Before They Were Scientists: Mary Roach

Above is one of 13 surviving photos from Mary Roach‘s childhood. I sat down with Ms. Roach while she was in Durham promoting her latest book, Gulp, to talk about her life in middle school, before she achieved science writing fame. While she doesn’t consider herself a formally trained scientist, Mary has written about a wide range of scientific topics, from the interesting habits of dead bodies to the digestive tracts of live ones. Despite a successful career as a science writer, Mary said if she could do it all again, she’d consider a career in entomology. Read about the cast of characters from her childhood, how she was drawn to stories about girls who sneaked around doing adventurous things, and how she played with toy dinosaurs in the cat litter box (seriously).

Lea: We’re thinking about middle school and what that was like for you.

Mary: 6th, 7th, 8th grade. You know what, I did this thing when I was in 5th grade with my next door neighbor Becky Balch. We called it the “potted meat experiments.” We got white bread and meat spread (horrible, just gross, I don’t know why). I don’t know the “whys” of this. We made these little sandwiches; one of them we hung from a tree, one we buried in the snow. We put them in different places and we had our field notebooks and we would go around and take notes. We had no hypothesis, we had no thesis, we had no clue what we were investigating but we were just, “Let’s see what happens to these potted meat sandwiches.” We looked for tracks to see if animals would come and eat them. That was 5th grade.

“We had no hypothesis, we had no thesis, we had no clue what we were investigating but we were just, ‘Let’s see what happens to these potted meat sandwiches.'”
How did you first become professionally interested in the body?

Somehow I ended up writing for this magazine, Hippocrates, which was a really smart, good magazine that had to do with medicine and the human body and health, but not in a “Lose 10 pounds in 10 days” sort of way. For my first story they sent me to the “Common Cold Unit” where British people go on “holiday” and have a cold virus dripped into their nose and then they’re studied. They’re studying how colds are spread and it’s the funniest thing that people go there year after year because not everybody gets a cold; I think two out of three would get a cold. You had a roommate, but other than your roommate, you had to stay 30 feet away from people. You’d go out for a hike in the countryside and it was in Wiltshire, England — it was lovely — you go out for a walk and you had this 30 foot string and you’d shout to your hiking partner because you didn’t want to cross-contaminate. That was the first feature story I ever wrote and I was so excited and it was on the “Common Cold Unit” (which has since closed). That’s sort of where I got started.

Could your childhood self have possibly imagined the career you have chosen?

If my childhood self had ever dragged itself away from the television long enough to think about the future… yeah. You know when I was a kid, actually, 5th and 6th grade — middle school — I spent a fair amount of time in the library because my dad was retired. He was 65 years old when I was born. He would take me to the library and I loved Harriet the Spy, Pippi Longstocking — these girls who sneak around and do, you know, adventurous things. So I think some sense of adventure was definitely something I would have looked forward to, but I didn’t see science. I didn’t take science very seriously in high school. I didn’t take the advanced science classes. So, no, I didn’t see that coming — although I spent a lot of time outdoors. At night time I was plugged into the television, but daytime, all summer, I was outside. I was barefoot the whole summer and lived out in the small town.

Where?

Etna, New Hampshire, woods behind the house; I was a creature of the woods. We would build tree forts, we would be running around in the woods. Riding beat up bicycles in the woods. I was like Daniel Boone, you know,

[in her best Daniel Boone impersonation] “I knew those woods.” I knew all the trees. I was definitely out there in nature, but I didn’t see a career of it because I just didn’t really think about careers.

“I knew all the trees. I was definitely out there in nature, but I didn’t see a career of it because I just didn’t really think about careers.”
You spoke about this a little bit, but were you interested in science as a child?

Well, you know what, as a kid I didn’t like dolls. There was the Natural History Museum at Dartmouth where my dad taught and he’d bring me dinosaurs and I would learn the names like, “Diplodocus” and “Ankylosaurus.” I can still name them all; of course some of them now are wrong: “Brontosaurus.” I loved the dinosaurs. I had one doll. And this is what I did with the Barbie doll: I’d pull the head off and I’d say, “I have five seconds to get the head back on or she dies!” So that’s kind of Stiff-like because if you took off someone’s head and you put it back on within five seconds, they would almost still be conscious. They’d definitely still be alive; you’d need to reattach the spinal nerves to get them walking again… But I think that’s kind of a very “Mary Roach” thing to be doing. That was in 1st grade.

I do remember liking science. Mr. Sonk in 5th grade had a monkey and his classroom really smelled, but I didn’t care. I was never the kind of kid who’d care; I shared my ice cream cone with my cat. I was a country kid, even though we didn’t live on a farm or anything. But Mr. Sonk’s class, I remember we studied rocks and I remember really loving that. I had a crayfish. I took home the class’s crayfish — his name was Rudolph. And I brought him home in a red tub and I fed him tuna fish. And then one day the Balches and I took him over to this pond and let him go. I don’t know if he survived or not…

I was in GATE (Gifted and Talented Education), but the thing with science is that science is nature. Science is your world; it’s the trees around you, it’s the bugs in the lawn, it’s the pollen all over the table… and now all over the back of my skirt. It’s your body. In that sense, I was definitely engaged in science — as everybody is. I think that we do science a disservice sometimes by taking it away from the natural world and putting it in a formal, scary setting. In that I was out in the world and I was curious about everything around me, I was into science.

“I had one doll… I did this thing where I’d pull the head off and I’d say, ‘I have five seconds to get the head back on or she dies!'”
Were you also a reader?

Oh, yeah. Harriet the Spy, Pippi Longstocking, Tintin, early graphic novels. Loved Tintin — I would just live for the next one. I think that was around the time they were coming out; it was this French graphic novel. There’s Professor Calculus, there’s a scientist in it, Tintin and the captain are off, traveling around the world, investigating weird alien mushrooms that sprout up or they’re adrift at sea… it was an adventure/science series. I absolutely loved it. In middle school I read a lot of books.

Have you considered doing a graphic novel for younger audiences?

Oh! That would be really fun, but I would have to work with an artist because I can barely draw a stick figure! But I did do something with Arthur Jones. He does graphic illustrations, and he did a collection of stories where the writer would write the words. I wrote it knowing he was going to do the stickies, and it was so much fun — because it was different. You’re not describing stuff as much because he’s drawing it. It would be cool; a graphic novel would be very fun.

Are there any books you aspire to? Great books that loom as examples of what is possible?

When I started out I aspired to be Bill Bryson, who is really good… There was a book that inspired me early, early on in my career called The Secret House by David Bodanis. He just went through one day in a couple’s life in a house, but on a microscopic level: What’s going on in the carpeting? Or, The woman is putting on her lipstick and in the lipstick are fish scales. So he took it down to the microscopic level, everything that they did throughout the course of 24 hours. It was so cool. I remember going, “That’s what I want to do!” It just makes it so clear that you are living science from the second you get out of bed to the time you go to sleep, and while you’re sleeping. That is science. That’s all it is people, it’s your 24 hours. Get a microscope. It’s just happening all around you. Another book that’s like that is Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn, by Hannah Holmes. She did this book where she lived in the suburbs somewhere and the book is about the squirrels, the bugs down in the grass, the soil, the crows… and she just started taking observations. Kind of like the “potted meat” experiments, only a little more sophisticated. But she got to know the crows, she was observing the squirrels… just dug deeper and deeper into this biome that was her backyard. The more she stayed with it, the more she got immersed in the complexities of it. The day to day science in the world… it’s an amazing book. A cool book.

“That is science. That’s all it is people, it’s your 24 hours. Get a microscope. It’s just happening all around you.”
What is your goal when you’re writing a book? What is success to you in your writing? Do you ever think about posterity or the audience?

I really just want people to learn a little bit and have fun doing it, that’s all. There’s two things that just flip my skirt; one is when someone writes to me and says, “I didn’t think I’d want to read about science, I didn’t think this would be interesting, but it’s so interesting.” That I love. When somebody steps into the world of science and realizes, “Oh, it’s not all just homework and hard times. It’s a new way to see the world.” We’re sitting here and you look at a tree, trees are huge. They only have so many roots… How do they get all the water? How do they do that? How are they transporting water to all these leaves? When I have a houseplant and it dies and I water it every day, what’s going on? Why is that happening? It’s a different way of seeing the world. I think sometimes a book can open that door and make that change for somebody and that’s really exciting.

The other thing that really makes me happy: I got a letter from a guy (he was a line chef) that said, “Your book is the first book I ever read. I used to sit on the subway – it was an hour and a half to where I lived in Queens – and I’d look around me and the only people who didn’t look bored were the people reading a book. So I thought, ‘I’m going to read a book,’ and I asked my sister, ‘What should I read?’ — she’s a nurse in the emergency room — she said, ‘Read this book, Stiff.’ And so I read your book.” It was so cool. I live for those letters. That is so gratifying.

“When somebody steps into the world of science and realizes, ‘Oh, it’s not all just homework and hard times. It’s a new way to see the world.'”
You spend a lot of time talking to scientists. Do you feel as though this is a tribe you understand?

[laughs] It’s a tribe I feel very happy to spend time with. I feel a little bit, sometimes, like an anthropologist and not a member of the tribe. The world of academics is a foreign place to me. There are rules and procedures and I’m not part of that world. I’m a little bit of an outsider, but it’s a tribe. They’re so smart and funny and welcoming and generous. That’s why I write about science, partly, because I love spending time with scientists. I think I’m such an idiot that I didn’t go into science. I used to think, “Oh, engineering, what could be duller.” But I’m telling you, engineers have all the fun. Engineers — my god, you’re designing, you’re going out and traveling around, figuring out “How do we build a bridge across this?” “How do we make this?” or “This is an earthquake zone, how do we make a building that is safe from the sheer forces of an earthquake? What do we do? What might we use? How do we figure this out?” It’s so creative.

There’s so much creativity in engineering and people just see math and equations, which is obviously part of it, but the creativity… the guys designing the toilets at NASA. That engineering challenge: so interesting! Then how do you test them? Well, you’ve got to put it on a zero-gravity plane and test that toilet — how do you do that? You have 20 seconds! Somebody has to take a crap in 20 seconds to test that thing! That’s not going to work. I talked to the guy who was on one of those planes when they tried to do that. They had the waste management engineers on the plane and they’d go, “OK,” they’d start to go over the top… and the guy I interviewed was testing his food packaging, he’d go, “Oh, I’d see them, they’d be behind the curtain there and we’d start to go over and down and they’d be like, ‘Go! Go! GO! GO!’ and the poor guy has 20 seconds to poop. And he failed.” But they still needed to test the toilets. So then they’d get these other scientists who designed the most high-fidelity, realistic human fecal simulate to test the zero-gravity toilet on the zero-gravity flight. There’s a whole paper published by these guys; they even got the bacteria — the right amount of E. coli. I don’t know whose E. coli. The right fluid content. The fluid mechanics of it… this was their job — I think it’s so fascinating. Then they moved on to some other crazy challenge of living in space.

So, engineers, if you can get through the math of it — what a cool world to work in. What endlessly different challenges and projects. You’re always learning — that’s the other thing with science, you’re always learning. Science keeps advancing; there’s new discoveries. You have to keep up, so you’re always learning about the thing you love, which is a great way to make a living.

“You have to keep up, so you’re always learning about the thing you love, which is a great way to make a living.”
So, tonight, when you get to where you’re going, you have two dinner parties: one has a dozen scientists and one has a dozen writers. Which do you go to?

That’s the best question, ever! Oh… can I handpick the scientists? Do we know what they’re studying?

Assume you know this group of scientists… perhaps… or maybe you don’t?

Oh, I want to go to both of these parties. I think I would go to the scientists. Because, writers… we spend a lot of time in a little cell. An office. We’re kind of isolated; so we’re very starved for each other’s company. We want to get together and grouse about whatever we grouse about. But, in terms of the conversations and what I’ll learn… I might find a new book idea, I don’t know. I’m always so happy to sit next to a scientist on a plane because I know it’s not going to be a boring conversation. The thing with scientists, though, is can they communicate it to someone like me who is a science idiot, really? Science has gone so deep into molecular proteins, receptors… gene expression… they almost speak a foreign language now. Some of them are really good at translating and explaining and that’s always such a treat because you know you are going to understand a little piece of the world you had never really thought about.

If you were to become a scientist, which field would you go into?

Something that would get me out in the field, some far flung place… Entomology would be really cool. I know a woman who is working on a book about termites. She just sent me an email that said, “After termites mate they go underground and they bite off each others’ antennae so they don’t overstimulate each other in a small space.” I thought, “Wow, could we do that?” Everything about termites is freaking amazing. She’s off in Zambia. The bugs are crazy, fabulously strange — I think entomology would have been a hoot.

The National Science Foundation Polar Program takes journalists down to Antarctica — I’ve been down four times — all the science that goes on is just so fabulously cool and interesting.  Some of the astronomy stuff, that’s definitely out of my comfort zone, in terms of understanding it, so getting up to speed was a little tough. Really just a fun place to be, the people there, the scientists… but you could be a support person working in one of the labs. It’s a beautiful place. I went back down there over and over and hung out with the scientists. How great to be a scientist and spend your time in Antarctica. They give you the gear (you borrow it) — you go to this warehouse and they give you four pairs of mittens, the giant bunny boots and a big red parka, five layers of polar fleece…

Science is a great way to see the world.

“Science is a great way to see the world.”
Have you given any thought to what type of learner you are? You’ve said you want to get in and touch things.

I like to be able to see things and, even if it’s just somebody drawing on a napkin. There was this food physicist in the Netherlands — he studied the physics of crisp and crunch. He’s like, ”It’s all bubbles and beams, Mary, it’s bubbles and beams. It’s little sacs of air and the things that connect them.” You’re popping the bubbles; in the same way that a fruit is little cells of water — it’s the cells that are crisp. When it gets mushy, the cells are broken open. But he’s like, “It’s bubbles and beams.” He was drawing on a napkin in a restaurant. It was so helpful to me to see. Also, the process of having to draw it for somebody makes you slow down and explain it in a way that’s clear and understandable. You kind of have to bring it down to my level. I like to learn through drawings.

Getting back to your childhood, do you think there was any hint of who you would become in who you were then?

In terms of science and writing about science?

Did you write?

No… I never wrote. Well? The first thing I ever had published was in 5th grade, it was a limerick. I sent it in… or my parents sent it in, maybe, to one of those kids magazines where you could get stuff published. So I did write a limerick. I didn’t write short stories… I wasn’t like, “I want to be a writer,” at all. Again, I didn’t really think about, “One day you’ll need to make a living.” I never really gave it any thought… except for the potted meat experiments, I guess that was a hint, right there. The dinosaurs my dad would bring me… I used to play with them in the cat litter box and that’s a hint, there. Right? Because I thought that seemed like their natural environment — it was rocks. And the poop would be the big rocks and things… it was around the time that they realized they weren’t in the swamp, some of them were in the dry environment… for whatever reason I had them in the cat litter box. I was also a huge fan of dioramas… I don’t know what that has to do with anything. I loved the museum of natural history, those classic scenes. If you can’t see wolves at sunset in the wild, to be able to see them in diorama was pretty cool. I love natural history museums. At the museum at Dartmouth, where my dad got the dinosaurs, there were these rocks that fluoresced; you pull a curtain and it would be dark, you’d push a button and the little rocks that were so ugly and drab suddenly were all of these colors. I would push the button over and over. That kind of interactive science — I was a sucker for that.

So, if there was anything you would tell your middle school self — if you could go back in time and talk to yourself — would you say something? What would you say?

I think I would have liked to take myself aside at some point when I was running around placing the potted meat, or building tree forts or whatever I was doing… I would have liked to take myself aside and say, “There’s a way where you can keep doing this as an adult… Think about studying anthropology… Think about studying entomology… What if you became a bug scientist? You’d travel around and be running around in the jungle, think about it! And… stick with it.” I didn’t make the connection; somehow I got into science and started seeing it as just homework, as a burden and not a ticket to the world that I liked to be in.

“‘There’s a way where you can keep doing this as an adult… Think about studying anthropology… Think about studying entomology… What if you became a bug scientist? You’d travel around and be running around in the jungle, think about it! And… stick with it.'”
Were your parents encouraging of your career choices? What did they do?

Yes, they were fine with it. My dad died when I was 22, so he didn’t really see what I became, which is sad because I think he would absolutely have approved, totally, 100%. My mom’s very traditional, Catholic, focused on marriage and family. She got very excited when I would have something in Reader’s Digest, since that was what she read. They were kind of hands off. Back then, parents were a little less engaged. I was kind of the self-basting turkey. [in her best parental voice] “Just whatever… what’s she doing? Whatever… as long as she pays her rent…”

I often find that writers who do a lot with scientists become, in a way, scientists themselves. Do you ever feel that way?

I guess, if you can say… scientists are naturally curious and they see something and they want to know “How does that work?” Or they always want to know more… So I guess I think that’s also a reporter’s habit of wanting to hear more about it. I was just learning about fox hunts and how now they hunt coyotes instead of foxes… anyway. I have a short attention span, so I’m always over here, and now I’m over there. What was the question? [laughs] Oh, do I feel like a scientist? Well… in a very general interpretation of the word “scientist.” The more time I spend with scientists, the more I realize how detailed and how intense it is. I think just being a reporter makes you a question-asker.

Has writing about exploring the body changed how you view the people you interact with? Can you look at a mouth the same way after Gulp?

[laughs] My books always affect how I view the people around me, for sure. While I was writing Stiff I was on a plane, coming back from this lab where they were practicing plastic surgery procedures. They had heads that they were working on in a pan. I remember sitting on the plane and looking at the people around me thinking, “I know what you would look like as just a head.” And that was a really … kind of eerie, weird thing to think. Now, definitely if I’m eating lunch with somebody I’ll go, “Oh, you have an interesting chewing pattern,” because how people chew it’s almost like a fingerprint. They did some study where they give the same handful of peanuts to a bunch of people and it ranged from five chews to 117. I think that was the range. Everybody had normal teeth, people just have different chewing styles. Mostly it affects me when I’m working on a book; then it fades away. When I worked on Bonk, that was very weird, because you’re reading Masters and Johnson which has all these details of all these things that go on where people are sexually aroused and you can’t help but be the scientist in your bedroom a little bit… which is distracting and weird. So, yeah. Always when I’m involved in a project I’m seeing my friends and family through those lenses.

“Always when I’m involved in a project I’m seeing my friends and family through those lenses.”
Strange question to close: if you could have a superhuman body, or if you could be a superhero, which powers would you want to have?

There are some days when I’m really busy — and a lot of people think I’m crazy when I say this — there some days when I think, “I wish I just didn’t have to eat today. I’ve just got so much, I’m on the run, the food is so gross in this airport… I just wish I didn’t have to eat.” I have a middle-aged superpower; I can read tiny type when I don’t have my contacts in. Super tiny type. As a middle-aged person, that’s a superpower. I’d love to be able to fly. Having been on the zero-gravity flight, that was the coolest thing — to be weightless, to weigh nothing. Your organs inside you feel different, everything… it’s so relaxing. You just have no weight — that was so cool. I often dream of flying. I would love to be able to fly, I think. That would be the coolest thing, preferably without having to beat my wings — to fly like the astronauts in Gravity or Chris Hadfield in his videos — they fly. They just push off and effortlessly float across the compartment of the space craft. That’s the coolest thing. I want to be able to do that, all the time… without losing my bone and muscle mass.

Best-selling author Mary Roach has a way of seeing the comedic side of science — her curiosity about science is propelled by her questioning, which was obvious in this interview. She has a knack for asking the questions that are either on everyone’s mind and they’re too afraid to ask or asking the questions the reader didn’t even think to ask. Follow her on Twitter @mary_roach

By | 2016-11-22T13:47:07+00:00 April 25th, 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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