Before They Were Scientists: Jennifer Verdolin

I feel inclined to set the stage for this interview more than for any other I have done previously. I drive up to a small bakery in a strip mall; the folding tables out front tell me I’m in the right place. I’m usually unsure how I will find my scientist interviewees, as they often look different in their pictures than real life. But Jennifer Verdolin was standing in front of the bakery looking very much like her pictures. Her arms are crossed and she seems a little agitated. I checked the time… I was early.

“Jennifer?” I ask, only partially guessing.

“You must be Lea. I may be asked to leave, I hope that’s OK with you.” This was a good of a start as any to our interview. Always game I respond,

“Of course!” After half a breath, “What happened?”

“Well, this woman,” she says just a little bit louder as she gives a side glance to a woman sitting in a chair next to the entrance of the bakery, “Just hit a cat with her chair. I had a confrontation with her, and — if I get asked to leave, you know why.” She continues, getting even louder, “It’s not OK to hit a cat with a chair.” I reassure her that if we get asked to leave I have her back. We go inside, and she tells the man behind the counter the story of the woman, the cat and the chair, and she is, of course, commended for defending the cat that couldn’t defend itself. We get our food and find a table outside, to keep tabs on the cat and the offending customer.

Jennifer tells me that she has just returned from a whirlwind trip filming a series for the BBC called “Animals in Love,” scheduled to air in October 2014. When she was 18, Jennifer told her dad and his wife that she dreamed of doing something for National Geographic, and he informed her that only excellent people worked for National Geographic. As you’ll read below, I think Jennifer’s pretty excellent.

Lea: How did you find yourself with all of these opportunities?

Jennifer: A lot of unexpected things had to happen. Never as a kid watching National Geographic or Wild Kingdom did it occur to me that I would be the person talking about the animals. Never in a million years would I have thought that. But then, this company that was commissioned to make a documentary for the BBC ran across a blurb about my new book, Wild Connection, a few months ago that essentially mirrored the arc of their story. Completely random. They emailed me and we had a conversation and the producer liked the way I communicated the information. At the end of the conversation she said, “Would you mind?” and I was like, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”

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

All of it. When I was in middle school, I had no “This is what I want to do when I grow up.” direction. All I had was that I wanted to be around animals. That’s it. I didn’t know what that meant, I just wanted to be with the animals. I had no concept of jobs or careers. I think that I’ve had such cool experiences — it was just never something I ever would have thought possible. That I write, that I’m on the radio, now I do TV, and that I get to hang out with animals. All the time. I have a degree that says I have permission to do this. I have permission to sit on a rock for eight months and watch prairie dogs. I can pick any animal I want, I can ask any question I want about them. I would never have thought that there were these opportunities. It’s all I’ve ever wanted — to tell people about animals and tell people how cool they are. People like that woman with the cat drive me crazy. I’m sorry.

Don’t apologize.

For a long time I clamped myself down.

How about you start setting the scene for middle school.

I moved to Florida from Italy when I was seven. I remember Algebra class in 6th grade and I remember science in 7th grade. The science teacher — all of us had a huge crush on him. Science and music were the two classes that I remember because I desperately wanted to sing and dance; at the time I wasn’t good at either and currently I’m still not good at singing.

[laughs] In eighth grade there was a dissection, but I didn’t like dissections. I didn’t like hurting animals. I had a visceral reaction to it. From that point on I refused all dissections through college. I refused to teach them, too. I’ve never taught a lab where I did any dissections. That was a condition of for me to teach and it still would be today. Now there’s computer simulations. I rejected that aspect of science class. That’s pretty much it.

I was concerned about dressing like the cool girl. Even in middle school there was that one pretty girl; she had blond hair and the coolest clothes — she dressed a lot like Madonna so I tried to do that too. My mom, however, had different ideas — she bought me Izod, you know, with the little alligator. That was my outfit. I wanted to be Madonna; I wanted to dance, sing and dress like Madonna… and Michael Jackson. I remember fluorescent pink — it’s amazing that it came back… really we should have been done with it at that point. I dressed up like Michael Jackson one year — I had the red leather jacket with the zippers, glove…

I wanted to be Madonna; I wanted to dance, sing and dress like Madonna.
What was the first concert you ever went to?

Michael Jackson did a show in Miami at the Orange Bowl. I think that was the first concert I ever went to… I was 14. It was still, hands down, the best concert I’ve ever been to. I think about how I felt — I mean, I’ve seen the Rolling Stones and all kinds of musicians, but Michael Jackson. Man. It was amazing.

Did you play any instruments?

No. I am so not musically inclined, it’s ridiculous. My mom had a piano for us; I couldn’t even learn how to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” I had trouble playing the recorder. I mean — the recorder is like… the recorder. Everybody can play the recorder. Not me. I’m not dyslexic, but I invert things when I read — I flip things. So trigonometry was a disaster for me. Geometry. Disaster. I think the problem might have been my inability to understand the lines and symbols. I think that was a problem. But it was one of the reasons I liked science. In junior college I found chemistry and physics to be easy because if you kept track of the units, you could do the equations. I felt almost empowered — I could do it.

I’ve always wanted to play the saxophone; I wanted to when I was in middle school, and I still want to learn how to play the saxophone. I actually used to feel bad about my learning disability, but I had someone tell me that if I went back and learned math in a different way — taking into account my spatial disability — that they can teach you differently and I’d be able to learn.

Were you in any clubs or play any sports?

I played football. I didn’t play in little league because they wouldn’t let me, but I played in the back streets. When I was nine through twelve years old, I played in the street with all the boys. I had visions of playing in the Super Bowl. So I either wanted to be a football player or a dancer. That was it. Not a scientist, I didn’t even know what a scientist was.

What did you think scientists did all day?

Geeky stuff in the lab with chemicals. It didn’t occur to me that when I saw nature programs that there were people behind those shows who were scientists that studied all that. I didn’t think about where they knew all that from; I didn’t know how they knew all that stuff about animals. I didn’t know there were scientists who figured all that out. I thought scientists were doctors or chemists with beakers and Bunsen burners. You know, SCIENCE! It was a long time before I realized what scientists did. I didn’t even realize when I was in graduate school that I was becoming a scientist. I just thought I was becoming a person who would sit and watch animals and collect information and answer questions about them. I still didn’t have the concept that that was science, I don’t know why. I just didn’t.

Did you collect anything when you were young?

Sea shells. Not even from the beach. I grew up in south Florida, and I would dig up stuff. I remember finding the skeleton of a seahorse in my front yard. It was very confusing to me — we weren’t near the beach and I had no idea how it got there. I kept it because it was cool. I would collect starfish, sand dollars, and shells that I’d try to make necklaces out of and sell in the neighborhood to try to make extra money. I still don’t know why that sea horse was there, hurricane maybe? It was buried — maybe somebody that lived in the house before? I want to answer that question! I always ask questions; it irritated a lot of people in my family. I was very questioning. I think I might have been born to be a scientist. Now I know that’s what we do. We ask questions.

I think I might have been born to be a scientist. Now I know that’s what we do. We ask questions.
Did you have any pets?

I had pets — mice were my favorite. I loved them, they were cool. I had two guinea pigs and then one day I had six guinea pigs. I didn’t know how I had six guinea pigs! Nobody explained it to me at all. I remember, I was on the phone and I was watching them and all of a sudden there were four more guinea pigs. When I was ten, I got a cat named CJ. He was somebody else’s pet. I remember the guy that dropped him off, a tall guy, and I’m not sure how CJ felt about being transplanted into a new home.

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

I don’t know. My mother wasn’t very tolerant of me climbing trees, playing football, wanting mice or my tomboy-ish behavior. I don’t remember it every being communicated that I could be anything. My brother, he was the “smart one” — he was into computers and he was going to be a doctor (which he is). But I don’t actually ever remember being told I could be anything at all; I don’t remember that conversation.

If you could give some advice to your younger self, what would you tell yourself?

I was really shy. It’s hard and if you don’t have a family that talks to you about all the things you can be and do, how do you find out? You can reach out to teachers — but that’s so hard when you’re so young and teachers are this authoritative figure. But I would say to my younger self, “Ask questions of your teachers.” I don’t even know if that’s something we talked about in middle school. Imagine any possibilities — any life you can imagine you can have, except, perhaps, playing in the NFL. Although, I’m still hoping that maybe one day… You know how they have in baseball where you can throw the first pitch? I think they should have the same thing in football where you can catch the first pass or something, you know? If they institute that, I totally want to be the one to do that, that would be my one way of getting into the NFL, sort of. But now, girls are playing college football!

What sorts of questions would you have asked your teachers?

I could be wrong, but I think there’s this tendency to say, “OK, these are your choices of what you want to be: a doctor, lawyer, or teacher.” I still think, to this day, to some extent that’s sort of still the message. Although, with the Internet, it’s kind of changed that culture. I think I would ask more, “This is what I love — what can I do with that?” types of questions. “Are there ways for me to express this interest and do things now in some way in school?” There weren’t any science clubs that I knew about. Even asking a teacher, “Can you help me find out what I’m good at?” Or, “These are the things I like, is there something that I would be able to do with that right now?” I didn’t start exploring until I was at least 19.

In what ways did you explore?

I thought I wanted to be a vet, so I worked in a vet office. But I kept passing out at the wrong time. It wasn’t the blood, but the smells. The vet told me that I could certainly handle the academic part, but if I was passing out, then it wasn’t for me. It was just really hard and I wept a lot — I had to leave the room because I was upsetting the owners of the animals. I couldn’t help it! That wasn’t a good career path for me. Then I thought I would work in a zoo. I found my way into all kinds of things I never would have imagined. It would have been nice to be able to imagine.

What do you think drew you to animals? What was it about them?

I feel like they have a secret, and I want to know what it is. They know something. I remember I went to Sea World when I was nine, and the orcas — when they look at you, I feel like they know something. Same with gorillas. I could sit next to a gorilla and just ask it What? Tell me! What am I missing? What am I not getting? I feel like they have some piece of information, some knowledge, some secret — and I want to be privileged enough to know what it is. I’ve always felt that way, I still feel that way. Also, taking care of them; I’ve always felt a connection to them. And also respect — I don’t just want to go grab any animal, I never did. I just want to be allowed to be in its presence, but not to take it and hold it or possess it, I don’t need to touch the animal to feel that. The fact that they feel safe enough to be next to me, that’s enough.

I feel like [animals] have a secret, and I want to know what it is.
Do you ever feel that you were the only person like yourself growing up?

Absolutely. All the girls I knew were into boys and shopping and fashion and hair and makeup… and whatever. Even in my family, I’m just barely tolerated for my obsession with animals. And also, I stopped eating meat. I went through a period where I was very vocal in my objections about things. I didn’t have a friend who shared those interests, so it was just sort of me, alone. I remember being in the Bahamas when I was 11 and I remember my brother, stepbrother, and stepsister were off getting ice cream and I was sitting at the dock because there was an octopus there! I sat there dangling my feet in the water and I must have watched that octopus for four hours. Just being with the octopus and wondering, What are you thinking?  I didn’t have the concept then that animals were in danger from just being animals — prey and predators… I just didn’t understand any of the behaviors that they would do. But I got to just sit there and watch it. It was just neat. So I was by myself a lot.

Did you ever find yourself bored when you were in middle school?

I don’t remember being bored… I listened to a lot of music, I played football in the street, I took dance classes… I liked that, although I wasn’t as slender as the other girls, I was sort of like PHOOMP [stomps her foot]. But I climbed trees and I don’t remember ever sitting around going, “Man, I’m bored.” I was outside a lot. We had a big yard and so I was always outside in the yard and in the pool. I’d find a snake or lizard in the pool… and rescue animals from puddles. I’ll save a fruit fly. I’ll let it dry on my shoulder. I remember a housefly. My rule when I was teaching during grad school: if you find a bug in the room, nobody kills it, I’ll handle it. A fly fell into some water, so I put it on my shoulder and walked around class with this housefly on my shoulder drying off. Then when it flew off, some kid went to go hit it and he missed it. And I’m like, “Seriously?! I had him on my shoulder for 30 minutes! And you’re going to swat at him?” I don’t remember being bored, but I remember feeling frustrated. I don’t know if it was because I was a classic tomboy, but there were all these things I wanted to do that were constantly disapproved of. I kept getting pushed into wearing dresses and carrying purses. What for? I think my mom wanted the dress-up doll… that’s not what she got. Even now, I’m not bored. I read or walk.

Have you ever had a professional crisis and wanted to throw in the towel?

I think professional crises are undervalued, under-appreciated. This might be my second one. During my dissertation, there wasn’t ever a moment where I wanted to throw in the towel. All I ever wanted was to finish. And not for getting my Ph.D., and not to be an academic, but to have the piece of paper that says You have earned the right. You don’t need to justify to anybody why you want to sit on that rock and watch animals. It’s understood. I can do whatever I want. No matter what job I have, no matter what I do — I’m always a scientist, and I can do science. Nobody can ever tell me I can’t do science. I learned how to do science through that process.

Before starting my dissertation I was at the point of crisis. I wanted to study with a scientist who studied kikachu monkeys (night monkeys) in Argentina. He was at Stony Brook University and I didn’t get into Stony Brook the first time. He said, “If you go get your master’s degree somewhere, and blow them out of the water, then you can come here and do your Ph.D. If you don’t get into a master’s program somewhere, let me know, and I’ll bring you into the field with me.”

I called 50 people all over the country. They asked, “OK, what experience do you have?” I said… “Well, I raised chimpanzees and orangutans for eight years and volunteered at a zoo.” I had not been part of research, and my undergrad was non-traditional… I quit high school when I was 16. I don’t even have a high school education, which is crazy. I don’t mind saying that. It hindered me in some ways because I didn’t have a foundation in some things. I quit high school to go to college. It sounds insane, but when you’re 16, you’re insane. When I went to junior college, it was within a year of quitting high school. I was mad at my guidance counselor because he wouldn’t let me double up on science and math, and I said, “Well, if you don’t let me do that, then I’m going to quit and go to college.” He said, “No, you’re not.” And on my 16th birthday I went to his office and quit. I took the GED and by the next year I was in junior college. But then I was on my own and working three jobs and I signed up for three classes and I flunked biology because I missed the final exam because I had to work. I then dialed back and took one class at a time and learned how to learn.

I quit high school to go to college. It sounds insane, but when you’re 16, you’re insane.

Then I came across Dr. Columbo, my anatomy and physiology professor (whom I spoke to last week), because I was about ready to give up. I kept flunking classes because I was working so much and I didn’t know anything. I kept flunking trigonometry because I didn’t know I had problems. I get into crazy Dr. Columbo’s class. It used to be that in Florida, if you got your associate’s degree you could go to any in-state university without having to take the SAT. I still don’t test well. I got an F on Dr. Columbo’s first test. I was mystified… I had studied for hours the night before… He looked at me and said, “I’m really disappointed in you. You could have done better. I’ll make a deal with you, you get an A on every test after this including the final, and I’ll give you an A in the class.” And I did it! I ended up with an A in his class. I took him for every class possible. Every time I’ve graduated, I give him a call.

So I ended up at Northern Arizona University, working with prairie dogs and earning a master’s degree. After that, I finally got into the Ph.D. program at Stony Brook. I went to Argentina and despised the habitat. I love to visit tropical forests, but I don’t want to do research in them. I longed for the habitat I worked in for my master’s: open mountain meadows with prairie dogs surrounded by ponderosa pine trees with no bugs at 8,000 feet. No snakes… no spiders… just prairie dogs, predators and beetles. I’m there in the rainforest and I’m worried my advisor’s going to kick me out because I didn’t want to do that project. So I confessed to him. I was certain I didn’t want to work in a zoo or be a vet but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. He genuinely surprised me when he said, “OK, well if you want to work on prairie dogs you’ve just got to fund your own research — you have an interesting research question. I don’t care that you don’t want to work in tropical forests; I care about your question.” After that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and wasn’t sure I wanted to be an academic — I was torn because that’s what I was good at.

It’s been a process, but part of the last four years has been about getting the courage to step out. You have such a sense of security from belonging to an academic department. And once you step out you’re not usually welcomed back. I made that leap: I could be a scientist and not be an academic. I’ve accepted that the traditional faculty role is not the right fit for me. And I’m willing to accept the uncertainty of what that means for me. Crises are highly underrated because they can propel you into directions you might never have considered. I love to teach, I love to do science, I love to communicate science, I love to dance, I want to be a well-rounded person… and I’m not sure I am willing to do what it takes to be successful as a faculty member. This crisis is over, but there will be another one. I think it’s good to have a crisis every four or five years, because then you’re forced out of your comfort zone — and that can even be where good science happens. When your field project goes awry, you need a back-up plan. You have to be adaptable. Regular crises help you to stay adaptable — look at animals, it’s what they do. If animals can adapt, so can I. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the vision you thought was your path.

I think it’s good to have a crisis every four or five years, because then you’re forced out of your comfort zone — and that can even be where good science happens.
How much your successful discoveries were due to chance?

A chance event that created opportunity was when there were monsoons in Arizona. Rains came from California and dumped seven inches of water on the hibernating prairie dogs in January and February and they all died. I ended up digging up their tunnels — they had been there for over 50 years according to satellite images — but no one knew what they looked like. It was like digging into concrete — I had a pick-axe and couldn’t get through the ground — a couple inches down it’s solid calcium carbonate. These little animals with tiny feet made these tunnels, it’s amazing.

I don’t even know if I could have done the research that I did had I not, by chance, had the assistance of a veterinarian. He gave me every morning of his time for three years, eight months out of the year, to trap and catch and microchip my prairie dogs. That was a chance encounter that worked out. I don’t know how much of it was really chance. Other than the chance people involved and the chance environmental events that provided opportunities that I capitalized on, the rest of my research were planned out. The outcomes, I had no idea about. I would try to predict what was going to happen, but I was wrong. I went by what the book said, and prairie dogs didn’t read that book. They read some other book.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be? What would you do with it? Why would you want it?

Superpower… my first instinct is to fly, even though I’m terrified of heights. Then I could quickly go anywhere I wanted to go and study any animal I wanted to study. That’s a very selfish superpower… but if I could have a broader, beneficial superpower to help others… then I wish I could change people’s minds. I wish I could get in their head and reorganize whatever thoughts were in there that don’t value or respect animals and change it.

What effects would that have on your life?

[at this point Jennifer begins to tear up, she is very clearly passionate about the welfare of animals] It just makes me so sad when I think about how much animals suffer because of us. It’s just like… I was on the plane… and I was talking about my prairie dogs and how they have this great communication system — they jump-yip and I demonstrated it… And this guy goes, “Yeah, they jump-yip when you shoot ’em, too.”

I’m so sorry. [I consider turning off my recorder and ending the interview, but I’m so glad I didn’t…]

So, of course, I said, “So do people, I’m sure.” [at this point Jennifer starts to regain her composure and we both have a good laugh] I think animals have enough to deal with just in their environment. I mean, if I had to sleep on the Serengeti, I’m not sure that I would make it through the night. I might just have a heart attack, and they do this every day. I feel like it affects our relationships with each other, too. I think that the lack of compassion and empathy and connection that we feel to all that’s around us is actually detrimental to our relationships as human beings with each other. At a small scale among individual people and at a larger scale across the country and between countries around the world. If I had a real superpower that could be used for good, and not just for me, it would be to get in people’s heads and change their minds. And maybe that’s what I’m trying to do with my writing and radio show appearances, but I also recognize how extremely hard it is.

Ok, I’ve got to end on a better note. That was supposed to be my happy ending question… If reincarnation is the answer and truth to the universe, and you could choose what you would come back as… what would you choose?

[immediately] Totally a gorilla. I would totally be a gorilla because silverbacks are so gorgeous — I want to be one of those females! [30 seconds of laughter commencesBut it’s true — I’d want to be a gorilla. I wouldn’t necessarily want to be a silverback, because there’s so much pressure, they’ve got to do everything. They have to break-up fights among the girls when they’re bickering, they’ve got to protect the group, they’ve got to lead everybody to food. That’s a lot of pressure. I’m OK with being the female gorilla so I could be with the silverback. Don’t put this in. Off the record, I’ll go to a zoo and think Oh, I wish I was a gorilla. I just want to hang out with you. There you go! Hands down, no doubt about it. Oh gosh, we ended on people thinking I want to be with a gorilla!

But you would also be a gorilla!

Thank you for reminding me! That’s a good point. I wouldn’t want to be a chimp, they get beat up all the time as the female. No. But, gorillas… very nice.

Dr. Jennifer Verdolin is a scholar in residence at Duke University and in July will be joining NOAA as a Research Scientist. She can be heard on the D.L. Hughley show in her segment “Think Like a Human, Act Like an Animal.”  Her new book is Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us about Human Relationships and she also blogs for Psychology Today on “Wild Connections.” Do yourself a favor and follow her on Twitter @JVerdolin

By | 2016-11-22T13:47:04+00:00 June 13th, 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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