Caroline “Karolina” Zabinski: B.S. Biology with a certificate in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

"It takes a department to create a scientist. The School of Biological Sciences did just that for me."

Caroline Lisa “Karolina” Zabinski is a first-generation American. Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Poland in 1969 and 1990. She grew up in a family made especially close knit because her paternal grandmother didn’t know how to drive. For this reason, her dad and his five siblings all lived close by. “I grew up with my cousins next door or a stone’s throw away from me down the street,” Karolina says. “Cousins are like instant best friends, and having 15 of them prevented any moment in my childhood from being dull.”

While attending Lakeside High School, in Atlanta, Georgia, Karolina worked in a restaurant, ran cross country, played water polo, was vice president of the orchestra, and, to her surprise, even participated in the Miss Lakeside pageant. “The greatest thing I took away from those years are my best friends,” she says. “Throughout college we have supported and been there for each other and I am so proud of all that they have accomplished and the wonderful humans they have become.”

Karolina’s mother is an elementary school teacher. “She instilled in her children that knowledge is power and that you must know your roots, your nation’s history, and the natural world,” Karolina says. “Every summer my mother, my sister, and I would travel across the U.S. exploring state capitals, major national parks, and zoological gardens. These trips helped me understand the world in which I was growing up.”

Just like in high school, the friendships Karolina made in Georgia Tech are for life. She and other women in her cohort call themselves the “Bio Babes.” After graduation they are going on in different directions. “They are all rock stars,” Karolina says. “I am so proud of them.”

What attracted you to Georgia Tech?
This question reminds me of my childhood: To get to Florida, you have to take I-85 South. Every time we drove past Georgia Tech, my parents pointed it out and said that education – and specifically that school – is my ticket to accomplishing anything. As a kid, I looked up at those red brick buildings in awe.

I think those memories drove me to reach for Georgia Tech. I applied to three schools and Tech was my top choice. After my acceptance, I went to the College of Sciences’ open house and heard talks about black holes and the biophysics of motion. I knew I had made the right decision.

What is the most important thing you learned at Georgia Tech?

You are in charge of your future. Only you can take that first step.

Tech’s rigor was challenging. Initially, it broke me down, but then it strengthened me and helped me grow into a confident scientist.

I learned be proactive in my studies: reading beforehand, not skipping class, not being afraid to ask for help, and going to office hours.

I learned not to give up.

Whenever you feel like giving up, take a moment to reflect on what you’ve accomplished. Keep your eyes on the big goal of becoming whoever you want to be: biologist, businessman/woman, engineer, or teacher. Understand that Tech is training you to be the best version of yourself.

Those skills enhanced my knowledge of biology. Every class equipped me with a different lens to view interesting questions.

I am so grateful for the opportunities Tech has given me. I would not have had as much research experience, biology knowledge, and internal drive if I went to another school.

What are your proudest achievements at Georgia Tech?
I am proudest of the research I’ve conducted. I leave Tech with a breadth of experience in marine systems – from the open ocean to estuarine environments, from microbes to large organisms, from biogeochemistry to animal cognition.

Each project expanded my understanding of biology, strengthened me as a scientist, and equipped me with different lenses to explore questions:

  • Researching biogeochemistry in Dr. Joseph Montoya’s lab and collaborating with Dr. Danielle Dixson's lab taught me how we can infer biological interactions through chemistry and how physical parameters influence life.
  • Conducting my REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) under Dr. Donald Uzarski at the Institute for Great Lakes Research, in Central Michigan University, translated this knowledge to invasive species and their ecological roles and introduced me to interspecies interactions.
  • Joining Dr. Marc Weissburg’s lab encouraged me to explore the impact of anthropogenic actions on interspecies interactions through chemical ecology. I have conducted ocean acidification experiments alongside his graduate student Alex Draper, and together we are working on a manuscript.
  • Dr. Joseph Mendelson’s lab taught me the importance of theory behind experimentation. In his lab, I worked on cognition in squamate reptiles, and I am co-first author on that manuscript submitted to the Journal of Herpetology

Which professors made a big impact on you?
It takes a department to raise a scientist, and the School of Biological Sciences and the Women’s Resource Center did just that for me.

I have utmost gratitude for

  • Dr. Joseph Montoya, who was the first professor to acknowledge my scientific curiosity and gave me the opportunities I needed to elevate my pursuit.
  • Dr. Marc Weissburg and Dr. Joseph Mendelson for facilitating my scientific growth by encouraging me to be more independent and take on more 
  • Dr. Julia Kubanek, who merged my interest in biology with the beast that is chemistry, propelling me to the field of chemical ecology
  • Dr. Mark Hay, who encouraged me to embrace a pull towards a new research direction
  • Dr. Frank Stewart, who taught me the importance of microbes in the environment
  • Dr. Frank Rosenzweig, who not only taught me the fundamentals of microbiology, but was also onto me to see a doctor “like a duck on a June bug” when I had a cough for three weeks, because it turned out to be walking pneumonia
  • Dr. David Garton, whose constructive criticism of my scientific ideas taught me introspection and confidence to back myself
  • Melanie DeMaeyer, Dr. Colleen Riggle, and all the women at the Women’s Resource Center who were my pillars of support throughout my journey, lifting me up and brightening my life in the darkest times

What is your most vivid memory of Georgia Tech?
When I was out at sea.

I was sitting on top of the bridge of the R/V Endeavor in the middle of the night near the equator. In the sky I could see the Scorpio and Southern Cross constellations. Although I was alone, I felt more connected to the natural world than ever before. Looking up at the vast sky reminded me of how small our baby blue planet is relative to the universe, and how the light emanating from those stars are older than their discovery. That moment reaffirmed the purpose I feel to advocate for our environment. I was filled with a sense of peace that I was in the right place to build my toolbox for my journey.

In what ways did your time at Georgia Tech transform your life?
I lost my best friend, Taylor Garmon, to cancer on New Year’s Eve of my third year here.

I met Taylor on the first day of school. I was intimidated so I wanted to sit next to the smartest kid in class. In the front row, I saw a boy wearing all black, and I thought, “Oh this guy must be seriously smart; he’s wearing monochrome.” I sat next to him and introduced myself.

Since then, Taylor and I took every class together. I always sat on his right in the front row. Together, we covered the biology spectrum: I followed the environmental path, and Taylor took the cell and molecular biology route.

Though our time together was cut short, his memory remains with me. I am so proud of all Taylor accomplished: getting published first author in Dr. Shuyi Nie’s lab, motivating me every day, and reminding me that the my abilities must be put to good use.

What unique learning activities did you undertake?
My research took me to beautiful parts of the world, allowing me to both serve the environment and travel.

While in Dr. Montoya’s lab, I went on two voyages: to the Gulf of Mexico and to the mouth of the Amazon River, where I had the opportunity to see the coast of South America from the sea. During port calls, I visited Barbados and Puerto Rico.

Conducting my REU research on the sparsely populated Beaver Island in Lake Michigan gave me wild experiences in the middle of the northern woods at night. I have unforgettable memories of sampling Lake Michigan waters in the early morning with mist rising from the water and the eerie sounds of loon calls in the distance.

Getting thigh-deep in coastal mud on Skidaway Island to catch mud and blue crabs in oyster reefs brings back sweet funny memories of competitions between my lab mates to see who could collect the most crabs. Last summer, however, my leg got sliced open when I slipped on the oyster reefs. I was sent straight to the emergency room, where I got four staples. I will always have that scar, but it looks super cool.

What advice would you give to incoming undergraduate students at Georgia Tech?
If you want it, you will do it. Never lose sight of your long-term goal.

It’s easy to get swept up in the urgency of deadlines and grades that you stop enjoying learning about the field you love. In those moments, take a step back and remember how far you’ve come and your future potential.

If you start losing sight of who you are, tell someone. Mental health matters, and you should receive the care you deserve. You have inherent value, which should not dissolve in the face of struggle. Tech may seem like it is trying to break you, but it is really making you the best you can be. Embrace that.

Where are you headed after graduation?
I am applying to graduate schools in hopes of starting in fall 2020. I am also applying for internships with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I’m interested in projects focusing on the community and the biological effects of environmental injustice, to learn about the social science aspects of environmental issues. With Tech as my foundation, I have the tools necessary to succeed. Go Jackets!

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