A few people (Meghan Duffy, Terry McGlynn, and Dave Bennett) have written about their journey into science and how they ended up where they are currently. I enjoyed reading about their metaphorical and literal travels, so I thought I would share my own story.
As a child, I was strange. And not in that ‘oh, so cute/precocious/soon-to-be-a-genius’ way. More, walking around as a pre-teen barefoot in an apartment complex in the middle of a large city with nothing but an oversized shirt on strange. I spent a lot of time in my own head, going through the motions of real life on autopilot, which explains why I don’t remember much of my childhood.
But I do remember walking through a small wilderness area beside the Sacramento River, and in a puddle on the path, seeing a horsehair worm. I remember the warmth of the early morning sun, tickling my scalp and glinting against the puddle surface, turning liquid into solid, water into glass, and encasing this strange, long, thin, wriggling thing searching for something amongst the tan soil.
It was just a glance, but it birthed this (vague) sense of wonder. I felt that if something that looked like a long hair could be alive, this world was much weirder than I knew.
If you’re looking for the reason why I started down this path, look no further than my dad. My dad bequeathed to me, among other precious gifts, my love for animals. The wilderness area near the Sacramento River was our wild area. We went camping; we watched wildlife documentaries together on Saturday mornings; he kept a variety of exotic pets that I delighted in poking and feeding and playing with. We hunted for swallowtail and Monarch eggs during the summer and raised them in the backyard when I was older. We argued over what the white, hovering bird of prey we saw during long car trips was (white-tailed kite).
Don’t get me wrong. I hadn’t an inkling that research was possible as a career. I wasn’t out in the streams, hunting down frogs, and I didn’t carry around a notebook to record the birds that I saw. I didn’t like microscopes (still don’t). I was watching documentaries, memorizing dog/horse/cat breeds, and reading about gerbils on the internet. I wanted to be a veterinarian, and watched vet shows on Animal Planet religiously. Then, I realized I wanted to be a zookeeper. Summers of volunteering at the zoo disabused me of that notion. By the time I came to NC State as a freshman, all I knew was that I wanted to work with wildlife. How? I had no idea.
As the only African-American freshman in wildlife sciences, I was quickly hooked up with a few AA college staff members: Dr. Thomas Easley and Dr. Shaefney Grays. They, in turn, connected me with my first mentor: Dr. Nyeema Harris, a then-PhD student studying parasites in carnivores. What Nyeema was doing intrigued me. How did she know what questions to ask? How did she know what to do to answer those questions? I had a huge mental block about what research was. My first year and a half of undergrad went by with me acing basic courses and becoming disenchanted with the idea of staying in the major. I was killing it in my fiction-writing classes, and writing was more interesting to me than the white-tailed deer that my classmates talked about and the loblolly roots that I picked out during my part-time field tech job. Why not switch?
I let Nyeema know my plans and she pushed me to apply to summer research programs. To get her off my back, I applied to multiple National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REUs). Everything was riding on that summer. If I was accepted and didn’t enjoy my experience, I was adamant about switching to an English major for my junior year.
And then, I landed in the hospital.
What I had thought was a particularly vicious stomach bug turned out to be my Crohn’s having moved from my lower GI tract to my stomach. While I was in the hospital, I got email after email, letting me know that I had been rejected from REUs. After three weeks of Crohn’s hell, I was too exhausted to care. The only program I had been accepted into was my least favorite: studying small mammals (rats, I thought) in middle-of-nowhere Minnesota.
Lightbulb Moment (or Minnesota REU)
Fresh out of the hospital, I was in Northfield, Minnesota, where I’d be staying for the summer. I immediately learned that my adviser, Dr. Diane Angell, would only have two weeks with me before leaving for a family vacation.
We went out into a native tallgrass prairie remnant and started checking small mammal traps. She showed me how to identify the rodents we caught, how to measure them, how to clip their fur to collect samples for the stable isotope analysis we’d be doing. Then, we took pictures of the mice looking cute.
That first day in the field destroyed my mental block (or maybe it was the cute pictures). I went at the trapping with a vengeance. That summer, I checked traps, fought off ticks, watched storms come in, struggled to understand scientific papers, and made peanut butter-oatmeal bait balls. It was the most alive I had ever felt. I was extremely proud when I presented my poster at the end-of-the-summer symposium and rabidly eager to get back to NC State to continue doing research.
South Africa and Virginia
I was now a junior and trying to figure out how to continue small mammal trapping in NC. Dr. Easley let me know that a professor (Dr. Morais) was going to South Africa to interview locals about cellphones and tourism. He wanted to bring with him two African-American students. I was not interested in interviews, because that would require talking to people, but I was interested in going to South Africa. Plus, the trip was free.
So in January I went over to South Africa for 10 days and got my first brush with the importance of human dimensions. I also had my first experience with malaria medication (terrible hallucinations), international travel (painfully long flight), and stickshifts (I stalled the van). I presented the research at NC State’s undergraduate research symposium and published it in the university’s undergraduate research journal.
I was busy applying for REU programs for the upcoming summer and skipping classes to go to conferences and present my small mammal research. I was also spending much more time in the biology department. Nyeema’s PhD adviser (Dr. Dunn), had taken me under his wing and was working with me to figure out how I could conduct more research in Raleigh. I benefited from this time in the biology department, not only because of my exposure to a tight-knit scientific community, but because it was there that I noticed an advertisement for a talk on jaguars by a visiting researcher. I went to the talk and met Dr. Marcella Kelly, who had known Nyeema when she was an undergrad. It was through this connection that I got accepted for the REU program at Mountain Lake Biological Station in VA.
I had entered some camera trap data on the side during my small mammal REU, but this project would be different. I got my first taste of occupancy modeling and was steeped in statistics. I worked with some Virginia Tech students and learned how to camera trap and take habitat measurements. I entered the data that we collected that summer and checked/organized seven year’s worth of historical data. I gave two talks, which I had never done before.
When the program ended mid-summer, I didn’t want to go back home. So I finagled a way into volunteering for Dr. Kelly’s PhD student’s coyote project. I walked scat transects and checked foothold traps. I spent one afternoon, certain that I wouldn’t be picked up at the end of the transect, trying to figure out how I would survive the night.
I was picked up, but not until after I had freaked out a good bit.
Final Year and Making Lemonade from Lemons
I was now a senior and I turned my sights to getting into graduate school so I could continue to feel alive (i.e., do research). Dr. Dunn got me into a graduate-only class on grant-writing and I furiously wrote and rewrote an application for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship program (NSF-GRFP). Meanwhile–in between classes, conferences, and emailing potential graduate advisers–I was trying to get the small mammal trapping project off the ground. Dr. Dunn was studying how ambient temperature increases effected…something something plants. I wanted to see how temperature influenced small mammal trapping. With his help, I wrote multiple grants and got enough funds to buy my own set of Sherman live traps.
And then, IACUC happened.
I turned to more noninvasive ways of studying small mammals. I decided to make seed traps, tupperware filled with almonds, to see if the temperature in the chambers influenced how many almonds were eaten (presumably by small mammals).
And then…no small mammals happened.
I wondered how my research project could have imploded so completely. I only had a few months to come up with something if I wanted to present anything at the research symposium.
Then, I noticed that there were ants all over the almonds. That they were nibbling on the almonds.
Thus, my small mammal project turned into an ant project. I examined how ambient temperature influenced seed predation by ants. I ran the (basic) analyses in R (!), and presented my non-results at the research symposium.
One mid-April morning, I woke my dorm-mates with a strangled yelp. I had been awarded an NSF-GRF.
I knew that my money would make me sexy to potential advisers, and I went to Dr. Kelly to ask her to take me on. She had no space in her lab, but she could co-advise me with Dr. Sarah Karpanty. Over coffee, Dr. Karpanty told me about the carnivore camera trapping project in Madagascar. No sooner had ‘carnivore’ and ‘Madagascar’ left her mouth did I mentally accept the position. Never mind that I thought the fosa was an animal imagined for the Dreamwork’s movie. I had finally made it.
That very summer I went to Madagascar for a month to help with the camera trapping. It was colder than I expected, constantly raining, there were terrestrial leeches, the food was terrible, and the hiking was incredibly hard.
I hated it with the passion of a thousand suns.
But my hatred warred with my stubbornness. I was finally breaking into sexy international carnivore research, the kind of research I dreamt about doing since I met Dr. Kelly. I was going to stick with it if it killed me, goddamn it.
I spent my first year as a Master’s student planning to analyze all the data using all the analyses and getting rejected from grants. I suffered through my first depressive episode and a few Crohn’s flares due to the stress. But by the fall of 2013, I was back in Madagascar, running my own surveys. While there, I dealt with (another) Crohn’s flare, the stress of leading my own project, the mud and the rain and the hiking and the food. I also grew, both as a person and a scientist. I came back and entered data and analyzed and cried and laughed and ate good cheese and talked about my feelings with a therapist and stared at fosa pictures.
And then, in May 2015, all those highs and lows came together in a talk presented in a skeezy room at an early hour to an audience that laughed at the memes inserted between thesis chapters and winced when my slides went from black to blinding white (sorry, guys!).
These sorts of posts always seem to end on a ‘lessons learned’ note, so I’ll continue the tradition…
It really is who you know. My dad started me down this path. Nyeema kept me on it and introduced me to one of my Master’s advisers. I went to South Africa because Dr. Easley recommended me for the project. I wouldn’t have gotten the NSF-GRF without Dr. Dunn getting me into the grant-writing class. My upcoming position as a PhD student at Penn State came largely through a close friend’s recommendation. Do not discount the people you meet along the way. You never know when they might help you open a door.
Your STEM path might be more of a wander, and that’s all right. As a child, I couldn’t have fathomed that I would one day be studying carnivores using remote cameras in a country half the world away. I went from wanting to be a vet to wanting to be an English major to someone obsessed with touching wild fosa. The line between vet and wannabe fosa-booper is not straight, but I gained precious life experience by it not being a straight line.
Take any opportunity you get. I accepted a program working “rats” and ended up realizing I wanted to do more work with “rats”. I went to South Africa to interview people although I’m allergic to social interaction and learned that there is an important human component to wildlife research. It’s because I took the opportunities offered me that I was able to refine my research interests to what they are today.
Go to conferences. I could go on and on about how important they are for networking, but I won’t. Conferences are just a cool way of traveling and hearing about others’ research. Go to as many as possible!