Wesley R. Elsberry posted Entry 64 on March 28, 2004 05:04 PM.
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I'm in a reflective mood today, so you get something a bit different. I'm casting back some, oh, thirty-three years to my middle school days, trying to figure out how I ended up in science. It certainly wasn't a foregone conclusion. I'm sure that my parents would have been just as pleased if I'd been able to carve out a career in some form of money-grubbing, and probably would be more at ease about my financial future. I've come up with three unlikely factors that moved me in the direction of science: the Reader's Digest, a general education sixth-grade teacher, and a handbook on seashell collecting. I'll try to explain myself...

Let me deal with the most bizarre first. How could the Reader's Digest possibly have a positive effect? Please pardon me while I digress. I'll get there eventually. My grandparents lived some forty miles distant from us. I recall the car trips to visit and how very long they seemed. The perception of time certainly changes with age; my commute time now often exceeds the time it took to make those trips. Quite a bit of the journey went through rural and undeveloped parts of central Florida, ending in the community of Wimauma, Florida. (Etymology is a fascinating diversion, and "Wimauma" turns out to avoid the usual Florida practice of borrowing native American words as place names. Instead, "Wimauma" turns out to be a contraction of three names of daughters of the mayor, as Wilma, Maude, and Mary.) Wimauma is one of those very small rural communities with those businesses necessary to support of a farming community and not much more. The one extra claim to fame was a large campground for revival meetings. My grandparents lived outside of town, on a parcel of perhaps 300 acres, with a pond, barns, cow pasture, and orange groves. The house was a relic of Florida construction from the 1920's, a small wood-frame building raised on short concrete pilings. The electrical lines ran exposed on the walls, and the bathroom was a late addition to the house. Call it a small three bedroom one bath house with a mostly open floor plan. Another feature was the porch that ran on three sides of the house. Many of the activities of life there happened on the porch, which was the coolest place to be in the Florida summer. Where does the Reader's Digest come into this, you might ask? For a young boy, the various parts of the outdoors accessible there kept me entertained for much of the daylight hours (the ecology of the cattle trough alone was good for hours at a time), but after nightfall I would often raid a handy Reader's Digest from their collected subscription for the anecdotes, and occasionally an article. My grandmother, Kate, eventually gave me my own subscription, a practice she continued for many years.

Well, I devoured them. I was an instant font of wisdom on any topic that had received treatment in an issue I had glanced upon. I'm quite sure I was an insufferable nerd about it, too, for I could usually cite the article, if not the issue, to which I might refer in conversation, and come up with fairly close approximations to the original wording when called upon to justify some opinion. I now have some horror on the sheer waste of impressionable synapses I committed to portions of that publication. Other, less savory, results included a bad case of reactionary politics which thankfully went into remission in college.

But the Reader's Digest put me in touch with a variety of topics and encouraged me to do study independent of the school curricula. I could choose the topics I was interested in, and leave the other stuff. This was a mixed blessing, as it encouraged a pattern of behavior that wasn't optimal for maximizing grades. I tended to slough off unchallenging homework in favor of personal studies, though in diminishing degree over time, through the rest of my academic training. (This was reflected in my GPAs through college, master's, and Ph.D. programs, with progressive improvements in GPA each outing. I hit a 4.0 with the Ph.D., so I can quit now.) But the tendency to learn things for myself, to make a self-guided exploration of a topic, is a gift that I can't put a price on. Thank you, Kate...

My sixth grade experience was an interesting one. At my elementary school, earlier grades saw students moving from classroom to classroom for specific topics. Sixth grade, though, was handled by general instructors, and each class was locked in with one instructor all day long. My instructor was Arthur N. Coords, a Navy reservist, who taught with a particular intensity and enthusiasm that proved just right for my temperament. From the first day, he instituted features like a "word of the day". The first one we got was "facilitate". Words of the day would be seen again, collected in spelling quizzes. And again, in class spelling bees. The competition practiced in Mr. Coords classroom put my nerdy tendencies into overdrive. And I learned the English, the math, the civics, and every basic part of the curriculum that Mr. Coords touched upon. I learned it to within an inch of its designated pedagogical functional requirements.

So, what did that do for a science bent? Not much directly, I admit, although Mr. Coords did encourage enthusiasm for scientific topics. What Mr. Coords did for me was give me a free pass for almost the next six years of my non-science schooling. I came out of that classroom with enough basic understanding of the topics and ability to efficiently learn new material that I could basically slide through most of my non-science courses with very little effort and still get respectable grades. I once took, and passed, the Florida teacher certification exam. After coming out of the testing center, I remarked to a friend that I should have been very embarrassed not to have been able to do almost as well on it fresh out of my sixth-grade education. Mr. Coords gave me the gift of personal time to follow my interests. Arthur, thank you...

Growing up in Florida... one may think of sunny, sandy beaches and think that, of course, it's a perfectly reasonable expectation that an affinity for marine biology will follow. However, I didn't grow up on sunny, sandy beaches. I grew up in Lakeland, Florida, which is very much central and not close to the famous beaches and bodies of saltwater so beloved of the tourists. Lakeland does have a nice public library, though, and there I could make a virtual visit by reading books by Jacques Cousteau and other popularizers of the marine world. (Unfortunately, I didn't find Rachel Carson's "The Edge of the Sea" until much later.) One of the books that I ran across was "Collecting Seashells" by Kathleen Yerger Johnstone. I had the collecting bug, but not a focus yet, and seashells looked like just the ticket. This book promised to give effective techniques for the collection, preparation, and display of specimens, so I checked it out.

It did a lot more than that. Johnstone, it turned out, wasn't just some lady who liked putting pretty objects on shelves. Ms. Johnstone was a student of malacology, the study of mollusks, and her focus came palpably through the pages of her guidebook. To be sure, most of her readers probably shrugged off the odd suggestions concerning actually watching the living mollusks go about their business and noting their behaviors. Johnstone also urged collectors to note date, location, and conditions of collection of specimens; the proper preparation of specimens for storage, including retention of opercula for snails, periostracum, and encrusting symbiotes; and just a hint of pushing the collector to get involved with malacologists in their area. I took these things to heart, though. I learned to set up and maintain (successfully) saltwater aquaria. I got my SCUBA certification at the age of 13. I was lucky to pass the practicals, the tank weighed me down quite severely, and there's one female instructor who has likely never forgiven me for the "rescue resisting victim" part of the test, who weighed two or three times what I did. After she scratched me a few times, I reverted to the Boy Scout standby of the "hair hold", which did the trick.

And I sought out the company of biologists, of which my SCUBA instructor was one. Paul F. White taught at Polk Community College, and he apparently appreciated my enthusiasm for mollusks. I was given the opportunity to give my first presentation to a college class at Dr. White's invitation at the age of 14, and he also put me to work attempting to identify a set of donated shells that the college had received. I was a bit chagrined to see a decade afterwards that my hand-written index cards were on display with the specimens in a glass case in the department. I also was the local boy who turned up probably all too often in the lab of Dr. John R. Tripp at Florida Southern College. Dr. Tripp was at the time an active member of the SCUBA club I belonged to, along with his wife, Julia. I thought we got on pretty well, but it's probably just that he was very tolerant of the young and slightly addled shellseeker I was.

Johnstone's book, though, had set the stage. Without excessive preachiness, her prose infused that appreciation for the living organism, its behaviors, life cycles, and relations to other organisms in the ecosystem, that so many other guides to shell collecting overlook entirely. Her book had an actual bibliography, and encouraged learning from more technical sources. Johnstone had introduced me to scientific methodology in a way that the set school curricula, with their reliance on rote learning of dissociated facts and disembodied statements of theoretical relations, had not. It was a gentle introduction, and one that I hardly recognized as such at the time. Another gift, and another debt of gratitude. Thank you, Kathleen...

My specialty isn't mollusks any more, or even another taxon of invertebrates. Somewhere along the line, I fell in with the charismatic megafauna, and now I work on the physiology, bioenergetics, behavior, and bioacoustics of marine mammals. There have been some twists and turns in my career path that may be of interest to others, so I'll close here and leave that for another time. For now, though, I look fondly back on these elements of my life. I hope you also enjoyed the reminiscence.

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Comment #416

Posted by Matt Inlay on March 29, 2004 1:25 PM (e)

nice post, wes. thanks for sharing with us.

Comment #417

Posted by PZ Myers on March 29, 2004 1:32 PM (e)

I can outdo you, Wes.

My childhood sin wasn’t Reader’s Digest…it was….

Fate Magazine.

I’ve even admitted it before in a shameful confession. I also reveal my secret childhood heroes.

Comment #429

Posted by Andrea Bottaro on March 29, 2004 3:30 PM (e)

I wish I could say that my interest in genetics stemmed from my avid reading of Fantastic Four comics, but more prosaically, I just decided at 13 that I wanted to study biology, after watching a documentary on penguins. Had it not been raining that day, I might have become an accountant or something.

Comment #434

Posted by John Wilkins on March 29, 2004 5:10 PM (e)

But reading science fiction is guaranteed only to make a bad philosopher out of you, as it did me…

Comment #435

Posted by Matt Inlay on March 29, 2004 5:25 PM (e)

when i was applying for college, some of the applications made me select a major. i knew i wanted to pursue a science, but i hadn’t decided between biology, chemistry or physics. so i chose biochemistry because it had two of the three fields in its title.

and i’ve never looked back.

Comment #443

Posted by PZ Myers on March 29, 2004 6:27 PM (e)

Science fiction is guaranteed to make one a bad philosopher? I read science fiction. I feel like I should be insulted, if only I can parse out whether the insult is to be called a “bad philosopher”, or to be called a “philosopher”…

Comment #446

Posted by RBH on March 29, 2004 7:15 PM (e)

I had little choice. I knew I wanted to do science of some sort, and I was in high school when Sputnik went up (yes, that dates me!). Every redblooded American boy instantly resolved to become a scientist or engineer and whup the Commies (yes, I’m an old Cold Warrior, too).


Comment #28628

Posted by steve on May 6, 2005 12:28 PM (e)

The Unlikely Origins of Jonathan Wells’s Career in Science:

Cult Leader: “You, waste the rest of your life fighting science.”
Wells: “Okey Dokey!”