“Coastal Geologist, Good Friend;” that’s how Cousin Susie’s tribute, written by her parents, begins in their local newspaper, The Carlisle Mosquito. Susan Elizabeth Zielinski, my grandmother’s niece, was born on April 30, 1970 in Concord, Massachussetts to Robert and Sally (Handel) Zielinski. She and her older brother, Steven, grew up in the small town of Carlisle, and my mother and Susie were particularly close, always sending postcards and letters back-and-forth to each other. Susie passed away on August 29, 2008 at the young age of 38 due to complications from breast cancer; since this week’s 52 Ancestors theme is “work,” I want to highlight the incredible research that Susie conducted as an ecologist and geologist as well as the lasting impact of the Natural Science Fund established in her honor.
Let’s start at the beginning of her career: Susie graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a degree in geology, and she went on to receive her master’s degree from UNC-Chapel Hill (my alma mater!) with a focus on coastal processes. While in college, Susie participated in beach erosion studies on the North Carolina Outer Banks and “went to the bottom of the ocean” in a deep-water submersible surveying fresh-water outflows off the coast of Florida. She moved to California shortly after graduating from college and started working for the U.S. Geological Survey, a job that took her to Micronesia and other parts of the Pacific.
In 1998, Susie joined the team of environmental consultants at URS Corporation in San Francisco where she helped develop a remediation process for underground contamination at San Francisco Airport. She collected and analyzed data for an environmental impact study, developed computer models for a lighting system project and studied ship ballast-water treatment to prevent the introduction of invasive species in nearby Oakland. One colleague offered these words on her contribution to URS Corporation’s research, “Susie got her Professional Geologist license on the first try–extremely impressive as it is virtually unheard of. Her professional legacy is that of someone who was very bright, and demanded and produced top quality work, all with a great sense of humor and a wonderfully irreverent streak.”
I studied political science and public policy in college, and while many of these terms and projects are unfamiliar to me, I do know this: Susie was a beloved daughter, wife, sister and friend; a geologist, skilled watercolor painter, sculptor in stone, woodworker, hiker, gardener, fencer, horsewoman, hockey player and avid reader. She loved her rescue animals and her work, and she was loved in turn and is missed terribly by her extended family and friends on three coasts and beyond, her co-workers and her hockey “buds.”
After Susie’s passing, her family founded the Susan Zielinski Natural Science Fund through their local library in her honor. “The Fund’s” mission is to support forums, lectures, exhibits and additions to the library’s collection in the areas of geology and ecology and to promote the protection of wildlife, biological diversity and the environment; I can think of no better way to celebrate her life and work. I never had the opportunity to meet Cousin Susie myself, but through the letters and postcards that my mother saved over the years, I feel as though I did know her in a way–and I am forever inspired by her passion for conservation and her love of learning. I hope that, in some small way, this post contributes to the ongoing celebration of Susie’s story–because she truly deserves to never be forgotten.