Zachary WareJoncas

Zachary WareJoncas is a former Central High School debater.

What can zebrafish teach us about our own feelings? Zachary WareJoncas’ lab at the Mayo Clinic is answering this question, using the animal to help visualize the effects of stress on the body.

Before he was pursuing this fascinating research, Zachary WareJoncas was a Central High School debater in the early years of our program. Now as a research technologist and supervisor at Mayo Clinic, he conducts and supervises lab research and manages the Integrated Science Education Outreach Program (InSciEdOut). We’re excited to check back in with him about his memories in debate, what he’s been up to, and what’s next for him:

How did you get involved in debate initially?

It was a combination of friends who would be part of the team and, honestly, there was just a poster at school that made it seem like a fun time. I had taken a class in eighth grade and enjoyed that. I walked in and it worked out.

Would you like to share any highlights from that time?

In my junior year at Berkeley, nearly spring in the season, my partner and I finally figured out how our aff could work out. We were running a very creative Star Trek performance affirmative but we hadn’t figured out how to make it work yet. It clicked there, and we almost broke. As a Star Trek kid – a NASA kid – the space topic was by far my favorite.

There was another time we decided to go over to my debate partner’s house to make gnocchi. Hannah, who was the captain, led the charge because she could actually cook. We had to make several trips to the store because we forgot half of what we needed. The gnocchi turned out OK, but the fun was better.

Do you stay in touch with your old teammates?

My debate partner and I play games online on a regular basis, and when it’s not the pandemic, we go out to eat together. There’s still shenanigans to be had, so we can’t fall out of touch. (laughs)

It’s fun to see the success of the current UDL teams. Oskar Tauring Traxler, one of the current South High School coaches, was competing at the same time as me. The UDL students would always hang out together at tournaments, and we had a friendly rivalry.

Fast forward, and now you’re at the Mayo Clinic. What work do you do day-to-day?

I work in a lab as a researcher and supervise 40-50 other scientists at the clinic. We do a variety of biochemistry research, like genetics work. My role also includes oversight of the Integrated Science Education Outreach Foundation (InSciEdOut), which is an independent nonprofit that brings novel science into primary and secondary classrooms.

When the schools went digital, we went digital. I do program oversight, program management, and run all of the team meetings. I reach out and bring on new partners. I handle most of the billing and invoicing for the group, write grants, and when we need to raise money, I develop the pitches and give them.

The most laboratory-focused part of my current research is making a model that helps you visually see stress. We’re working with zebrafish. You can use glowing proteins to study certain genetic effects. We’re working to make them glow under stress so we can better understand how stress affects the body. We also do research into well-being and education outcomes. An external partner is running a pilot of a mindfulness program at a school in Rochester. We’ll be the evaluators to test the social and emotional well being of students after the delivery of the program.

Did you always want to go into medicine?

Back when I was a debater, I was deciding between medicine or law. When I got to college, I went into the medical and biology direction, and research really grabbed me.

Does your debate training help with your work now?

There are two things that have been very applicable. First, research. I remember the incredible amount of research we did at camp: picking apart articles, building your research and kritiks. That kind of in depth research is very similar to what I do to write research or a grant application. I need to refine the research down to exactly what I need. There are still times when I think about writing as a kritik or framework argument, even when writing something scientific. For example, “we will know that we are successful when we have achieved X, Y, and Z.” I still think about it that way sometimes. The other aspect that I think is super helpful is that, after a certain number of rounds of debate, speaking in front of people becomes so much easier. That public speaking aspect is so important.

Do you have any advice for current debaters?

Stay in debate. You’re going to meet great people, and you’ll know some of them forever. And don’t spread in your first job interview! I did that, and it didn’t work out. Just slow down. (laughs)

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