Why is one of the most important types of questions any scientist asks. Why do apples fall when I drop them? Why does the temperature decrease the higher I go up a mountain? Why do I find this Spruce tree on the north side of the mountain, but not the south?
Asking and answering why questions is a critical aspect of being a scientist, so, it is only natural that I ask: why am I a scientist? Why do have a passion for science, particularly biology and ecology? Why have these drawn me in so much that I’ve decided to dedicate my life to studying them? Looking back at my life’s winding road that has led to pursuing a PhD at the University of Massachusetts I can see four main influences that have shaped who I am today:
Time spent outside:
First, let me clarify here, some people spent a lot more time out in woods and wildernesses as kids than I did. I rarely went camping, my dad didn’t teach me to fish as a boy, and I’ve never been hunting. Nevertheless, the time reading books up in the branches of the pine by our driveway, catching frogs in streams and ponds, searching for snakes in the woods, and later, hiking and fishing was special time where I developed a relationship with nature. Without a love and appreciation for the outdoors borne of experiences and relationship with nature, I never would have become who I am now.
Family and Friendships:
My family was, and is to this day, very supportive of nearly everything I do. As a child, my family would not only put up with me as I rattled off whatever it was that I’d read or seen that day, they encouraged me! As I got older my parents gave me the freedom to roam and explore, spending time outside where I built my relationship with nature. They drove me to state parks and forests so that I could walk the trails and search for snakes, frogs, turtles, and salamanders. This is where friendships come in.
In 5th grade I met my good friend Michael. Michael and I were partners in crime as we searched for reptiles and amphibians in woods, swamps, and ponds. We pushed each other to learn more and more about these animals, both in the wild and in captivity once we started keeping some at home. I can remember many a Wednesday afternoon at Michael’s house searching the woods, walking to Pets Plus, or watching movies like Jurassic Park. Which brings us to…
TV, Movies and More:
Media is powerful, it molds and shapes us whether we like it or not. Certain movies, books, magazines, and TV shows were instrumental in guiding my scientific evolution. As a young kid I was drawn to books, especially books about dinosaurs. I can remember one book in particular that had a 4-ft long fold out page showing dozens of different dinosaur species drawn to scale running down a Mesozoic timeline. As I got a little older, movies like Jurassic Park and the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs fueled my dino passions even more. TV, however, was even more important.
I was lucky enough to have grown up in what I would argue was the golden age of adventure nature TV. Engaging show hosts, in beautiful places, tracking, observing and catching amazing animals. Shows like The Crocodile Hunter, The Jeff Corwin Experience, and Mark O’Shea all excited and educated their viewers by bringing them up close and personal with people, places, and animals they otherwise would never experience. I wanted to do what they were doing, to travel the world finding amazing animals and sharing them with the world. I used to (secretly) pretend I was Steve Irwin as I chased down a garter snake on a wooded trail, or grabbed a frog from a pond. It was on these shows that I first learned what a herpetologist was, and this was my dream job for a long time.
The last big media influence on me was Reptiles Magazine. As my friend Michael and I got more and more reptiles and amphibians (herps) as pets, Reptiles Magazine introduced me to a more scientific side of my animal interests. Through Reptiles I learned about the natural history and taxonomy of unique herps from around the world. I learned some basics of health and medicine, nutrition, husbandry, and even genetics, giving me a head start on things I would learn in high school and college.
Teachers and Professors:
If you’ve been tracking with me so far, you might have noticed an arc in my personal evolution, beginning with a spark of interest – developing into a passion – and slowly becoming an academic interest. In middle school and high school, I almost always did pretty well in science, and usually they were my favorite classes. I didn’t have any particularly great (or bad for that matter) teachers, I just liked what we learned more than other subjects. When I went off to Gordon College as an 18-year-old I knew from the start that I was going to major in biology.
The Bio department at Gordon was small, yet fairly rigorous. I got along well with my classmates and professors, Dr. Blend, Dr. Boorse, and Dr. Zheng all made my time there better than it would have been otherwise. One professor in particular, however, was especially influential in my shift toward academia. Dr. Keller joined the Bio faculty at Gordon at about the same time that I started as a freshman, and he brought with him expertise in natural history, mammology, and ornithology. He saw budding interests in me and gave me opportunities to develop them.
At Gordon, under the guidance of Dr. Keller, I helped the school to develop its museum collection by prepping bird and mammal specimens (my favorites were some common eiders and a northern gannet!). Most importantly, Dr. Keller gave me my first opportunity to do research. I learned to ask research questions, develop hypotheses, collect data and analyze results; I even got the chance to present my research at a conference poster session! Without professors like Dr. Keller and the rest of the Gordon Bio faculty, I never would have gone on to pursue a Master’s of Science at The Ohio State University, and I never would have ended up here at UMass writing about how I got to be a scientist.
In the end, though, everyone’s path is different. Sure, there are definitely going to be areas of overlap, great teachers and professors, mentors, exciting experiences, etc., but it’s certainly not one size fits all. The next generation of great ecologists is being developed right now. You could be mentoring them yourself, or maybe you’ve just hiked past them on a trail – you never know! So, encourage curiosity at all times, soak in the wonder of the world around you, ask why. Because, in the end, you never know where the next great discovery will come from, it might even come from you!