’96 BA Environmental Studies, ’06 MA/MS Biology and Statistics
College of Sciences Alumnus of the Year
How does one go about building a successful career in science, one highlighted by a quarter-century spent ensuring a community’s water supply is safe? Well, if you’re Zane Marshall, you first develop an affinity for biology and environmental sciences by fishing and chasing critters (including armadillos) as an adolescent growing up in rural Texas.
Then, after that initial curiosity grows into a passion throughout middle and high school, you take the next logical step and … enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves? It worked for Marshall, whose early years in the military provided not only the financial wherewithal to attend UNLV but also led to a happenstance opportunity that ultimately paved the way for a 25-year career with the Las Vegas Valley Water District/Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“I was in a Marine Reserve infantry unit in Las Vegas and going to school at UNLV. My military service opened a job opportunity for me with an engineering and environmental consulting firm. One of my supervisors at the firm was married to a woman who was working on her master’s degree in UNLV’s geosciences department. She was looking for help with her fieldwork in the Grand Canyon,” said Marshall, who was born in Las Vegas and returned as a young teenager. “I volunteered, and for two years, we backpacked into the Grand Canyon every month, collecting water samples, doing basic water chemistry, and studying hydrology in the canyon’s South Rim.”
The following year, while he was finishing his undergraduate studies, Marshall’s former research partner helped him land an internship at the Water District, where she was working. After graduation, Marshall parlayed that internship into a full-time job as an environmental biologist. Today, he serves as the Water Authority’s Director of Water Resources.
Throughout his 26-year career, Marshall has remained connected to both his alma mater and his community in countless ways. In addition to currently sitting on the College of Sciences’ Dean’s Advisory Board and previously serving on the Environmental and Public Affairs Board for the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs (2007-11), Marshall volunteers with the local chapter of the Audubon Society, the Great Basin Bird Observatory (including serving on their board), Three Square food bank, and the Boy Scouts of America.
What’s the biggest personal or professional challenge you’ve had to overcome, and how did that experience shape you?
Getting my college career started. My family was supportive but not college-educated, so they didn’t really know how to help and I didn’t have any mentors. So that initial step as a first-generation college student, figuring out what I was going to do and what path to take, was a big challenge. But once I figured that out, I got very focused.
What advice would you give to the current UNLV science student who is questioning whether they’re on that right path?
It’s important that people do some self-reflection before determining what it is they want to do with the next 30 years of their life — because no matter the field, you really should enjoy what you’re doing. So my advice would be follow your passion. There might be other motivators, including money, but it’s super important to find something that really interests you.
Drawing from your experience, what three attributes should every scientist strive to have a boundless supply of?
First and foremost is curiosity. A career in science requires lifelong learning, and you have to be a curious person to be successful. I’m a senior manager at the Water Authority, but I still consider myself a student. I’m still learning.
Another must-have is drive. Science is a challenging — and competitive — career path, so you have to have that internal ambition and a willingness to do hard work while also understanding that nobody will advocate for you if you don’t advocate for yourself.
Finally, humility is a really important skill. Nobody is ever going to know everything; there’s always going to be something to learn, including from people below you on the organizational chart. Be open to that. Some people have a tendency to lose humility when they gain success, but that’s the one time when you most need it.
I believe in servant leadership and the ideal that I work for the people for whom I’m responsible as much as they work for me.
You served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, and you continue to support both UNLV and the greater community through various volunteer efforts. What inspired this commitment to service?
I joined the Marine Corps because I felt a strong pull to do my part, to contribute to society. Sure, the Marine Corps was part of my path to getting a college education through the GI Bill, but I’ve always liked the idea of volunteering. It enriches my life. It also led to my career — the volunteer work I did in the Grand Canyon created some networking that ultimately led to the path I’ve been on for 26 years. Young professionals or students on the verge of graduating shouldn’t underestimate the opportunity that volunteering provides in helping to build a career.
Beyond that, in my role with the Water Authority, I honestly view myself as a public servant. I believe in doing something more than just my job. I get great personal enjoyment knowing I’ve made a positive impact — as well as developed valuable relationships — through volunteer activities.