My path to science


Two years ago, Meg Duffy told the the story of her path to ecology. It’s a good story, why not go over and read it? I think it might be useful for more folks to tell their own stories. Here’s mine, about how I became an ecologist, with specialities in tropical biology and social insects.

As a kid, I didn’t collect bugs and I wasn’t a nature geek. I couldn’t identify more than a handful of the most obvious local plants or birds. But I was somewhat outdoorsy, and did plenty of hiking and backpacking with the Boy Scouts*. I probably slept out of doors a couple weeks per year. I grew up in a lower-income suburb in the northern foothills of Los Angeles, a place with many dilapidated apartments, few sidewalks, the occasional unpaved road. People who lived fifteen minutes away had never heard of the place. Some of the kids I grew up with ended up going to college, but they didn’t go away to college. In my neighborhood, nobody was really expected to become a scientist or a doctor or a scholar of some sort. But my family was big on education.

I did like museums, and the now-defunct Museum of Science and Industry had a lot of cool hands-on exhibits. My family took a couple pile-the-kids-into-the-car vacations to Yellowstone and the Sequoias and seeing new things was cool. I had more exposure to outdoors than the average kid, though with scant inkling of real natural history. I bet I spent far more time on my Atari and my Commodore 64 than I did outdoors. I knew more about programming in BASIC than I did about ants, though I was adept at neither.

That said, I did do well in the science fair in high school. I had a project measuring the hardness of tap water from different parts of LA. The project was objectively weak and pointless  — even I knew this at the time — but I presented it well enough to get local awards and going to the International Science and Engineering Fair. You would have thought that experience would have led me to become more interested in becoming a scientist, and have given me the chance to hang out with a lot of other science-minded high school students. Most of the kids there were like me and were there to have a bit of fun. And then there the kids who weren’t there to do science, but to win at science. That really made science look unappealing. The fun in science was just absent from the science fair.

At high school graduation, the I received the class award for US History. Choosing colleges, I was intimidated by the size of the huge UC campuses where I would easily get lost and be just a number. It turned out that going to Occidental College — though a little too close to home for my taste — was actually less expensive than a UC school because of the need-based financial aid. My parents could only contribute a few thousand dollars per year, and going to UC Santa Cruz or UC San Diego would have broken the bank while Occidental was more affordable. (That kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore.) So I went to a small liberal arts college.

In my first semester, I declared a Philosophy+Psychology double major. I think it’s pretty common for a 17-year old to be curious about the nature of humanity. What explains how we think and feel? How can all of what we are emerge from mere meat? It only took Intro to Philosophy for me to drop the Philosophy part of the major. Maybe it was too much Descartes and not enough Wittgenstein, but I realized this major wouldn’t help me answer (or even ask) my questions. I realized that if I’m trying to understand how humans work, then neuroscience would be more appropriate. That didn’t really exist as a major in 1990, but there was Psychobiology, an interdisciplinary major getting at the same set of ideas. It only took Intro to Psychology to get me to drop the Psycho part of Psychobiology.

So then I was just a bio major. At this point, by default, I became was a pre-med. In hindsight, I have no idea why and it makes no rational sense for me to have been a pre-med. But I clearly was. I guess it was  standard for bio majors, especially for those from lower-income backgrounds that don’t have much exposure to higher education from their families. A secure and well-compensated career path was attractive, and I didn’t want to exit college without a plan for financial stability, as I didn’t have much to fall back on. The idea that I would be able to make ends meet without extreme worry was attractive, and being a doctor would do that. There were some pre-meds who I respected and looked up to.

I was advised that to get into med school, all you needed to do was have good grades, good scores, and take the right prerequisite lower division science courses. There wasn’t a need to emphasize elective coursework in physiology, anatomy, biochemistry and so on, because you’d get all of that in med school. (I think this might have changed since the early ’90s.) So I thought, to complete the bio major, I’d take classes in a different direction. I took Conservation Biology, Biostatistics, Insect Biology, Evolutionary Biology, Biogeography. And I totally devoured these classes.

My grades in college weren’t amazing, but they were good enough to land some med school interviews. On my first interview, I flew out to Chicago. There was snow, but there were no mountains. I stayed with a 2nd year med student for my visit. The things they were studying were uninteresting to me. They way the everybody interacted with one another was just, well, not that friendly and it didn’t seem like anybody’s heart was in it. They were just going through the motions of living. And I thought, if I did this for a career — and these people were my peers — then I’d just be downright miserable. The moment you start med school, you take out huge loans, and the only way to repay them would be to follow through and become a doctor for at least a decade. I didn’t want to make the mistake of taking that first step and shutting all other doors. So I decided, before I even got home, that becoming doctor was a bad idea.

I had kind of an epiphany. I was a lot more interested in conservation biology, insects, biogeography and the life of animals than I was in doing medical stuff. I still wanted to do right by other human beings, but I realized that you can do that through many avenues.

With a lot of support from my undergrad advisor Beth Braker (who is now a valued role model, mentor and friend), I got ramped up to apply to grad school. This epiphany only really arrived in early spring of my senior year, though, and I missed the boat on applying to PhD programs for the next fall. But that point in 1993, there was a minority of scientists who used the internet for functional reasons. I found a listing advertising for a PhD position in a lab in Switzerland. After a bunch of emails back and forth, right after graduation I headed out there to interview for a spot in this lab. (I had to get a passport first, not having left the US before then.)

I ended up not getting this position, which probably was better for me. But in the meantime, I had read a ton of literature related to the work done in this lab. So I was getting very familiar with the evolution of sociality and nest organization in ants, the biology of invasive species, and reproductive conflicts. I don’t really know how interested I was in ants before I interviewed for this spot, but afterwards, it was my major focus. So I don’t think I was magically attracted to working with ants, but instead, it was happenstance that sent me down that route when at a time when I was fascinated with many things. I was imprinted on ants.

I came back to the US after spending every cent I had traveling in Europe after my grad school interview. Which wasn’t much money, nor a long period of time. I was staying with my parents, finding employment where I could, and with many free moments I was applying to grad programs. I spent a lot of my time in the library photocopying articles (which is the contemporary equivalent to downloading a lot of pdfs). With the guidance from my mentor, I learned how to approach prospective grad school advisors and apply to programs. I didn’t have any real research experience at this point (and I wasn’t a particularly impressive student), but she still put lot of time into me and I hung out in her lab quite a bit. With her influence, I ended up in a lab and a program that offered lots of opportunity to work in the tropics.

So I ended up working on ants in the tropics while in grad school. I started out more interested in the evolution of behavior, but I promptly shifted over to ecology. Twenty years later, that’s still my main academic focus.

I don’t think it’s a good idea to generalize principles from any one person’s story. But there are a several things that I’d like to point out for context.

First, I was never thrilled about actually doing science until I had taken a number of upper-division courses as an undergraduate biology major.

Second, I ended up as a science major not by active choice, but because as a fallback after I learned other things didn’t fit my interests like I had imagined.

Third, my path to grad school only emerged because I had a close professional relationship with my academic advisor who got to know me well and spent lots of time talking with me, and I wasn’t even one of her research students! This kind of relationship between undergrads and faculty really tends to happen at smaller and more expensive schools like the one I went to. (That said, close mentorship can happen like this between grad students and undergrads at large research institutions and that might even be more effective.)

Fourth, the chasm that I had to leap was the lack of financial security. I wasn’t afraid of the lack of support in grad school (in fact, I was okay with my stipend which to me seemed to be just fine compared to my prior standard of living), but instead the uncertain future that lay beyond grad school. I was only able to leap because I saw anything but leaping as professionally dispiriting. I saw that five years of stable work as a graduate assistant was a step in the right direction regardless of what I chose to do after I got my PhD. But I always knew that I could at least have a place to sleep — and probably my own bedroom — at my parents’ house if I somehow totally screwed up and had to start from scratch.

Fifth, some of my extended family totally didn’t understand what grad school and academia are about. The ones who don’t work in universities just don’t get what my job is.

Sixth, I do think that having spent time outdoors as a kid was a big part of my fascination with understanding the ecology and evolution of organisms. I wasn’t a field-guide-and-binoculars kind of kid. But to this day, my favorite thing has just to got be going for a hike. I can’t help but think and wonder about the processes that led to the structure and function of plant and animals, and who occurs where and when. I doubt I’d be doing this for a living if I didn’t hike and sleep up in the San Gabriel mountains as a kid.

Seventh, when I think about what I was like back then, it’s really easy for me to cringe in embarrassment at my naivety. There was a lot I had to learn about other people, the world, and myself. I can imagine the me-of-then could be pretty annoying. My path to becoming a scientist was populated with people who invested in me and cared. And they didn’t care for the person I am now, but for a more aimless, provincial, and callow fellow. You know when you hear people talk about “annoying undergraduates?” Yeah, that was me.

Eighth, I should add that not a day goes by that I am not grateful for having arrived at a point in my life in which I actually don’t have to worry about making ends meet on a day to day basis. While faculty in my university are woefully underpaid (and my union is going on strike in a couple weeks), as a tenured full professor when I go to bed at night, I can pay my mortgage, buy the healthful food I want at the grocery store, and heck if I wanted to buy a new car or go on an extravagant vacation I could make that happen. This is a peace of mind that was missing from most people I knew as a kid. I think it’s downright amazing that I can choose to do what I want to do for my job and get a stable paycheck for it. This kind of stability is required for scientists to be able to focus on science, and it’s something that’s becoming uncommon for most working scientists in the US. If we really want to diversify science in the US, that means we need the infrastructure so that it won’t require a leap of financial faith for those who don’t have a safety net.

Last, remember those kids at the international science fair who were annoying and were more focused on winning than at doing science? Those kids are now adults and they’re still ruining science for the rest of us. Now I know that those people are not just in science, but everywhere. And we can deal with them by building intentional communities. I’d like to think that this blog is helping contribute to that effort.

If you have a story of your own, please do link to it in the comments!


*I feel a need to specifically disavow the Boy Scouts of America, which continues to allow the exclusion of gay leaders and prohibits the participation of non-religious boys and adults.

18 thoughts on “My path to science

  1. Terry, great story – and much of it is my story too. (Especially your point 7). I didn’t get as far down the med-school default path as you did, but I do remember buying a cheap copy of “Gray’s Anatomy” when I entered the biology major, because that was sort of what I thought biologists learned. I never opened it. I ended up where I am as a consequence of a lot of what I call “academic Brownian motion”.

  2. I had a few years of “wandering” in college until I took my first Ecology class sophomore year and I was hooked. I loved biology but was always told that a biology major should become a doctor. I remember a bunch of us in a Biochemistry class wore big buttons that read “I am not pre-med” to indicate that we were there to learn the subject not just earn the grade.
    It is a pity that so many biology department curriculums are geared to the pre-med path and that the prerequisites for pre med (calculus, Chemistry, General Biology, Organic) dominate the first years of the major. It is hard for students to know there is so much more to Biology.

  3. If you are familiar at all with New Mexico, you know about remoteness. I grew up there, in the wilderness of the 5th least densely populated state in the US. My family is Chicano/Hispano, and we have worked and lived in those lands centuries prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. We are as rich in culture and history as we are poor in economic opportunity (a direct result of being forgotten and abused by US federal and state policies since the redistribution of land after we were sold by Mexico). In the icy waters of snow melt in the lower Rockies I had my first exposure to natural systems as a child when I would sneak off my grandfather’s farm. (Playing with bugs is way better than labor, IMO).

    Throughout my pre-college education I navigated a small and desperately underfunded public school system in a state ranked at the bottom of the list for education. Coming out of HS I didn’t really know what I wanted to do- and didn’t have much mentorship pushing me one way or another. Though I was top of my class (kind of a default for the mere fact I at least showed up and didn’t get suspended too many times), I didn’t excel at math or science, and had only vague ideas as to what I could do if I went to college.

    I got into the University of New Mexico and after some bouncing around (obtaining first a psychology degree) I tacked on biology as a second major. I ate up all things ecology, which led me to nervously ask a professor about field work one semester. After agreeing to sleep on a cot in the Sonoran desert for 6 weeks in the summer, I landed my first job investigating heat tolerance in desert bird communities.

    After that first season in the field I was hooked so I applied to an NIH-supported undergraduate fellowship that supported me financially for two years while I continued lab work. During this time I had access to great mentors, travel money, and stable employment. Upon graduating in May 2015 I then applied for a post-bacc program (NSF supported) which I am currently completing and will begin my PhD work at a fancy R1 this upcoming Fall.

    The important takeaway from this:

    Most integral to my success (and the reason I am even writing this) was having access to such intensive mentorship as an undergrad via my NIH fellowship. Growing up I hardly knew anyone (except for my older sister) who went to college, much less what ‘PhD’ meant. Even as a college student I was clueless as to what options were available to me to pursue academia. These programs groom exceptional students who may not have access to quality mentorship otherwise, and are an important reason why many minorities (who didn’t go to prestigious universities) get into PhD programs.
    Despite all the great that came of that fellowship, I would not have even considered it had it not been funded. Do to my back ground, I needed to work multiple jobs (concurrently) to pay tuition and feed myself. Programs that seek to increase diversity in STEM need to consider this in the context of the populations they’re serving.

  4. I wanted a career in the military as a chaplain. I had my whole life planned: ROTC as undergrad, commission as infantry officer to get a few years of real experience, then seminary on the GI bill to get an MDiv and become a chaplain. Along the way, I joined a rugby team. I needed a hard science elective so I took a non-major biochemical course to learn more about the body and maybe athletic performance. I loved the class. I changed my major from comp sci to bio and dropped out of ROTC about half way through the semester (much to my parents relief because the Iraq invasion had just begun). Initially, my plan was to go into medicine, but a prof called me into his office one day and told me to forget whatever career plans I had and go to grad school (he liked my answers to his estay questions). I made up my mind that day. 12 years later, I have my PhD and two fellowships under my belt.

    I feel the need to add (because of other comments here) that I’ve worked with many MDs in my research and I’ve found that many are smart and thoughtful people, and many also have a passion for research like me. Of course, there are bad apples on both sides, but I think the PhD – MD dichotomy is somewhat exaggerated. The two are complementary, not antagonistic.

  5. Excellent. We need more blogs like this one. It’s human nature to compare ones experience with that of others and to draw on the similarities and differences. I’d be interested to know how many others ‘out there’ thought their path would start on the medical one, only to divert away from health science and towards life science. I did, and it’s a diversion I have never regretted. As to healthscience (MD)-lifescience (Biology PhD) being complementary, yes I agree they are. But the reality is because of the lack of recognition of this complementarity (e.g. environmental variation, therapeutic medicine) there is little funding and research in this area.

  6. Thanks for sharing the story. Many of the best scientists have taken paths that are not the predictable ones. Paul Nurse is one. Some social insect scientists also come to mind – with spells on fishing boats before science. One concern of mine is that students in the UK will have so much debt (like the med students you mention) that they cannot pursue a scientific career with all its uncertainty. In 15-20 years time the only candidates for professor level jobs will be people from rich backgrounds, as in the distant past.

  7. Good stuff Terry! Thanks for sharing – fills me in some of those missing years since our last backpacking trip, eh, what? 20 years back? From my memory you were among the gentle and sincere people of Oxy (or perhaps that all depends on which side of ‘callow’ one was standing). Quite pleased your writing is in good circulation too.

  8. I love hearing the wondering paths that lead people to science. I was always into nature and science in general but with little guidance. Everyone assumed that if you were good at science, you’d go to med school… and the other options are not always apparent.

  9. Hi Terry,

    Nice post. I want to update you on the official policy of Boy Scouts of America regarding gay scout leader. BSA changed this policy last summer and now allows gay leaders, but leaves it up to individual troops or their sponsoring organization. However, my son’s troop in Salt Lake City, for which I am an Assistant Scoutmaster, has accepted gay leaders for several years. We didn’t advertise it, but word got around and a number of gay Mormon parents came to our troop because they were not allowed to be leaders in their church-sponsored troop. In fact, our troop and our policy was on Morning Edition last September. You can listen here:

    Our troop is sponsored by a Presbyterian church, but our membership represents a number of different religions and even some of us who are, dare I say it, atheists. We have a well-deserved reputation for being an open troop, a real rarity in the Salt Lake Valley, and welcome families any ethnic group, religious beliefs, or sexual-orientation.

    Yes, the BSA has a way to go yet, especially compared to the Girl Scouts (buy GS cookies!), but it’s making progress, and it’s encouraging what you can do undercover. Despite its retrograde policies, I think scouting can be a great experience for boys. I know it was for me as a kid, my son now, and it sounds like for you too.

    You can continue to disavow them, but some of us are trying to drag them, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

    All the best,

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