Today we take a journey back to middle school with ant biologist and School of Ants co-founder, Andrea Lucky. As a middle school student, she was bored with her suburban Ohio life and yearned for adventures that would get her out into “real nature.” Read on to learn how Andrea hunted for fossils in her backyard, wore a white coat and made rounds in the hospital with her physician mother, and tried, unsuccessfully, to be a sullen teenager.
Lea: What was middle school like for you? Where were you?
Andrea: I was in Cincinnati, Ohio. I went to the same school from kindergarten all the way through my senior year in high school, so I was at the same school for 13 years. It was small, so I knew all the other kids growing up and it was clear that middle school was going to be a time of ruthless social experimentation. Middle school was just a terrifying time. All the girls were just starting to be interested in social dynamics. You started to see people turning themselves into train wrecks. All the people who had these really interesting qualities, you know – the nerds, were marginalized at that age. They stopped just being kids in the classroom and they started getting made fun of. I don’t think I was ever made fun of, but I was horrified to watch the popularity contest happen. When I started middle school, I was a little bit nerdy and just becoming aware of the social dynamics, but kind of out of it when it came to managing social situations. At that stage at home I was just enjoying being outside and reading a lot of books.
What were your favorite books to read?
I remember reading The Red Badge of Courage for summer reading. I read The Yearling at that point – about this boy and his family that lived in the back woods of Florida and he’s really into nature and finds a fawn and gets to keep it. I read Watership Down.
Did you have any pets?
I didn’t have a dog, but we had some cats. I was probably really excited about my cats at that point in time. We had indoor cats and outdoor cats. I felt bad for the indoor cats because we had to declaw them and they lived this cushy existence where they stared out the windows desperately wanting to have a cat life outside. And then the outdoor cats, it was so terrible, they hunted things like mice and hummingbirds and chipmunks, and got in tangles with raccoons. It just seemed like there was really no good solution. Only years later did I realize that even though I desperately wanted a pet, cats are really not great for outdoor pets or indoor pets. Bugs make better pets, but I didn’t find that out until I was much older.
How old were you when you entered your invertebrate pet phase?
My first insect pets were probably when I was a freshman in college. Diving beetles. All through college I had diving beetles in my dorm room.
All through college I had diving beetles in my dorm room.
What was your biggest worry when you were in middle school?
It was all the social stuff. I felt like I wanted to do something important and get to the heart of things. I was serious.
I started getting really excited about stuff “out there” – how people went out into the world and did stuff. A lot of these animal stories I was reading about were really interesting because animals were out in nature – facing nature. But when I looked out in my backyard – even though I lived in a cool place with a creek behind my house – it didn’t feel like “real” nature… it felt like suburbanized nature.
We took family vacations to cool places, like we went to Costa Rica, and I remember thinking, “This is amazing. This is REAL nature.” Clearly I had acquired this idea that tropical rainforests were real nature and that suburban Ohio was not real nature. I know now that that’s not true. One of the things I didn’t get into in middle school was ants – it took me a long time before I got into ants.
I think I was probably kind of snobby by the time I got out of middle school because I felt like I knew all this stuff and I just didn’t have a chance to get out there in the world. Yet we were still being treated like kids in school.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up and what did they do?
My parents were both doctors and they were really emphatic about not pushing us to do one thing or another. They had really high expectations and wanted us to do really well in school. It was clear that just coasting along was not going to cut it. I was really good at school, but I didn’t necessarily have any idea of what I wanted to do. I was really interested in literature and languages. I was very interested in Spanish and would read books and watch movies in Spanish, but I didn’t quite know what to do with it.
I was the second child and my parents told me, “Your job is to amuse us!” I didn’t really like that as a calling – that’s a funny thing to say to a kid. I can appreciate now that they were very direct in wanting me to have a career and not a job.
What did you think you wanted to be when you grew up?
I thought about being a writer [smiles] – I read lots of books and I thought about the idea of traveling to exciting places and there were adventures out there to be had. It wasn’t until I met some people who were actual biologists that I realized what natural history was and how it was connected to science as opposed to me just liking to be outside.
How did you get to school? Did you ride the bus?
No – it was the suburbs! We drove every day; got dropped off in the morning, got picked up at the end of the day. It was about four miles from my house, so as I look at it now it’s totally bikeable. Since I left my parent’s house I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve had to drive my car to get where I’m going. I’ve always lived somewhere that I could bike, walk or take public transportation. That’s something I hated about living in the suburbs – you couldn’t go anywhere. Even though my school was only four miles away, there weren’t any bike lanes or shoulders on the roads.
The only cool thing about where I grew up was that we had woods behind our house. Even though it was really cool, to me it just seemed super normal to go outside and there would be bugs and plants. I learned a lot of Latin names of plants. There were all these fossils in the creek behind our house. For a long time I didn’t realize that fossils were different from rocks – that there could be rocks with no fossils. There hadn’t been any rocks that I had ever seen that weren’t just made of fossils because that part of Ohio had massive deposits from this inland sea. You always knew that there would probably be a trilobite if you looked hard enough. If you got sick looking at fossils you could look for salamanders. But that wasn’t a big part of what I did – I spent a lot of time thinking about bad music from the ‘80s.
Since I left my parent’s house I’ve never lived anywhere where I’ve had to drive my car to get where I’m going.
What was your first concert?
Bon Jovi and Skid Row [she smiles and nods nostalgically] – at some point I went to a Guns N’ Roses concert. At the time all that stuff seemed so cool, but now it’s like, “Wow, Axl Rose is such a jerk.” Why was he so compelling? He had the social skills to lead a generation but content-wise? Pretty lame.
I had a “bad influence” friend. She was really into heavy metal. I tried really hard to look tough, but was never very convincing.
How would you try to look tough?
Oh, I had the Doc Martens … I wore black T-shirts and jeans. I tended to let my hair fall in front of my face; which is something I think sullen teenagers do around the world. I don’t think I was very good at being sullen, either. I was basically a really good student and a nerdy kid just becoming aware of how people perceive one another. I probably should have picked a different way to try to be… and it would have been easier. If I had picked “over-eager” and “enthusiastic,” I would have had a much easier time of it! That’s more true to my nature.
I did a lot of journaling. All of these journals are in a box and one day I need to either read them or burn them. I fear that I’m going to go crazy and my daughter is going to find this box and read what I wrote. The journals were full of all sorts of teenage angst — of all the things that I needed or wanted to experience. Middle school was this time where I felt like there was this really big world out there and I did not have access to it. I was really anxious to get out there and do things. Because middle school is so far away from the point when you can actually go out and be your own person, it just seemed impossibly long. By the time I got to college I felt like, Finally – it’s been so many years. I think I was ready to go to college when I was in middle school.
Periodically people would tell me I was really good at something and I would think, Ugh, I’ve failed as a sullen-type person.
The journals [I wrote in] were full of all sorts of teenage angst — of all the things that I needed or wanted to experience.
Did you ever think you would become a scientist? What did you think scientists did all day?
I never thought I would become a scientist. In fact, with my parents both being doctors, I had vague ideas that maybe someday I’d be interested in medicine.
I didn’t find the idea of being a doctor all that interesting, but I did love looking through all the medical textbooks. I read about genetics and all these awful genetic disorders where there are these pictures of all the terrible things that could happen. I found it fascinating and horrifying; I spent a lot of time learning about stuff like that. I wondered when I would feel that call to service – because doctors really have to care about people. I was definitely way more interested in being outside with plants and animals than being inside hospitals. I found hospitals depressing and not somewhere I wanted to be. But I found biology fascinating. Periodically I would go into the hospital with my mom and she would let me wear one of those white coats and walk around with the residents. I got to see how things happened in the hospital – but the biology behind those stories, be it the genetics or the culturing of bacteria in petri dishes, all that stuff was really interesting. It took me a while to realize that it was actually biology that I was interested in and not medicine.
I used to go to summer camp, and I think that’s where my excitement about observing things outside came from. In the summers I went to summer camp in Maine – it was an eight-week-long summer camp. We were packed up and sent away; it was amazing. Summer camp culture is an alternate reality where you have a separate set of friends. One of the things I really liked was that we didn’t have electricity, and the bathrooms were separate from the bunkhouses we lived in; it was more rustic living. And wearing uniforms was awesome because you never had to figure out what you were going to wear — just T-shirt and shorts, every single summer.
What did you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life now?
That I got married and had kids; I always imagined myself as this lone person adventuring out in the world. At that point in my life I couldn’t conceive being connected to people in the way you are when you have a family. I was trying to break away from all these “constraints.” I thought you had a place you come from and you have to go far away and have adventures. I was never thinking about meeting other people and putting down roots with someone else. In middle school I thought my life would be so uncharted – different from anything anybody had ever done before.
If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?
Everybody says this, but it’s so true: Who cares what other people think? If they’re idiots, you don’t care what they think. And if you actually care what they think – you would want them to think about your actual self. Trying to wear different hats or put on some sort of show is kind of useless. I was pretty reserved and I thought it was safer not to speak up to much. I really only found my voice a little bit later on. I always had the sense that other people were really cool and they had more to say than I did. It took me a while to figure out that the people that talk a lot and are really loud aren’t necessarily the people who know the most or have the most interesting things to say. I would have told myself it’s worthwhile to observe a lot; the kind of observation that comes with being a quiet person is really valuable.
Do you have any mementos from middle school?
I have a picture of my grandma in my office at home. After school on Mondays I started going over to her house to bake with her. She always cooked from her head – she had recipes in her head – and as she got older I decided this would be something that I would document: Grandma’s cooking. I would go over and write down recipes as best as I could interpret. But she was really sneaky and she would say [in her best grandma voice], “2 cups of flour, one cup of sugar, and three eggs” and then I’d turn to write it down and look back and catch her putting a pinch of something in and I’d be like, “What did you just put in?” and she’d say, “Oh, nothing, nothing…”
I have this notebook that I’m still using to this day with these recipes written down. She was pretty amazing; she was a Holocaust survivor and lived to be 96. Very positive and very interested in the world. When I finally did go into science, she said, “I always knew – it’s in our blood – my parents were farmers, also.” Which I think is really funny because later on I found out that she grew up on this farm in Hungary, but the farm was a place that produced potatoes as well as other fruits that were distilled down into alcohol.
When I finally did go into science she said, “I always knew – it’s in our blood – my parents were farmers, also.”
Did you collect anything when you were in middle school
I was always collecting little natural history objects. Skeletons, skulls, bones, nuts, feathers… I think that urge got translated into other things. During the era of middle school I collected a lot of cassette tapes and then those would be organized and reorganized.
Did you ever feel like you were the only person like yourself?
I think I was a little bit more intellectual than a lot of people around me and I think that created a certain amount of distance. I thought about things and wrote about things, but a lot of people were just out doing things. I remember thinking that there are all these people that feel like high school was the best period of their lives, which meant it was all going to be downhill from there. I just remember thinking: I really hope this isn’t the high point. I felt contented feeling different from other people knowing that there would be exciting times for me in the future.
At some point someone told me, “Act your age – you’re acting like you’re 30.” I remember thinking, Oh, this is great – now I know that when I hit 30 I’m going to really feel like myself. It was so true. In my late 20’s I was like, Yeah, this is so much better than that awkward middle school business. I wonder who said that to me because they were so right-on – that was it, I was born at 30.
In my head there was this cool person waiting to get out. I think what ended up happening was that there was never a cool person in there; it was just a matter of peeling off the wrapper and finding my true inner nerd.
I always thought my life was so boring. All of these other people had real life experiences. But when I think about the exceptional circumstances in which I was born, all the resources and healthy relationships I had, the boringness came from taking things for granted. I can look back on that now, but I’m sure it will be revisited when my children are older… “Why do we have to pick tomatoes from our garden? Why do we have to speak multiple languages at home?”
At some point someone told me, “Act your age – you’re acting like you’re 30.”
Did you ever get into trouble at school?
Not really. I tried rebelling a couple of times, but I’m not very good at being a rebel. I really liked a lot of my teachers.
Who was your childhood hero?
Bill Nye the Science Guy. He has done so much for my generation to put a face on science that’s exciting.
What is a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
I described a new species of ant — the idea that I could make a discovery like that would have never occurred to me. I know that there are new insect species being described every day. But the birth of a new piece of scientific knowledge with a new species is pretty exciting.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? What would you do with it and why would you want it?
I would want a time machine. But I would want the time machine to go in fast forward so you could make little movies of evolution in action. You play this movie in your head when you think about natural selection; you imagine the giraffe’s neck getting longer, the weevil snout getting longer, something getting hairier in cold temperatures, colors changing, spines emerging… I wouldn’t just want the time machine to go back because then we would just be looking at a different slice of time; I want to see that progression. I want to see it happening in the organisms that I study.
Dr. Andrea Lucky is a research scientists at the University of Florida. She is an evolutionary biologist and biodiversity scientist focused on ant evolution. She works to make science accessible and available to the public through citizen science. Follow her citizen science on Twitter @SchoolOfAnts