Before They Were Scientists: Dan Fergus
Some scientists end up where they are today because of a special trip, others attribute their interest to a curiosity sparked by time spent outdoors, and yet some end up on a path to science because they had teachers that encouraged them. Dan Fergus had two encouraging math teachers in middle school, both named Mr. Conner. The Mr. Conners were enthusiastic brothers excited about teaching. According to Dan, they worked hard to get their students interested in the subject – and as a result Dan’s math skills and interest improved from elementary to middle school.
The most memorable thing Dan recalls from his middle school science classes was the day a teacher taught his whole class how to realistically gobble like turkeys. Other than that, Dan’s science classes were boring to him. He laments, “I don’t think my teachers put a lot of effort into trying to make science exciting and showing us what science was really all about. My science classes at that point were just about remembering and parroting facts. I’m not a good reader or a good memorizer, so this wasn’t of much interest to me.”
Dan never thought about becoming a scientist and wasn’t sure what their day-to-day was actually like. He admits, “I imagine if you’d asked me at the time I would have guessed they wore lab coats and goggles while working the day away in labs with flasks of boiling chemicals or doing awful things to rats and mice.”
“I would have guessed
[that scientists] wore lab coats and goggles while working the day away in labs with flasks of boiling chemicals or doing awful things to rats and mice.”
These perceptions began to change as he got into high school and had positive experiences in biology classes and discovered his love for the subject. “One of these teachers was in charge of a club called the “Medical Careers Club” which I joined and as a result decided I should become a medical doctor. In college I quickly decided that medicine was not for me,” Dan explains, “I tried out different majors, until I finally decided to just do what I love and majored in biology.”
“…I finally decided to just do what I love and majored in biology.”
If Dan were to run into his middle school self he would tell him, “It won’t matter in the long run whether you are cool and you shouldn’t worry too much what others think of you. If you pursue those things that interest you most, you will be happiest.”
Dan Fergus is a molecular biologist and post-doctoral researcher working at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. He’s studied the genetic basis of behavior in singing animals, creatures that include Hawaiian crickets and midshipman fish. Lately he’s been investigating the DNA and family trees of tiny mites that live in the pores of your face. Sadly, these arthropods don’t seem to sing. To see what brings Dan right back to middle school, watch this.
Be sure to check out other stories of scientists when they were in middle school in our continuing series: Before They Were Scientists.