Before They Were Scientists: Jonathan Pruitt

I originally met Jonathan Pruitt at the USA Science and Engineering festival in Washington, DC. I watched him enthrall a crowd of students with tales of social spiders and that got me thinking… this guy probably has a great story to tell about middle school. We “met” again via video interview, this time with Jonathan settled in amongst moving boxes; he’s in Tennessee for the summer to work with undergraduate researchers. Read on to learn about what happened when his middle school was hit by a tornado, how being a scientist is a lot like being involved in theatre, and how he’d make the perfect villain.

Lea: Could you tell me some of the things you remember about middle school?

Jonathan: I was in band, and I spent a lot of time ignoring my classes and hanging out with my friends. I was on the chess team, and I played soccer. It was probably the least pleasant of my elementary school years – in terms of the experiences that I had. I think it’s because everyone is going through puberty and learning about themselves; it’s a very uncomfortable time to be a human being. You’re becoming a little adult, in terms of motivation, but you have so little control of your life. You don’t have any friends with cars, you don’t have a job… it’s the oldest you’re ever going to be with the least amount of control. It’s this intersection in your life that is pretty excruciating for many people, I think. It’s a period that lasts through the first two years of high school – but once you get a car – oh man! So many doors are open. Or you get a job; then you have a tiny little amount of income, and that frees you up.

You were in band, so what did you play?

I played the trombone, xylophone and marimba. I played piano growing up, so I transferred that to keyboarding instruments. My primary instrument was trombone which was strange because I’m 5’6” —  it was an astronomical instrument next to me.

Did your parents make you practice or did you practice on your own?

I suppose early on with the piano they made me practice. I hated it so badly; it was the worst time of my whole week. However, I had so many other activities that my parents would neglect to enforce this practicing protocol. So the worst time of my whole week would be when I had my private lesson on trombone or piano. For 30 minutes I would sit with this person who could clearly tell I had not practiced at all.

[laughs] It was dreadful. And my instructors actually stayed for dinner afterwards, so it really prolonged the whole experience in a really awful way. Eventually I started to practice; once my friends got involved and there was a group of us and we were all playing our instruments with a sense of camaraderie there, that upped my motivation to practice so I could be pretty good at it.

You said you hung out with your friends and didn’t particularly enjoy classes, what did you do when you hung out with your friends?

Oh, gosh, we were cripplingly nerdy. We played Magic the Gathering and Dungeons and Dragons … Pokemon was really big when I was in 6th and 7th grade. I was just at that age when Pokemon was what everyone was doing – or at least the nerdy kids were doing. I was collecting Pokemon cards and begging for money from my parents. So that constituted my life for the majority of middle school, or at least my recreational time… and a tremendous number of sleepovers and Super Nintendo video games.

What was your favorite game on Nintendo?

Probably Mortal Combat or Streetfighter. I was really into the one-on-one fighting games.

Are there any memorable classroom moments that stand out from middle school?

I remember that there was one time that the band was doing so badly, and we were so out of control socially, and the band director had a hard time reining us in. So she actually locked herself in her office and refused to come out for the rest of the 30-minute period. To make matters worse her office had windows with no blinds and you could see into the office … so it was like a weird attraction at a zoo where we were supposed to watch the stressed out animal go through pathological stereotyped behavior.

There was a time that my middle school got hit by a tornado. We weren’t inside because it happened in the middle of the night. My mom, who was a guidance counselor at the school, said that we had to go save books. So my brother and I, along with my parents, went to the school and with wheelbarrows moved a bunch of instructional materials out of these classrooms — they had no roofs, the walls were knocked down – in the rain. It was a tornado spinoff from a hurricane. We were in Orlando, Florida. We got all the books out and then school was closed for three days. After that we went on “double sessions” – what that meant was that we all ended up going to school at the high school. The high school students came into school starting at 5:45 am and they left by 12:30. Our classes started at 1:00 and ended at 7:00. I remember this was a really miserable time for me because the critical period during the day when all my activities happened was basically gone. My friends’ social lives were basically gone and we couldn’t really see each other. This was a really trying period for us; I was relieved when I got to go back to my regular old middle school the following year at the normal time.

What was your biggest worry in middle school, natural disasters aside?

Realizing how much I was neglecting schoolwork, probably. We had these awful planners and they would detail all the things we were supposed to do at home that day and all of our homework. And parents had to sign it to say that they recognized the assignments, that they knew about them and that they were enforcing them… things like that. I was neglectful… I was good at school while I was at school. Anything that required me to work at home independently, unsupervised fell to the wayside. I tried to forge my mom’s signature once for several weeks. But… my mom was a teacher at the school. I wasn’t clever enough to realize that this could backfire. I had to go to the Principal’s office… it was distressing. Any assignment that had a long time between when they assigned it and the due date… I was terrible about procrastinating with those things. Now, I’m incredibly fastidious about it; if I have months to do something, I do it immediately because I feel like I have to get it off my plate. But at the time, I lacked the ability to budget time and attack things early on. That totally changed as a consequence of getting older. I was a negligent little boy with high energy!

I tried to forge my mom’s signature once for several weeks. But… my mom was a teacher at the school.
So if you had some advice for a middle schooler today, what would you tell them?

In addition, I’d mention how I was involved in ancillary activities; I was in Boy Scouts. I was in band. I think I did theatre as well at the time. All of those things independently turned out to be very valuable. So these side activities that don’t appear to be all that valuable when they’re happening are training you for important things later on, like theatre and talking to people about science.

Those extra-curricular activities are generally the first to go when schools face funding cuts; try to imagine middle school without those things.

Standardized testing seems to dictate the majority of the content that students are being taught these days. The fact that theatre and music and art and all of those things aren’t on these standardized tests means they’re in jeopardy, right? They’re not being prioritized. Music has been wonderful! I love being able to listen to something and understand the flourishes in music that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to appreciate. Or with theatre – being able to talk to people and engage them. You meet a lot of quirky fun people in theatre, and I think that trains you for life. And for pictorial arts – a lot of kids made fun of the art kids – but now among scientists, my friends who are illustrators and scientists are incredibly sought after. Knowing that those things do pay off is another thing that you can’t foresee early on. It’s a lesson that you only learn fifteen years later.

You meet a lot of quirky fun people in theatre, I think that trains you for life.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up and what did they do?

I wanted to work with animals, and my mom said that the only thing that you could do to work with animals was to be a veterinarian. So I was going to be a vet. She said that if you get a degree in zoology or ecology or something like that you were going to end up being a field guide or a zookeeper and starving to death and living in a cardboard box and eating cat food. And she was a guidance counselor. I did, however, get a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Do you have any siblings? Or were you an only child?

One brother. I have one brother. [at this point Jonathan starts slightly spinning in his chair, and gets a big smile on his face] He’s a physician and older than me and he’s the [in his best “older brother” voice] Staunch Conservative One. We’re like yin and yang.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

I liked language arts and English a lot – especially for reading and creative writing. I enjoyed science a lot, but I should say that at the time I didn’t see that I could end up being a scientist. I enjoyed math because it seemed relatively simple and straightforward and I was almost innately good at it. But the most rewarding thing for me was language arts and English.

Do you feel that you continue to write creatively or are a writer as a scientist?

All. The. Time.

Writing is actually my greatest strength and the strength I seek most in my graduate students. At the end of the day, what differentiates science from play is that you do an experiment and then you tell the world about it. You tell about it in ways that makes it engaging and easy to understand, but you want to draw people in and get them excited about it. I write all the time – that’s the thing I do the most. I publish 10 or 15 papers a year and I edit a lot of writing of my students. I think they should have fun with it. The more time you spend writing, the easier it comes. I think that’s one of the most important skills you need for being a scientist — potentially even more than a raw talent in mathematics, at least for biology and chemistry.

The more time you spend writing, the easier it comes. I think that’s one of the most important skills you need for being a scientist.
What was your favorite thing to wear to school?

Probably a giant oversized t-shirt and baggy shorts with sneakers and socks that did not match. But I should say that none of this was intentional — it was just what I was most comfortable in because it wasn’t binding and it breathed a little bit and I had a lot of those shirts because my mom was a teacher so I had a lot of school bling. I’ve never been one to dress up overtly.

What were your favorite books growing up?

In middle school most of my friends were reading fantasy stuff: Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit… but I started reading Nathaniel Hawthorne, which was a weird thing to like. It’s dense and difficult to understand, but I remember that I learned a lot of words and interesting ways to turn a phrase from Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was almost like extended poetry. Almost every sentence was overly saturated with description; it was like a painting. It was hard to slog through, and I still feel that it’s hard to slog through, but I enjoyed reading his works – especially his short stories.

How much did you play outside and do you remember where you were playing outside?

Yes. I played outside a ton. I was in Boy Scouts, and I’m an Eagle Scout, so I spent a lot of time camping on the weekends and playing with other kids. Mostly we would run around and wrestle, make huts in trees and things. We lived adjacent to an orange grove that had been abandoned; there were giant orange trees and some of them had died from various kinds of parasites. My brother and I (and about 15 other neighborhood kids) would play in these mock woods in this abandoned grove; we would run around like we were in some sort of fantasy kingdom. That basically amounted to us climbing a lot of trees and pelting a lot of unripe – or overly ripened – oranges at each other.

That sounds awesome.

It was! I also played video games, but we didn’t have any way to play with other people remotely — they had to be right next to us. So sometimes when we couldn’t get our friends over because their parents limited the amount of video games they could play, we would go outside.

Did you collect anything?

Oh, gosh. I was an avid collector. I’m actually astonished now that I’m not a hoarder. [laughs] I think I have whatever that gene is that predisposes someone to become a hoarder. I have it and it manifested in me as a child. Now I’ve ablated it;  my home is pretty clean and devoid of almost anything and looks like a museum. I collected Magic Cards and Pokemon Cards, Beanie Babies and Legos, anything. I kept any award I ever received from second grade onward. It was me, not my parents, as they didn’t care whether or not I kept those things. I kept my awards fastidiously and I’d go around dusting them along with all my other collections. There was not a surface in my room that was not covered with some elaborate collection that was staged. My brother had model trains… I had inherited those. I was the steward of every collection in the house. If I die one day, somebody will become an heir to a Beanie Baby dynasty. [laughs] It’s true. They’ll be rich.

If I die one day, somebody will become an heir to a Beanie Baby dynasty.
Is your room still like that when you go home?

Oh, this is one of the weirdest things. One of the things that I still collect from that time is, um, snow globes. This is one of those things that no one can know about until they’re very close to me. Subsequently, you should know, that I hide them in my giant house and only when you’re very close to me, do I let you into my room that has dozens of elaborate, gigantic Disney-themed snow globes. In that same room are my steel drums, which is the type of music I play the most now, and I’ll play “The Little Mermaid” for you. And on the fifth date, the gentleman gets to see the snow globe collection.

You win best answer to that question. Ever.

What else can you say, really?

Let’s transition: Have you ever had a professional crisis? Have you ever thought about throwing in the academic towel?
[pause] Maybe early on… I had become very close to somebody at my undergraduate institution. For graduate school I had to move to another state, Tennessee, to continue my education. So I was at this precipice of either staying in this state where I had all these friends and a life, or I was going to have to abandon it for graduate school, which I was told was unlikely to lead to the career that I wanted. I wanted to become a faculty member, a professor, at a big research institution –  it seemed like a long shot and I was abandoning quite a lot to do it. But I did it, and I reconstructed my life and maintained contact with a lot of those people… but that was probably the only major time I thought about giving up. I had to become familiar with this notion of moving and leaving behind everything I had established. I’ve done this multiple times so subsequently I just accepted that this was what I was supposed to do. I think a lot of people make the decision that “Science isn’t for me” because they feel they have to choose between people who are really important to them and their interest in science. But I think I’ve found a way to keep both interests. With social media I don’t lose contact with my friends, but I was definitely concerned that I would not be interested or I would not have a fulfilling career if I moved away for graduate school. I tried very hard to stay, but it didn’t work out and I went to Tennessee and I don’t regret it. Things turned out wonderfully.

A lot of people struggle with balancing home life and work life. Especially in academia you’re traveling for conferences or for new jobs and positions that are few and far between – I’m sure a lot of scientists struggle with that and will relate to what you’ve said. At least you know that once you get to a new location, everyone is in the same situation – they’ve all got to put down new roots and meet new people.

The great thing about that is when you arrive at your new place all the other scientists know what it’s like to make a fresh start in a new city. They help out – happily and aggressively – because they know what it’s like. I think I have it easier than a lot of people because I’m single. It’s easier for me than most because it’s just me that gets uprooted. But I think some of the reasons why I’m in that… condition… are not because I move all the time, but because I spend half my year abroad. But that’s not permanent; the cool thing about being a scientist is that I don’t have to go to Africa this year… I mean, I don’t have to go to four conferences… and when a bunch of schools invite me for talks I don’t have to go. So I’m aware each moment that I’m not stuck here and I can scale it back at any time. Right now it’s so rewarding and exciting for me that I say, “Well… everything else can wait for right now.” In five years I will probably feel differently and I’ll behave differently and I can make that choice because as a scientist you have a ton of freedom.

Why or when did you decide to become a scientist?

I was taking herpetology and I was involved in assisting a graduate student with his research on these little thorny fence lizards. I was helping him in the lab and I was an honors student so I had to have an honors thesis. I wondered if I could have an independent project and the PI in the lab gave me a ton of resources: aquariums, auxiliary lab space, tons of animals… and let me design my own experiment all on my own and I got to probe around in the literature. I was 18 or 19 at the time and I designed an experiment, executed it, presented it and he said, “This is publishable, this is cool work.” And I thought, “Wow, I’m about to participate in science!” I was the whole time, but I realized that what I was doing was real – and that sense of authenticity was really what sparked me. I thought, “I could do this again and discover something else!” I recently sent him an email thanking him and he invited me down for a talk.

How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?

I guess about half and half. Early on, when you’re starting new studies, you’re totally dependent on chance. You don’t know if the experimental design is going to work and your hypothesis, which is pretty uninformed at that point, is almost certainly wrong since you don’t know much about a particular system. Early on there’s a ton of chance whether or not you’re going to discover something cool, or whether the data are significant or if the findings are important. As time goes on, your hypotheses about the system and all these animals are more and more informed as you gain a sense of understanding and you can also ask more sophisticated questions. Your findings later on are a consequence of very meticulous and hard-earned understanding of your system… but even still, chance is a big deal. It can either thwart you or blindside you at any moment. Half of the time, I set up an experiment and I think I’m going to test one hypothesis. Then something goes cripplingly wrong (or right?) and I end up addressing something totally different inadvertently… and I get a fantastic result that turns out to be wonderful – better than anything that I’d hoped for.

Has anyone ever told you that you were wrong?

All the time.

What fascinated you as a kid?

Snakes and weird places in the world and the notion of the unknown and that anything was possible. Fantasy literature was cool for me because you never knew what was going to happen. Anything was possible – you were on the verge of discovery with each page. I loved playing with wild animals. I would go around collecting anything I could catch and would put them in a 10-gallon aquarium (aka a prison) for some time and watch it and then release it. I thought a lot about weird places in the world; I liked National Geographic and weird habitats and spent time thinking about where I’d want to live. My brother and I had a little globe from the 1980s – we would play “Where would we want to live?” My brother always wanted to live in New York or L.A. or something like that… I always said that I wanted to live in Africa in the jungle or in the Amazon. As it turns out I do spend a pretty good proportion of my year in one of those two places and I think that’s not a coincidence.

Fantasy literature was cool for me because you never knew what was going to happen. Anything was possible – you were on the verge of discovery with each page.
Is there a memento that you keep with you at work from your childhood? What is its significance?

I’ll tell you something fitting for this answer and then I’ll tell you the real thing: I went down to Ft. Lauderdale for a snorkeling trip with the Boy Scouts and we were told about this algae that makes a calcium carbonate shell. We were allowed to take one and preserve it – I still have it in a little vial mysteriously sitting on the counter in my office. I have a lot of mementos as I like being reminded of my childhood.

Now, the real thing [he gets quiet at this point and clearly excited about what he’s about to tell me] that I have in my office is a Little Mermaid Christmas ornament. Growing up I was into Disney and I was into fantasy. I grew up in Orlando so I was very close to Disney – I worked for Disney for a period of time – I played Peter Pan while I was in high school. I have this little ornament hanging on one of my fossils on the wall, and I like it because it’s playful and it reminds me of being young. I can still go back and watch that movie – it’s my favorite movie of all time – and veg out and distance myself from the worries that I’ve constructed for an hour and twenty minutes. I get into the music – it’s why I play steel drums now. You can’t be jaded and like The Little Mermaid – it’s impossible. It’s the fifth Law of Thermodynamics.

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

An explorer. I always wanted to explore the world. I had a sad realization that I thought the world had already been explored. I thought there was no more island or no more portion of any continent that’s unexplored – but that was actually wrong. While, yes, we have satellites that have produced images of every spot on Earth, this doesn’t mean that we know all about it. Biologists are still discovering tons of things – hundreds or thousands of new species each year and some are big things. When I went to Madagascar, I came back with four or five new species. A million people had been in the rainforest before me, but they didn’t have my expertise. I have a different viewpoint and I’m a different kind of observer so I saw something different and discovered something valuable.

What did you think scientists did all day?

I imagined they were very stern people who scowled a lot and were very skeptical and didn’t smile. I thought they didn’t have social lives, that they were socially crippled in some way that made them this weird subculture in society. They would stare into microscopes all day and pour different colored chemicals together. It sounds naïve, but that’s what they show us in ads!

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

I actually did become an explorer — I am like the Crocodile Hunter with a PhD! I go around chasing dangerous animals and discovering things about them and telling people about them. And that I’ve amalgamated exploration with being a teacher — I get to do all these things that I kind of liked doing: being in front of people, acting, science. I thought I would have to pick one of those things and that’s what I would do for the rest of my life and that everything else was going to atrophy, shrink away, but that turned out not to be the case. All the things I liked somehow got blended together into what I do and how I spend my time. That might not happen for everybody in terms of their career, but I think that happens for most people in terms of their lives. The things that they like are the things that they make time for. I make a lot of time for my work and it happens to scratch all of the interest itches that I have — it meets a lot of my needs.

Did you feel bored as a child?

At school, oftentimes. I spent a lot of time being bored. You don’t get to control where you are or the circumstances you’re in a lot when you’re young, so I would find myself holding onto a shopping cart following my mom around some awful K-mart. Or I’d go with my mom while she stopped by the credit union… which I guess people don’t do anymore, but at the time it was pretty miserable. You’re at this stage where you don’t have a lot of control over where you are or how you spend your time. So oftentimes I was bored — as it turns out oftentimes it was because I was high energy.

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

I discovered that the personality types of the first pair of individuals that found a new spider society dictate how it grows and whether or not it goes extinct generations later. I’ve found that the rise and fall of, not just one society, but whole lineages of societies, is predicted and orchestrated by the individuals that found them.

Who was your favorite super hero?

I don’t like superheroes. I like villains. I think superheroes are boring. They’re either too powerful or they’re Boy Scouts. I have a difficult time relating to superheroes because they’re infallible. And when they make them have flaws, they’re not the sort of flaws that are real flaws; they’re sort of cool in some way. I like villains, but not the purely insanely evil villains. I like those villains who have motivation, those who aren’t senselessly evil but appear evil because they have a goal. My favorite villain is Poison Ivy because she has something totally admirable — she wants to promote nature and biodiversity and to diminish the negative effects that humans have on the environment. And, if you get into her a little bit and read into her in the comic books, she’s all about empowering women and empowering and saving kids and innocence. She’s really only against a really small subset of the world, but in her world, and perhaps in ours as well, that small subset of the world happens to be the one that’s in control, so she comes off as evil and senseless. Actually she’s not; she’s flawed because she’s highly motivated and doesn’t think about others and she’s probably too singularly minded, but she’s relatable. A lot of people are singularly minded and they don’t think about what they do to others to get their point across. I think that heroes are unrelatable and boring. Villains can sometimes be useful.

I don’t like superheroes. I like villains. I think superheroes are boring.
Alright, last question, it’s related. If you could have a superpower, or some sort of magical power, what would it be, why, and what would you do with it?

It would be to read minds. Being invisible, meh. Flying would be cool, but I’d be shot out of the sky or something… or exploited and caged in some way. Reading minds is really subtle and noninvasive. Knowing what people need to hear, or what they need socially, knowing what people’s motivations are… could resolve a lot of conflict both in my own life and globally. Knowing what people are actually feeling and being able to respond in a way that they need that circumvents social tension. It’s one of those things that could also be abused… but I also want to know what people think about me, so I’d know who to trust. I think people undervalue reading minds, but it would be extremely useful. Social interactions and knowing peoples’ motivations is actually the key to most situations.

It sounds really consistent with my love of villains… [laughs] and it is.

Dr. Jonathan Pruitt is an Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. He studies the behavioral ecology of social animals. Basically, he’s a spider biologist who studies slave-making ants… the perfect evil villain. 

By | 2016-11-22T13:47:05+00:00 May 23rd, 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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