I met Conner Sandefur (left, above), a SPIRE postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at a small coffee shop in Raleigh. We exchanged pleasantries and then I turned on my recorder to begin the interview. Conner, like many of the people I’ve spoken to for Before They Were Scientists, was noticeably nervous. Who isn’t when talking about their experiences in middle school? Through the course of our conversation, I learned that Conner had a particularly rough time in middle school; he was painfully shy as a kid and now as an adult still has a hard time talking about himself. Gradually, he opened up and shared his story, one profoundly shaped by growing up in the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. We talked about the deep sense of community that motivates him and how we’ve been calling scientists by the wrong name all these years. Also, as you’ll read on, Conner thinks we should all learn to be a little more like turtles.
Lea: What do you remember about middle school?
Conner: I never really liked school. I remember we got to dissect a cow eye. I remember my math teacher telling my friend that she was smarter than me. We talk about that all the time. That’s about it.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?
Happy. That was about it. They didn’t have any expectations in terms of vocation.
Did you have any favorite subjects in middle school?
Math. I really liked math. I was in the advanced math curriculum. For us that meant we would take math with the older students… I’m not trying to be difficult to interview.
It’s OK – middle school is hard. We don’t have to talk about it.
I don’t know if you’re going to have enough to write about. I really was pretty miserable in middle school.
OK – but things have obviously turned around for you – you seem to be doing fine now.
Oh, yeah. I think everyone has their awkward time, that was my super-awkward time. For us, our schools merged. I was just a really shy kid. So I went from having very few friends to even less because they all got sucked up in new people around us. But by the time I turned thirty a few years ago, I had it all together.
So, if you could go to back and talk to yourself in middle school what would you say?
Probably to relax more. Ask more questions in class. Try to be more engaged. I was pretty quiet — I liked to learn on my own. I just read a lot. I’d tell myself to try to get involved in some sort of club, something … there was a Math Olympiad and a Science Olympiad, and I really wanted to be involved but I was too shy. I think that would have been a good way to interact with new people.
I was pretty quiet – I liked to learn on my own.
You’re in the classroom now, was it hard being able to overcome being shy? Did you ever see yourself public speaking and doing the things that you do now?
No. I actually was really afraid of public speaking and I just worked on it. I try to practice, challenge myself to do stuff. For example, tomorrow I volunteered to give a seminar/presentation to some undergrads. I’m trying to just go out and make myself more comfortable doing that. I got a lot of practice in graduate school — I didn’t really want it, but it was encouraged.
And then someone just told me, “One time I blanked when I was giving a talk, and I told myself I would never do that again,” and he was somebody that I looked up to because he was so confident all the time and I was like, “You forgot what you were saying?” And he was so bothered by it that he worked really hard. I said, “OK, that’s what I need to do, I’ll just work really hard.” It’s easier, and then in the classroom, man, I was so nervous my first day. But it’s fine now. As long as no one asks me about myself.
OK, so this is like your worst nightmare right now?
It’s OK, I’ve got to get better at it. And in public situations I’ve got to get better at it. In public situations it’s really bad, but as long as I don’t have to talk about myself and the attention is not focused on me, but instead it’s focused on some concept, then I do better.
How did you get into science?
I’ve always been interested in science… but I didn’t realize it was science, though. I have a little different view of it than the Western idea of science. I’m Chickasaw Indian from Oklahoma, so my dad brought me up to be cognizant of my environment and work in my environment and be a good steward of the land and where I was. So I tried to be aware of what was going on around me. When you observe things, you notice things. When you care about things you genuinely have interest in them. I think that’s sort of where my interest in the natural world came from. Then, like a lot of people, I have been impacted by disease in my family and my path took me towards disease research. At first I thought maybe I would be a doctor, but that wasn’t really my thing. So I did what was interesting and tried to learn about people and disease. Then I became really interested in how what we do in our environment impacts our health and well-being. I started seeing the natural world around me and seeing myself in it, seeing people in it, sick people in my community and growing up thinking about how those things interact. Now my interests really lay in diseases that affect, particularly rural communities and Indian communities, like diabetes and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
I’m Chickasaw Indian from Oklahoma, so my dad brought me up to be cognizant of my environment and work in my environment and be a good steward of the land and where I was.
Is the research you’re doing now something related?
I do research on Cystic Fibrosis and COPD. In graduate school I worked on diabetes. The neat thing about being a computational biologist — you can work on lots of things. You get a toolkit and you can apply it to whatever your interest is as I go along. It’s nice because I get to work on what I’m interested in and I get to meet all kinds of people and help them which is another important thing to me — being a good community member and helping the people around me by using my skills.
I know some people struggle with leaving their community and going into academia and then, possibly, not returning to their community — is that something you struggle with?
No. My dad has a PhD, so he was really supportive. My grandmother is a Chickasaw woman whom the tribe helped after she raised my dad and uncle — they helped her to go back to school and she became an elementary school teacher. So she stayed in the community. My dad went on and got his undergraduate degree in sociology and then got his PhD in sociology. Then he went back to Oklahoma and he was very successful and then was offered a job at the University of Wisconsin. So we moved away at that point. That was what moved us away from our community, but we spent a lot of time with the Ho-Chunk and Menominee tribes in Wisconsin. They became our community. Right now I get to work with a lot of Lumbee people in Pembroke, North Carolina. When I was at Michigan I worked with the Nishnawbe people there. Indian people are generally very open to other Indian people, and accept them into their community and help them be one of theirs. Eventually I would love to go back to the Chickasaw nation. See this,