called the U of T Great Ape Fund, founded by Dr. Kerry Bowman of U of T’s Joint Center for Bioethics (the organization is now known as the Canadian Great Ape Alliance).
In 2000, Zommers worked in Cameroon, assessing human attitudes toward great apes. “We have to understand local opinions about great apes,” she said. Zommers found children in Cameroon thought there are gorillas in Canada, too. Once they learned the truth, they became proud of having gorillas in their country.
“We are scared of animals like wolves” in Canada, said Zommers, and likewise many Africans believe gorillas are dangerous animals. That fearful attitude contributes to their destruction. So Zommers started work on an environmental educational program in three schools near Yaounde, in Cameroon.
Zommers has also contributed to the World Literacy of Canada Youth Overseas Programme and the Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Project. In the literacy program, Zommers assessed urban slums in Varanasi, India and researched environmental concerns and women’s needs. As a result of her research, she proposed the inclusion of environmental education in World Literacy of Canada literacy programs. For the Wanariset project, she helped observe orangutan foraging techniques in Indonesia.
Ecology is still her prime concern. Zommers believes the survival of apes depends on people, and vice versa. Great apes are “the closest connection to nature we have.” We “preserve a lot about our evolutionary history” when we help great ape populations because they are a “library of knowledge” about ourselves.
Zommers isn’t only interested in primates. She has also worked with fish in Ontario and with Costa Rican bats. She is currently working in a U of T zoology lab that that studies the biological rhythms and sexual behavior of guppies.
So how is it possible to be successful in so many different areas at once? It takes more than hard work and acumen. Zommers said the key is to do things you really care about. And while time management is another question that worries many undergraduate students, Zommers said, “If you do something you love you’ll make time.”
Does winning a Rhodes Scholarship mark success for Zommers? Her answer: “The big thing is to have tried.”