WE SAT DOWN WITH AUWRC’S SYDNEY ZINNER, ALABAMA WATER WATCH’S VOLUNTEER MONITOR COORDINATOR.

Mona looking at ag bmps installed as part of Rock Creek WMP.

Sydney during her time as a student worker with the ACES Water Program. Photo Credits: Sydney Zinner

After participating in the Lee County Water Festival in the 4th grade, I decided that water would be part of my career in some shape or form. I was captivated by the water cycle, and to be honest, that edible aquifer activity is IMPACTFUL (if you know, you know). My favorite books growing up were The Magic School Bus Wet All Over: A Book About the Water Cycle (which is also an awesome episode of the TV show) and The Magic School Bus at the Waterworks. I still have these books, and they are worn out!  

My path to working at Alabama Water Watch (AWW) was a bit of a bumpy one. I struggled while working towards my undergraduate degree in Environmental Science at Auburn University. The labs were wonderful (and some of my best grades!), but the lectures were challenging because I am a very hands-on learner. Courses like chemistry, microbiology, and physics moved too quickly and I fell behind, which left me feeling so discouraged that I came pretty close to dropping out of college.  

Sydney during a stream restoration project

Sydney harvesting Juncus at Ag Heritage for a stream restoration project as an ACES Water Program student worker. Photo Credit: Eve Brantley

Happily, things turned around the summer after my sophomore year when I had the opportunity to be a student intern with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) Water Program, under Dr. Eve Brantley (now the AUWRC Director). The internship included becoming a certified AWW Volunteer Monitor, so I attended my first workshop with my dad (who is also in the water resources field and would take me monitoring with him when I was a kid!) and I started to monitor locations around AU’s campus for a restoration project on Parkerson Mill Creek. Monitoring helped me make real-world connections with what I was learning in class. A coincidence that my grades improved after starting monitoring? I think not! 

Working with Extension gave me an idea of the career path I wanted to follow and motivated me to do well in school. The internship eventually led to becoming a Volunteer Trainer with AWW in 2015, and ultimately, to my current position as Volunteer Coordinator in 2017. As a Volunteer Coordinator, my main role is to recruit, train, and support Volunteer Monitors and Trainers. During the pandemic, my role started to include content development. I also assist with the 4-H AWW Program, which does the same thing as AWW, but for youth! 

Sydney instructs at her first Alabama Water Watch workshop.

Sydney instructing water chemistry techniques during her first Alabama Water Watch workshop. Photo Credit: Mona Dominguez

What are your upcoming outreach activities and projects with the AUWRC?

AWW has had a very busy spring and summer 2023 training season, so I am now looking forward to diving into more content development and working on long-term goals for the program. We just completed a revamp of the 4-H AWW curriculum, Exploring Pathogen Pollution in Our Waters, and are about to jump into facilitating a training for another curriculum, An Educator’s Guide to Alabama Rivers. With the help of our summer student intern Alexa Kloske, we will be creating video content for several curricula to help facilitate future training for educators.  

In 2021, we debuted our hybrid monitoring training model, and soon I will be working on expanding our online course selection to include Bacteriological Monitoring with R-CARDS® and Stream Biomonitoring.  

I am also working with other staff to revamp the information available on the AWW website for monitors and the public, develop webinars and other helpful online content. Aside from that, we are already planning AWW Monitoring Trainings for 2024, so stay tuned to our AWW Events Calendar!

Sydney showing an AWW participant chemistry techniques. Photo Credit: Mona Dominguez

You are pulling double-time, with work AND school! Tell us about your M.S. plans.

Speaking of curriculum, I am now in year 2 of my Master’s program in Agriscience Education through the AU College of Education‘s Department of Curriculum and Teaching. Ag Ed was interesting to me because of my work with the 4-H AWW Program. I enjoy putting together lesson plans, activities, videos, and other tools to aid educators in teaching their students about water quality issues and environmental stewardship.

I am also very interested in investigating barriers of entry to citizen science programs as well as diversity and equity in citizen science. Citizen science, in theory, can be done by anyone in the community. Realistically, however, there are barriers to individuals and communities getting involved in citizen science, which may include access to financial resources, time, childcare, transportation, etc. Participation in citizen science encourages environmental, agriculture, and science literacy and can reach so much farther than a single community.

In your career, what is the best advice you’ve been given?

Way back during college, I was part of a group that talked about our “calling” or vocation. You know your calling when your passions meet the needs of your community.  

Everyone has heard this one before: love what you do and do what you love. Luckily for me, I get to come into the AWW Office and work towards something that I am very passionate about with some great folks. Every single person on our staff is sincerely and enthusiastically passionate about water resources and education, and getting to be around that energy is amazing.   

Sydney conducts an Enviroscape® lesson during an educator workshop.

Sydney conducts an Enviroscape® lesson during an educator workshop at the Cahaba Environmental Center. Photo Credit: Mona Dominguez

In your view, what are future priorities for Alabama water resources outreach, education, and/or research?

A major priority should be working together as a state-wide, regional, national, and global team/community. Ultimately, we are working towards the same goals: safe, reliable access to water resources for wildlife and humans. However, there are politics, organizational dynamics, dueling priorities, academic red tape, etc., that get in the way of being able to make important decisions regarding water issues. As a global community, we’re going to have to learn how to share and how to communicate for the greater good.  

One thing (out of many) that I love about AWW is that I get to see how water connects folks from all walks of life. This may be political or organizational affiliations, educational and cultural backgrounds, etc., who attend workshops because they are concerned about their water and want to make a change. Water can mobilize folks, and we need to stop letting petty stuff get in the way! 

mona with aww colleagues

Sydney conducting an AWW workshop at the Birmingham Zoo. Photo Credit: Hana Berres