Before They Were Scientists: Julia Stevens

Julia Stevens has traveled to more countries than she has states in the US. Before she was a globe-trotting scientist, Julia was a middle school student in St. Louis, MO, and Dallas, TX, where she played on both the volleyball and basketball teams. Middle school was the time when Julia learned to be fiercely independent and to try to not care what everyone else thought of her. Learn about her life before she was a scientist…

Lea: Do any memorable classroom moments stand out from middle school?

Julia: I remember giving a presentation in history class and for five straight minutes pronouncing the word “corps” with the “p” sound. It wasn’t until after the presentation that my ex-military history teacher corrected me. To make it worse, my father was military! So embarrassing!

What was your biggest worry in middle school?

Halfway through my 7th grade year, my family moved from St. Louis to Dallas, so I guess my biggest worry was fitting in at my new school. Along with the move, I worried about whether I would make the volleyball and basketball teams (I was 5’9″ in 7th grade…I don’t know why I would worry about that).

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

As long I was happy and would be able to support myself, my parents never pushed me towards one career or another. My mom is an accountant and my dad a sales manager for a clothing company.

What were your favorite subjects in school? Why?

Math was probably my favorite with science a close second (depending on the grade of middle school). I liked knowing there was always an answer and I just needed to figure it out; math problems always seemed like a puzzle to me. My eighth grade science class really sticks out to me, as it was the first year I participated in the state-wide science fair. This was probably the first time I began to connect all the things I saw while playing in the woods to science.

“This was probably the first time I began to connect all the things I saw while playing in the woods to science.”

Is there something you learned in middle school that has really stuck with you?

It seems a strange thing to have learned in middle school when everyone is at their most awkward, but I really learned the value of being myself. I think it came from moving smack dab in the middle of middle school and getting the chance to choose how I wanted to be viewed by my peers. But that is really the time that I began my transition into becoming fiercely independent.

Were you in any clubs, have hobbies or extra-curricular activities?

I was on the basketball, volleyball, and track teams. I was also a proud member of the Mathletes and the Junior National Honor Society.

What was your favorite thing to wear to school?

Before my family moved, I wore a uniform to school, so I did not have much choice. I do remember the transition from having to wear jumpers to wearing skirts being a big deal. After the move, I went to public school and, being the mid 1990s, my proudest day was showing up in my sweet Doc Marten leather sandals. Those things weighed about 10 pounds a piece…what were we thinking?!?

Did you ever think you would become a scientist? What did you think scientists did all day?

I did not think much about what I wanted to be when I was in middle school, but always leaned towards the sciences and trying to understand nature.

My uncle was actually a biologist, so I had a pretty good idea of what a scientist in academics did all day. I do remember him coming back from his Fullbright Fellowship and sabbatical in Russia and thinking how cool that must have been.

How did you get into science?

Growing up we had a large stand of woods in our backyard with a creek running through it ending in a community lake. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent playing nature survivor games with my brothers and pretending we were filming nature shows. We ended up bringing lots of creatures back up to the house. Our older sisters did not love that one.

Then in middle and early high school I participated in state-wide science fairs, and ended up falling in love with research. Unfortunately, I was not that decisive in college and changed my major I think four or five times. Then I ended up in an environmental ethics class, and it has been all ecology all the time ever since.

“I was not that decisive in college and changed my major I think four or five times.”

If you could give your middle school or just younger self some advice what would it be?

Don’t worry so much about other people and make your decisions for yourself. It all works out!

What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about, considering your life?

I think I would be most surprised by the amount I have been able to travel all over the world. And that I have actually made a career out of studying nature.

Is there something (a memento) that you keep with you at work from childhood? Why? What was its significance?

I don’t have anything from my childhood at work, but I do have a drawing my niece did when she was in 4th grade framed on my desk. Their homework was to draw what a scientist looks like and she drew me. So I keep it up there to remind myself that, even when times are really hard, I’m somebody’s role model.

“Their homework was to draw what a scientist looks like and she drew me.”

When did you go to your first concert and what band or artist was playing?

I was 15 and had just moved back to St. Louis. It was the first time our parents let us take the train into the city by ourselves. We saw Willie Nelson with the Dixie Chicks. I must say it is still one of the best concerts I have ever seen.

Did you play an instrument? Did your parents have to force you to practice or did you do it on your own?

I played the clarinet from fourth through seventh grade. I was terrible, and I never practiced. This was around the time Mr. Holland’s Opus came out and the only song I ever practiced was the Gershwin song with the clarinet solo from that movie. I was always kind of an old soul.

When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming one day?

My ultimate dream was to host a nature documentary show. Between the woods in our backyard and the stacks of wildlife fact cards that showed up in the mail every month, I started practicing for this role very young. To be honest, I haven’t given up on this one yet.

What were some of your favorite books growing up?

My mom read all of us girls (I have two sisters) the Little House on the Prairie books, and I absolutely loved them. They were these old tattered books that smelled like the library, and I kept them by my bed until high school I think. I was also really into the American Girls and read all of those series. In middle school, I remember loving The Hobbit.

How much did you play outside? Where?

Constantly! I don’t remember being inside much during childhood. We always had pools, so I spent a lot of time perfecting all of the most important jumps (you know…cannonball, can opener, starfish). I was also in the woods most of my summers digging under rocks and putting stuff in the creek to see if I could beat it to the lake. And there were the mud fights after rain storms that my brothers hated letting me participate in because I always ended up crying and telling on them for some totally legitimate reason.

Did you collect anything?

Not that I remember. We did catch fireflies a lot and put them in jars, but my parents would make us let them go after an hour.

Did you ever have a professional crisis? Did you ever think about throwing in the academic towel?

Third year of my Ph.D. was the worst. The qualifying exams were terrible and all my molecular techniques stopped working. Quite a few times during that year I thought seriously about quitting.

Why or when did you decide to become a scientist?

Putting this title of scientist on what I wanted to do came about in college when I took a few conservation and ecology courses. These classes really solidified what I’d probably known all along: that I wanted to become a biologist.

How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?

My entire dissertation was based on samples that just happened to be collected and given to our lab because people were curious about the associated bacteria of an invasive fish species.

What fascinated you as a kid?

The ocean! I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, so there was nothing more exotic than the ocean. If there was a documentary about anything to do with the ocean I was all over it!

“I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, so there was nothing more exotic than the ocean.”

Who were your adult role models? What about them did you/do you emulate?

My uncle was probably my most influential role model. He always had the coolest aquaria.

How often did someone tell you that you were wrong? Are there particularly memorable occasions?

I remember a high school English teacher telling me I just wasn’t an A student. I don’t remember what brought this on, but at that time I had already been accepted to a private university with an academic scholarship. So sometimes other people are wrong! That in itself was an important lesson.

Did you often feel bored as a kid? What did your parents do when you said this?

I don’t remember being bored all that often, but if we complained about being bored my parents would always tell us to go outside. But usually we were being shuttled between sporting events.

What were your favorite outside play places?

The woods, our pool, the beach (when we were on vacation), the soccer field.

Did you ever feel that you were somehow different from other children?

Being the youngest of five children with a nephew and niece not much younger than me, I always acted older than my age. I never understood some of the crazy and weird antics of middle school and high school students. I rolled my eyes at other people a lot.

Did you get into trouble at school?

Oh my goodness no, I was such a goodie-two-shoes. I am also the world’s worst liar so I would not get away with anything anyway.

Who were your childhood heroes?

Since my dream was to become a host for a science or nature show, I have to say Bill Nye and Steve Irwin. I was also a huge fan of Mia Hamm (the professional soccer player).

What is a discovery you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?

That surface-associated bacteria help lionfish fight off pathogens… At least I hope I would have thought that was cool.

Dr. Julia Stevens is a marine biologist who recently earned her PhD at The University of Alabama – check out her TIDEtalk and blog. In April she joined our team as a postdoctoral scholar affiliated with the Students Discover project. She’ll be partnering with teachers to create lesson plans related to citizen science research. When she’s not underwater, Julia’s most likely out hiking with her husband or walking her dog Sammy. 

By |2016-11-22T13:47:08-05:00April 11th, 2014|

About the Author:

Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.

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