I tried something a little different with this installment of “Before They Were Scientists” — I sat down for a video interview with the Dr. Eleanor Spicer-Rice, author of the new Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City. There were giant cookies, an adorable dog, and a conversation about why being considered “weird” is a very good thing. Check out the video, followed by the interview transcript, below:
Lea: What was your biggest worry in middle school?
Eleanor: Middle school was one of those times where you didn’t really have “worries” – you’re just trying to figure out where you are, socially, with people. And everybody’ testing each other to see what kind of person you’re going to be. So, I don’t know, I never really worried about academics.
What were your favorite subjects?
English was my favorite subject, and science was my other favorite subject. They were twins. It’s really wonderful to read things that people come up with in their minds and it’s wonderful to read about truth, and what makes you a person. It’s great.
What did you like to read?
I liked reading different ways that other people write. In middle school I was in a big Harlem Renaissance phase. I came from a place where there was a lot of tension and a lot of poverty and I didn’t understand the people around me and it gave me a lot of insight into things that were happening to other people, not just myself.
What made science so interesting?
Science is wonderful. You can see how the world works! When you pay attention to science and when you learn how animals do things – the whole world becomes your friend when you understand the way that the world works. You can be a part of figuring it out too. And that was really cool to me when I was in middle school and now. You can come up with a question and then figure out how to answer that question.
Where you in any clubs?
I was in Girl Scouts. I was in the “Battle of the Books” – which was a readers’ competition club. I was in ballet for many years. I was on the softball team. Nobody believes this, but we lost one time – 92 to 0. We were the worst softball team that ever existed. We were terrible. I was in the band – the marching band. I played the saxophone because that’s what my brother played. I wasn’t very good at the saxophone. I liked marching
What was the first concert you went to?
This will make me seem more cool than I was – I went to, in 3rd grade, New Kids on the Block. But that’s only because my brother went and he was really cool.
What did you wear to school?
Life was a lot easier for us, as far as dressing is concerned, than I think it is for middle schoolers these days. I was doing good when I put my Umbros on… which are just exercise shorts.
Did you think you were the only person like yourself?
Is this a polite way of asking me if I was weird? [laughter] Because I was weird. But the way I saw it, or the way my parents told me to see it, was that: Everybody was weird. I mean, you would hope that you’re weird. Because if you’re not weird, you’re probably not interesting anyway. So, I just figured everybody else was weird too. So, it probably wasn’t normal to have insects in your freezer and, you know, the things that you do when you want to be an entomologist and you don’t know what entomology is. When I got to high school they started explaining science and it was just very exciting. Going to school was like watching the Discovery Channel every day. You couldn’t believe the things that you were learning that people knew and it helped you to understand better all these things you were trying to figure out when you were little.
How often did you play outside?
We played outside all the time. We had a yard that was great; we had a park around the corner and we had free reign over everything. And then there was a swamp that we liked to go in that was just outside of town. We would go in as a family – and put waders on and look for animals and poke at things and wait for beavers to come out.
When did you decide you were becoming a scientist?
Everything I had done before college was for English and literature. I decided that the more I understood about science, the better I could understand literature. It opens up a lot of ideas for me. It helps you to reason. And that’s very helpful when you’re trying to formulate an argument, write a paper, solve a math problem… It helps you to step back and take things apart slowly and move through things as you see them. You can see what’s useful and what’s not. But it’s also like a lot of literature – it’s about looking for what’s true, or what’s best as we can know it.
And then when I got to college I didn’t even know that you could be an entomologist, I didn’t know that was a real job. When I found that out it was like Christmas. It was just wonderful! You could go to school every day and learn about insects?! Shut the front door. That was awesome. That was like the best thing ever.
What would your younger self be most surprised about considering your life now?
That you can do things that you want to do. Where I came from there were teachers and doctors and veterinarians. There really wasn’t a wide array of possibilities of what you were going to be when you grew up. So it’s pretty exciting to see that you really can just do exactly what you’re doing in middle school, if you want to. I am playing with clay today. I’m making a movie out of clay. And people pay me money for that. It’s exciting – it’s exciting for somebody from a small town.
What did you think scientists did all day?
There were the two kinds of scientists. The sterile ones that sit in labs and there’s the weirdos that run around with nets chasing things. I think that’s what I thought they did all day.
Did you collect anything?
I keep books. They’re like my friends. I have these pages that I ripped out of my parents’ encyclopedias before they gave them away that are just beautiful about the anatomy of animals and humans. And they had this clear, cellophane fold over thing and you could lay it over and see the organs or see the bones. It’s really cool. I keep that around with me. I still like to look at it. Whoever got those encyclopedias after we did got cheated.
Did anyone ever tell you that you were wrong?
When I was in the sixth grade, my sixth grade math teacher wrote on one of my test papers. He drew a picture of a face – like a little skunk – and drew a line through it and wrote “You Stink At Math.” And I did. I did stink at math!
Were you ever bored?
I never felt bored. And, if somebody around us said that they were bored, my mother said that, “Intelligent people never get bored.” Because you always have your mind! So, play around in there.
Dr. Eleanor Spicer-Rice is the ROAR behind BuzzHootRoar and is the author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Ants of New York City. She regularly contributes to YourWildLife.org. Read more of her wonderful words at VerdantWord.com or follow her on Twitter @VerdantEleanor.