[My professors at Reed College] respected their students and trusted us and gave us the freedom to explore our own ideas. And if things failed, that’s part of science itself.
Now that U.S. teaching standards have changed for science to a more inquiry-based philosophy, things are going to fail — they’re supposed to fail. Some instructors are uncomfortable with that, but it’s important to have the perspective from scientists saying, “No, this is how science actually works!”
Right, that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to get into science education, as I do feel like there is a movement in that direction. It’s not just going to be your “out of the can” labs that are being done in college and high school. I think that’s more exciting for the students, although I might just be projecting onto them. I do feel like having this idea of I don’t know what’s going to happen in this lab is to me, at least, very exciting as a student. The labs that I remember from Reed College were the ones where I didn’t know what was going to happen.
Do you have any memorable classroom moments from middle school?
In Australia, at least in my school, there were “Streams” — there was the “Regular Science Stream” and the “Advanced Science Stream.” I was in the Advanced Science Stream. Two memories come to mind. First, there was a new teacher that had just come out of doing her graduate work and she was very adamant about the idea of making proper notes in a lab notebook and being very meticulous. I still remember to this day the idea of “It’s only science if you write it down.” I think this is also how they phrase it on Mythbusters; the difference between just horsing around and science is that you have to write it down. I also remember some of the labs we did; we had liver that we had to cut up and measure the rate of some reaction. I also had a great chemistry teacher that I adored and I don’t know how she thought this was a good idea or how she got away with this, but she actually taught us how to make gunpowder. She got all of the ingredients to make gunpowder and we made it! We made it and lit it on fire! I just remember the entire classroom being completely smoke-filled at the end of class and her being like “Huh…” and running over and opening all of the windows. It’s one of those things I always thought about when I was back here in the U.S. because how in the world did that get by an approval committee?!? It stuck with me and I loved it! I wish I still had my lab notebook. Luckily for the world I was too lazy to make firecrackers from what I learned in that lab!
What were some qualities that your mentors had that were so impactful on you?
They were excited about science. We had this great biology teacher that had these crazy anecdotes about any sort of idea in biology and he’d go off on these great tangents and analogies of science. I remember being enthralled by the stories he had and the enthusiasm that he had for biology itself. I really enjoyed that kind of enthusiasm. As a student you need something that gets you interested and excited about the topic. My chemistry teacher — I still remember her vividly — she was very excited about chemistry and about teaching us chemistry. There was a level of respect that came about at that age where I felt like it was less a chore for them to teach us but that they were interested in us and what we might become and might do. I always responded to that. I generally responded to people who respected me and were interested in me and didn’t look at me like I was a chore.
I generally responded to people who respected me and were interested in me and didn’t look at me like I was a chore.
Do you attempt to emulate those attitudes as a teacher now?
I try very hard. I have to tip my hat to my wife; she reminds me that the good teachers are the ones that are excited about the subject and they’re the ones that pull you through the class. And the way I get my students interested in my class is by being excited myself about the material. If I’m not excited about the material, I need to figure out a way that I can be. As an Intro to Biology teacher I don’t really care all that much about the Krebs Cycle, but I can figure out ways that it is interesting to me. The key is being excited for what you’re teaching and also being invested in the students. Nobody is interested in being a cog in the machine.
What was your biggest worry in middle school?
The fact that I had an American accent — without a doubt. Being an outsider is difficult. Being a teenager and being an outsider is extra difficult; you already feel awkward and not in your own skin and it’s somehow even harder when you have an accent. When someone first meets you, you look like an Australian, and then you say something… there was always this moment when I would meet someone and I would almost be afraid of saying anything because I knew the minute I would say something it would change their reaction. They’d be like, “Oh, you’re an American.”
Can you think of a specific example?
I can think of a lot… there were plenty of kids on the playground that made it hard for me. There were some kids that were rough around the edges and they would refer to me as “Septic Tank” — because that’s rhyming slang for “Yank” … or “Yankee.” It’s really hard to understand that not as an insult. I’ve looked back on it and realized that it was the only way they knew how to interact with me. They weren’t angry, they didn’t hate me, I was just different and they were just reacting to that in the only way they knew how. The fact that they were just joshing with me was kind of them trying to be jovial. As a 13 year old, it was the thing that gnawed at the back of my brain — it can be very difficult.
Another worry I had in middle school was that I didn’t know if I necessarily came off as an intelligent student. I never really have. I think one of the fears that I had was that I felt like I needed to prove myself — the need to prove that I was as intelligent as I thought I was. Frequently teachers would realize I was reasonably intelligent and pretty good at being in school, but then they would use the word that I hated more than anything: Potential. This is one of those terrible words. Because when people use it they use it in two ways; for me there was always the report card that came back that said, “Max is not living up to his potential. Max is not working to his potential.” That is really hard as a student to deal with. It puts this crazy pressure on you, this idea that whatever you’re doing is not good enough and that you could be doing better. I was always worried that I wasn’t living up to my potential. The other way that it’s used is, “This person has great potential, they’re going to go so far.” That also puts a lot of pressure on you. If you don’t eventually become The World’s Greatest Scientist or The Next Great Thing … then there’s some sense of failure, even if you are in every other way successful. I think that’s the one thing that I still fear. Am I living up to my potential? I try to be more grounded and not be concerned with that. You can’t be perfect and striving for perfection is a dangerous road to go down because you’ll never obtain it and you could always do better.
Frequently teachers would realize I was reasonably intelligent and pretty good at being in school, but then they would use the word that I hated more than anything: Potential.
If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?
I would tell 12-year-old me to stand up to my mom and play more rugby. I loved playing rugby, and it was one of my favorite things to do. But my mom was afraid of me being injured. In retrospect I should have just done it. Also I’d tell myself not be afraid of disappointing people. If you get wrapped up in this fear of disappointment, then you miss out on a lot of opportunities because you think about every opportunity with a filter, “Should I do this? Well, I shouldn’t, because if I do I might disappoint someone.” I do sort of think, going back, that this fear of disappointing someone, including myself, made me miss out on a lot of opportunities. It’s hard for me to get too wrapped up in that, as I’m pretty happy with where I am right now, but trying to cultivate less fear of disappointment. If you only think of the things that won’t work, then you’re not going to do something. But if you give it a shot — there’s a lot more things that could happen that would be really interesting and exciting.
Do you approach your science in a way that disregards others’ disappointment?
I don’t know that I specifically tailor my science to not disappoint people or to not care if others are disappointed… but I try to do science that excites me and interests me. If people want me to go this direction, but I’m interested in not going in that direction, I’m very comfortable not doing that and going in my own direction. I have, during my career, done pivots where I think “I don’t like where this is going, I’m going to go in a different direction.” If anything I’ve been more reluctant then I should be to make those pivots. I think there are many points along the path that I wish I had said to myself, “You know you should do this, you know that you’re afraid to do this, but you need to just take the plunge.” A lot of times I eventually took the plunge.
Something with your language struck me earlier. In the U.S. we used to have “tracking” — the idea of this man-made structure that puts you on your academic path to your future. Then in Australia they have “streams” — this idea of a meandering path to get where you’re going and there are several ways for the water to flow to get where you’re going. Do you feel that you’ve taken a more meandering path? Or do you feel that you’ve taken more of a structured path that someone had set up for you?
I don’t know if my path has been set up for me, but I do feel like I have probably had a fairly structured path into what I’m doing now. I was in the more advanced science and harder math classes… I hated math, but that’s a whole other story. I went from middle school and high school to a good college where I was in the science direction for a long time and then I went straight from undergrad to graduate school. If you explain my path in the briefest terms, then yeah, I have gone in a very linear direction. In saying that, I do feel like there has been a lot of what I’ve done that has not been the canonical path… I think a lot of scientists that I know have had interesting deviations.
Were you in any clubs? Have hobbies? In any extra-curricular activities?
Sports. Always sports. Australia is a sports-obsessed country, even more so than the United States, which is hard to believe, I know. I could partly integrate myself into a group of people as long as I was reasonably good at sports. We played touch-rugby; my friend group was this group of people who would play sports during lunch break. I played every sport that would come my way. It didn’t matter that I had an American accent, as long as I could do that I was great. I also played with more formal teams. My dad owned bees when we were growing up and I would help him with the bees, and I was always kind of a dork.
I played every sport that would come my way. It didn’t matter that I had an American accent, as long as I could do that I was great.
Did you play any instruments?
I played guitar for a while. [laughs] That’s another regret. I played guitar from third grade through sixth grade and I had lessons and everything and then I just stopped playing. That’s something I regret, if I had just spent thirty minutes a week playing I would still be able to do it. That’s one regret from middle school; maybe that’s one thing I’d tell my middle school self, “Spend some time doing this, it’s not that hard, pick it up.”
What was your favorite thing to wear to school?
We had uniforms or a color code. I went to a bilingual school (even though I didn’t speak the lingual) – it was a French/English school. The colors were red, white and blue. So you had to wear red, white or blue. Those were the options. I don’t know if there was anything that allowed me to express myself. I remember I always wore shorts. Canberra is actually kind of cold in the winter, since it was up in the mountains a little bit, but I always wore shorts in the winter. I never wore pants, for some reason. I do remember being very cold but not wanting to wear pants.
You said you were playing outside when you were doing sports, did you also explore?
There were a lot of really interesting bush walks near where I grew up.
What’s a bush walk?
Hiking. You call it a forest, we called it the bush… you’d go on a bush walk, hiking on nature trails. There were a lot of really cool nature parks that were near where I grew up. My folks and I did a lot of hiking, walking, primarily just to see all the weird and random wildlife that was out there. There was something really striking about seeing an emu for the first time. It’s a six foot tall flightless bird that looks like someone had poured gasoline on it and lit it on fire; their feathers look like they’ve been singed. That was always something on my mind, How can I go out and see these crazy animals and find them in their natural environment? I remember I was obsessed with anthills, as most kids are. There’s nothing quite like the ant hills there are in Australia. There are these huge things called bull ants that are half a finger length long — they have these huge mandibles and they’re just straight-up aggressive. They’d come after you and attack you. I was obsessed with messing with them. There were crazy, huge anthills in Australia. These big mounds that you can see from a distance. I would love to run over them and you’d look back and see them frantically moving around. The middle schooler in me would do things that, perhaps, as an adult you’d be like, Why did you do that? I would go birdwatching with my dad a lot. There are some crazy birds in Australia and a lot of different types of birds. Parrots — it’s funny, there’s so many parrots that you start to get interested in the not-so-exciting birds. If I describe a cockatoo, it’s a two-foot tall bird, bright white with a huge crest, and it was ubiquitous. You’d get used to that, and you’d spend more time trying to find tree creepers, small nondescript birds that are in the background and more rare, but more unique to the environment.
You described the animals and wildlife as “crazy” and “different” — do the kids growing up in Australia feel that way about their animals, or are they like, “Oh… it’s just a wallaby…”
They feel very proud of their animals. They’re very wrapped up in the fact that their identity as an Australian is wrapped up in these unique animals. “We’re unique. These are our unique animals.” They recognize that they’re different and they’re proud of the idea that these wallabies or these kangaroos are different than anywhere else in the world. That comes from the fact that Australia is fairly isolated, so forging this identity is really important to them.
Did you collect anything?
I collected everything. I had a huge specimen collection. I had these drawers — I don’t know where my parents got them — and they were like six foot high with little drawers that were six inches deep and four or five inches across. I put random junk in there. We went to a tar pit and I took the tar and put it in a little container and brought it back. So you’d open this one drawer and it was full of tar. When we were driving around California, my dad ran over a snake — he was kind of beat up about it as it was a big gopher snake. My crazy uncle was like, “Oh, let’s go back and pick it up!” So he picked up this dead gopher snake, whose head had been squished, and took it back and skinned it. So I had a snakeskin in the specimen drawers. I had a bunch of quartz crystals. A bunch of dead beetles. There are these things called Christmas beetles in Australia, and they are brown with an iridescent sheen. They come out around Christmas which is why they’re called Christmas beetles. They’re these slow moving beetles so you could pick them up and they’d crawl around on you. Then, sometime after Christmas, kind of like cicadas, they’d all die. They’d be everywhere. I’d go and pick them up, so I had a whole bunch of these Christmas beetles in my specimen case. I also collected any kind of other random beetle or bug that I could get my hands on. That was one thing I loved to do – I loved to collect things. I loved to go outside and wander and collect things. I was always like That is something weird and different… I will take that. We had a pond in the backyard, so things would lay eggs I’d try to take some of the eggs and put them in a jar and watch the tadpoles hatch.
Oh, you mean frog eggs, not platypus eggs?
We knew of one creek where there was a platypus. But seeing a platypus in the wild… you just see a ripple in the water in the distance, and that’s it. You never actually see a platypus. Wallabies and kangaroos were far more exciting. I’d wake up and go to school and the same way you might see a deer in your front yard – I would see wallabies. They love to eat rose bushes. They’d always be trying to eat my mom’s rose bushes.
Motivation to plant rose bushes, I think!
It was not hard to see wallabies, that was not the issue. They really do become kind of like deer. The first time I saw a deer here I was like [gasp] — but now I’m just like, “Quit eating my tomatoes, go away.”
Did you ever have a professional crisis? Think of throwing in the towel?
Oh yeah, all the time! Every day. The greatest crisis that I had as a scientist was one of my first summer internships. I was a rising junior in college, and I was doing this summer internship in a lab and I had to give a presentation at the end of it about what I’d found in the summer to this bigger lab group. The other summer interns were also going to be presenting. I had failed in the summer. There were reasons for it, but I was kind of embarrassed by this. I was the last person at the table to go. All of the other interns went — they were older, had been there before, and knew what to do. It came around to me and I realized I was not prepared to give this presentation. The guy who was mentoring me cut me off and said, “I think we’re done here.” We left and I said, “I’m so sorry.” and he said, “You embarrassed me!” I remember I went to a 7-11 nearby and used the pay phone there, because I didn’t have a cell phone — this was before cell phones — and I called my mom and I was like, “I’m not sure I’m ready to be a scientist, I don’t know if this is what I want to do…” And that was probably the biggest crisis that I ever had, where I really doubted whether or not I wanted to be a scientist. Those doubts never leave you — you’re never really sure that you can do this, that you can actually do the research, or be a scientist. I still have those crises all of the time. I definitely had them in grad school. Even now, after I’ve gotten my PhD, I still have these moments where I’m like… Can I really do this? Am I really a scientist? Do people actually take me seriously? That’s probably the biggest thing.
You’ve said before that you think that anyone can become a scientist.
I do. I think anyone can do science, and I think by doing science, we are scientists. All it requires is the proper forethought and planning. You think of the people who go out and brew their own beer — the homebrewers – that’s a science experiment. You hear about them making specialty flavored beers; that’s a great example of an everyday scientist. People who mess around with cars in their garages, they’re adding and tuning and messing around with it — that’s another example of someone being an everyday scientist. I feel like having people realize that what they’re doing is science and also how thinking about things scientifically can help you in what you’re doing. Methodically thinking, “Ok, why is this not working?” Generating hypotheses… you do it intrinsically but by formalizing it you can be efficient at what you’re doing. I think that’s how scientists explore and make observations. You’re going out on a hike and seeing something interesting and thinking about what that means. Scientists are sometimes in this ivory tower and closed off from the world. This causes a disconnect between the general population and research scientists. I don’t want to feel like there’s this mistrust in scientists — I think if you make everyone a scientist then they can’t mistrust science.
I don’t want to feel like there’s this mistrust in scientists – I think if you make everyone a scientist then they can’t mistrust science.
You said that when you were seventh grade you wanted to become a scientist – get a PhD and get poached by a Swiss pharmaceutical company. What did you think scientists did all day?
I knew that they worked in labs. I pictured a lab coat, a sterile white environment… but I don’t think I thought about it beyond that. I might have had an idea that there were test tubes involved, but I don’t know that I really understood fully what a scientist did. I think that I understood that I wasn’t going to be off in Africa riding elephants to understand how their packs work… I knew there were machines that you worked with, that you were turning a crank. I think I imagined that scientists held up flasks to the light and were like, “Oh, good.” And I can’t say that has changed — I’m pretty sure that’s what I do on a daily basis. I feel like I’ve actually followed through with that. I very frequently hold flasks up to the light and go, “Oh, yes, good.”
What’s in your flasks?
Yeast, actually. For my PhD, I worked with worms — teeny tiny nematodes. I would peer into a microscope with all these worms on a tiny plate and I’d be like, “Yes! Good! They’re mating! Excellent!” And now I’m looking at a flask in the morning and I’m like, “OK, it seems like they’ve grown enough,” so I hold it up to the light. I think one thing that has changed is that I do a lot of mixing expensive clear liquids together and having faith that it’s doing what it should be doing. A lot more clear liquid. I think I pictured a lot more colored liquids when I was in middle school.
…I hold it up [flasks] to the light. A lot more clear liquid. I think I pictured a lot more colored liquids when I was in middle school.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?
The fact that I’m in the U.S. — the fact that I’m in North Carolina, definitely. I had no idea what North Carolina was. I always could see myself staying in Australia, so I think that would be one of the big surprises. The fact that I’m still not completely independent — it took me until I was 27, 28 to get my PhD — that would be surprising to me. The amount of time it takes to become a professional scientist would probably be the most surprising thing to my middle school self. The places that I’ve traveled to; despite growing up in Australia I didn’t really travel very much as a kid. But I’ve been to a lot of places since then, and part of it has been through science — I’ve gone to conferences to Germany and stuff like that.
Do you still hope you’ll get poached by the Swiss?
If a Swiss pharmaceutical came along and offered me a lot of money, I’d probably take it. But I love my lab. I guess I would not want to live in Switzerland. I like living here. I don’t want to say never.
When did you go to your first concert, and who was playing?
It was in college — The Far Side. But the first concert I was meant to go to was They Might Be Giants, but they were scheduled to play on September 12, 2001, which was the day after the terrorist attacks on September 11. So that got cancelled, but they actually came back three years later and honored my ticket. It took three years to actually go to my first concert. Can I tell you my most memorable concert? The Flaming Lips — I saw them and I’ve never seen a band that does a better live show than them. They involve the audience; no band is better than them.
What of your discoveries would your middle school self find the most interesting?
[pause] I’ve not really changed the world in terms of my discoveries. I do basic research and I don’t know that there is anything that would be surprising… to explain why it’s surprising would be hard to translate into a sense of wonderment. I guess that’s why I try to be so excited about the big themes of my research, ideas like evolution, the idea that I can find something out in a worm or a yeast that makes sense in terms of humans. Here’s one of the more amazing parts of what I found: I looked at this very small 900 cell nematode and I found something very fundamental to it that has direct information that translates into human biology. That’s really fascinating — that I can get information out of these very different organisms, but because we have these conserved mechanisms as a result of evolution, it makes sense. That’s why I study yeast. It makes sense for me to study these organisms because we have the same mechanisms. The idea that there’s this continuum of evolution in organisms. What happens in pond scum translates into what happens for me to move my hands. That would be one thing my middle school self would be fascinated by- – that the bees and the frogs are similar to me.
I look at this very small 900 cell nematode and I found something very fundamental to it that has direct information that translates into human biology.
Last question. You ready? If you could have a superpower, what would it be, why, and what would you do with it?
The superpower question… Let me think about this. I think I’ve changed my answer to this question — my middle school self would probably say something along the lines of “super strength” or “super speed” — I loved Spiderman as a kid so I’d probably choose to have spider powers. As I’ve gotten older, I find myself not understanding people a lot of the time and people not understanding me. So having the ability to mind-read, actually, would be something that I would like to have. Unfortunately, I think I would use it as only a scientist would — I would sit and not let someone know I was reading their mind to try and understand human nature and what they are thinking and observe them from afar. I think a lot misunderstandings that society has comes from the fact that we think everyone is different, or we think everyone is thinking differently than us — and we don’t have any way of confirming or denying that. So mind reading would be what I would choose, just so that I can understand people and help people understand each other.
Dr. Max Boeck is a SPIRE post doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He studies yeast to understand how transcription factors activate genes. He still plays sports a lot, likes to garden, and travel.