Dr. Madhu Katti’s (center, above) middle school experience in India was different than that of most American middle school students. Rather than worrying about social pressures from peers, Madhu and his fellow middle school students were preparing for the medical school entrance exam! Read on to learn about the times he proved his science teacher wrong and failed a big math test, setting the course for his scientific career.

Lea: What do you remember about Middle School?

Madhu: I did my schooling in India – we didn’t really have middle school. We went through grade 10 and then 11th and 12th we called “junior college.” That’s the way the system is in India. But that time during 5th and 6th grade – that is the time I actually had a formative experience that switched me onto being a scientist. This is because there was a science teacher who was very well-known at the school as being a good science teacher. This was a small school in the suburb outside of Bombay. I remember she was teaching about the simple principle of water seeking its own level. She was illustrating that with a U tube where if you pour in the water and raise the arm of the tube, it should level out. But she explained it wrong. She said if you raise the arm, the water level in that one will go up, rather than the one that’s lower. And I pointed it out and she actually started arguing with me because she insisted on that. I said, “No, this doesn’t make sense – so let’s do it!”  And she was game enough – I don’t know if this was a technique she was using or what – but she was game enough to say, “Ok, let’s pull out a tube in the lab and do this.” And we did it, and I proved her wrong. That was when I realized: there was this whole notion of questioning the authority of teachers; questioning the authority of elders is a tough thing in India. The culture does not accept it. And here was a teacher who had a reputation of being a great science teacher, and I had completely knocked her off the pedestal in my own mind… which made me realize – that’s kind of what the process of science is. That’s when I really started taking an experimental approach and trying to understand the work of science.

“…I had to ignore those teachers and then find things out myself, because they only care about the test, and I don’t.”

After that experience, did you approach problems differently?

Yes, I still think back to that. I’m a professor now, and I tell my students, and my kids as well, that I see my role not as someone conveying knowledge, but more as someone who can share the process of gaining knowledge. When I was in college, that’s when I started breaking off from the prescribed curriculum because, again, in India you hear a lot about our test-driven pedagogy – teaching to the test – well, that’s the way all education in India is. I realized there was more stuff outside the books, so I started going beyond that. And, up to that point, I had always been the top of the class in my school and taking tests was relatively easy for me. I started finding challenges outside that. I remember another experience later on, when I was in junior college in Bombay, where I was studying in this old library and looking through a book on histology that had this beautiful picture of cell structure (a kind of book that we didn’t have easy access to in India). My zoology teacher walked by and he paused and looked over my shoulder and says to me, “Why are you looking at that?” So I said, “Well, this is really interesting, so I’m looking at it.” And he said, “Well, this is not going to be on the exam.” Completely the opposite of the way I deal with students here! Now I have students coming up to me and saying, “Is this going to be on the test?” and I’m like, “Why do you care about the test? This is cool! You need to know this because it’s cool! Yeah, it may or may not be on the test, but that’s not the point! I use tests because I need to see where you are, but I’m not concerned about that.” So that was one moment where I look back and I had to ignore those teachers and then find things out myself, because they only cared about the test, and I didn’t.

What you just described to me was that your formative experiences were educational rebellion against your teachers because you wanted to find out more.

I can say I’m a scientist, not because of but in spite of my science teachers — which is the opposite of finding an inspirational teacher, although there was an inspirational teacher later on, who was not a science teacher.

What was inspiring about that teacher?

This teacher — and I think about her more now when I’m dealing with students who are first generation college students — came from a different community. I remember there was a student in my class that came from a rough family dynamic, and he was really poor performing. Generally, most of the teachers would cater to the bright kids – so I always had the attention of most of the teachers, and I was sort of bored with that to some extent. Being teacher’s pet didn’t get me anywhere. But this kid who had a troubled background was getting into bullying and other bad things and he wasn’t doing well in terms of his performance in class or learning stuff. This teacher actually ignored the brighter performing kids and she focused on him and turned him around. I could see that within a few months that this friend of mine, a kid my age, was getting switched on to learning. That I think was more powerful than what many of the other teachers were doing. I remind myself of that when I’m in the classroom now. It’s easy for me to see the smarter kids in the classroom nodding their heads that they get what I am saying, but I am learning to ignore that and look at the kids who are still not getting it – because that’s where the learning is going to happen. That was how that teacher impressed me about the importance of what a teacher can do. I’ve seen that happen.

Do you have any stories from your teaching that you want to share? That you feel that you’ve had successes with students?

I work at California State University, Fresno in central California –  we are one of these “minority majority” institutions, with lots of students from underrepresented groups.  I have a Native American student who came in and said he was an outdoorsy student, said he loves to hike and stuff like that. A fire got lit in him as he came into the program and he started working in my lab. I remember challenging him, giving him Robert MacArthur’s Geographic Ecology book. He picked that up and he’s now in grad school at SUNY ESF, but the interesting thing with this guy: he was also motivated to do something for his community. He was concerned about development and environmental issues in the Salinas area where he comes from. He’s always wanted to do something with the community. What I’ve been trying to tell him is that, yeah, he could go back and work in his community, but I’ve sort of nudged him away from that because I think it’s also important for him and others like him to actually become scientists and get the PhD or whatever degree and be at that table, rather than becoming just a token representative of that community and being the local person who deals with issues. He’s in grad school now and I’ve been telling him to get his PhD – as he’s academically oriented – to become a professor, become an expert in the environmental sciences and then he can be both a role model and active in his community. His community will always be there. And being a role model, even if you’re not immediately available, is more important. So that’s one success story, I think.

Teaching at Fresno State gives me an opportunity to see the effects of our teaching, because you can see students make the journey. If you’re in a bigger university, students already come with preparation, and of course they can maybe go farther, but it is satisfying to be able to flip the switch in these students and get them to suddenly realize that either they don’t have to be pre-med students just because their parents told them, that there’s other things in biology. Or they just realize that it’s possible to do science as a career.

When you’re speaking, you sound more like an educator than a “scientist” – which do you identify with?

Both, I think – it depends on what you ask me about. I guess I’ve been engaging a lot in communicating my science as well.

How do you communicate your science?

Outside of being an educator, I run a Cafe Scientifique in Fresno, “Central Valley Scientifique.” We are in our seventh year now. I’ve been blogging, I’m on Twitter and social media – so I’ve been trying to engage other audiences as much as possible. I also run a citizen science program, the Fresno Bird Count. I do urban ecology, so my work is embedded in human communities. I look at biodiversity as it’s meshed with human landscapes. So my research is closely tied with being an educator as well.

Did you play outside when you were young?

Yes, I grew up close to some hills. I got into hiking and rock climbing and then eventually in college I got into bird watching. I played outside quite a lot. When I grew up we didn’t have a television, so most of my entertainment in the evening was watching geckos on the walls of our house inside or sitting inside a mosquito net because there were too many mosquitoes and watching geckos run around catching bugs on the walls. We had a big termite mound in our yard so I used to love to go dig around in that.

“So what ended up happening was that I actually failed the 12 standard maths which effectively took me out of the medical school pool anyway.”

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?

[immediately] A doctor. It’s a common thing for Indian parents, especially, wanting a doctor or engineer as the chosen professions. And my parents definitely had me on the doctor track. And I was a disappointment to them, I know, quite surely because in India medical school is right after  high school, after the 12th grade. So unlike all of the social anxieties of high school in the US, there you are essentially preparing for the MCAT or the engineering entrance exams. You’re taking advanced calculus and all this stuff at 17 or 18. I think it’s too early to be forced to make that kind of life/career choice. I sort of, subconsciously, didn’t do what was required to get into that, even though my parents were investing in additional classes for me to study. I just wasn’t interested, but I couldn’t tell them that I didn’t want to do it. So what ended up happening was that I actually failed the 12 standard maths which effectively took me out of the medical school pool anyway. That became a sort of liberation for me and it took a few years for them to reconcile with their shattering of their dreams for me. But to see that I was happy doing what I was doing – I got into evolution. I was interested in evolutionary biology and ecology, conservation biology. Eventually I did become a doctor, but not the kind that would make any money, but that’s how it goes.

So do you have any advice for your younger self or a kid who’s like you, with parents putting those same pressures on them?

I actually see kids like that in California because there are Indian communities. So I’ve had this funny experience where we have the recruitment days on our campus and high school kids come and learn about the different departments. Our department usually has two display tables, one for regular biology majors and one for the pre-med or pre-nursing people. I remember sitting there with a faculty colleague; I was at the regular table and my colleague was at the pre-med/pre-nursing table. This Indian family brings in their high school student and makes a beeline for me, because I’m Indian. And then they start asking me about pre-med stuff; I start talking to the kid and tell him, “I was supposed to be pre-med as well, but I changed – there’s more to biology and you don’t have to do this.” And the parents gradually started nudging the child away to the pre-med table! I think about what to tell these students; it can be difficult to negotiate this parental pressure. So I tell them what helped me: build a network of friends who support you in dealing with this pressure. I tell them that I’m available if they want to talk about this or would like me to have a conference with the parents. But what I would have told myself? I think I came out ok. So I’m not sure I would do anything necessarily differently. Maybe communicate a bit more with the parents, but that’s always a difficult thing. I did ended up finding Steven J. Gould and Richard Dawkins and all this other stuff on my own, instead of studying the pre-med stuff, which then got me on the track of being a biologist. I think the key is having some confidence to follow your bliss – which is not easy at that age.

“So whatever you do, you have to find some way of connecting your passions to what you’re doing.”

Do you ever see a conflict in following your bliss and being practical?

Yes, I suppose. Because a lot of the science questions I might be interested in may not always be practical. You have to be practical in terms of finding a job, getting grant money to sustain your research and all these things. That’s why it’s sort of bad advice to say, “Follow your bliss.” It’s not easy to do, but I think you need to find a way to be able to do that in the context of making a living. So whatever you do, you have to find some way of connecting your passions to what you’re doing. That’s what has worked for me. I can’t say I am always happy with my job, but remembering why I got into it helps, and keeping that balance is always an ongoing process.

Are there any discoveries that you’ve made or any aspects of your science that your middle school self or a young high school self would be really interested in or super jazzed about?

I’d like to think so! I studied migratory birds for my PhD, leaf warblers, that’s where I get my Twitter handle from. One of the things I discovered was the pattern of migration of the leaf warblers in India changed with the cycle of the monsoon winds. The monsoons come in the summer and as the Earth tilts back the wind directions change and they withdraw. The birds arrive and I have been able to show that their patterns of movement across the continent tracks the monsoon winds. So I think that’s a pretty cool thing.

So if a warbler flaps its wings in India…

Not sure where I would go with that. So the warblers ride on the winds of the monsoon, more like that. But while I was doing my PhD I also wrote a semi-polemical article on why warblers are more important than tigers for conservation, which somehow caught a lot of attention. Consequently, I hear from young kids in India who have gotten into conservation – and have heard from more than one that that article made them think more about it. It was published in a coffee table book in India and has been reprinted in other publications. In science, we measure impact based on our scientific journal papers; however, based on what people keep telling me and the number of times it comes up in conversations with young grad students in India, I think my article on conservation has had more of an impact than many of my science papers. In fact, that’s what got me into science writing. I realized there is a bigger audience that might be impacted more strongly than just keeping the science in the journals.

Dr. Madhu Katti is a professor of Biology at California State University, Fresno. When he isn’t writing about science he enjoys hiking, photography and birdwatching. Follow him on Twitter @leafwarbler