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.