Before They Were Scientists: Michelle Wcisel

In the swing of Shark Week, I was able to virtually sit down with white shark researcher, Michelle Wcisel. As we talked, I noticed a “Smarty Pants” mug full of pens resting on top of a dresser and a sticker-covered door visible just behind her shoulder. Books lined the walls behind her head and there was a sense of nostalgia all around her – it was as if she was sitting in her den recounting middle school life from the very place it happened. I enjoyed chatting with Michelle about how she, a land-locked Michigan native, evolved into a scientist who studies the ocean. Read on to learn about her transition from preppy sweater to black hair dye, how she was convinced she would become a music teacher, and an argument with her science teacher about Pluto.

Lea: Where were you in middle school?

Michelle: I grew up in Davidson, which is just outside of Flint, Michigan. Which is famous for not-so-good things to be famous for. It’s a rural community; I lived out in the countryside out by the farms on a dirt road, which was impossible to get down in the snow, but still a lot of fun.

What are the words that pop into your head when you think of middle school?

It was very much a time of transition for me. Which I think is the same for most students. When I started middle school I… I shouldn’t even tell this story… I was quite serious about schoolwork and grades. For being ten years old I was uber serious about my mission of getting A’s. By the time I left middle school that all kind of changed. Not that I didn’t care, but I wanted to do more than just what schooling was. I started to get a bit restless with middle school life. Here I was going into high school… I felt like, I’m going to be a high schooler, what can anybody tell me about life? I know everything. As all 13 and 14 year old kids do. It was definitely a time of figuring out what kind of person I was going to be and kind of bouncing from extreme to extreme until I finally got into a nice middle ground of caring about work but also trying to do other things that are interesting. From the top trying to be the straight-A student to stopping caring completely. I came back in high school and realized I needed to get into college, but the middle school time was a crazy time for me.

What was crazy about it? Was it your friends? Things you were into?

I think the start of everyone’s teenage rebellion that you go through. You can see it progress in my pictures. My first picture in middle school I’m wearing a nice sweater, but my last days in middle school into high school I was dying my hair black and trying to listen to all the loud music… as if I even really liked that music. I didn’t, but I was just there to cause trouble by the end of it. Which was quite fun, but I also got myself into a lot of trouble, too.

How did you get into trouble?

I was too sarcastic about things. I started band then as well. You know band kids are nothing but troublemakers. Just trying to do really sarcastic stuff. When I ran for class representative in the school government I was making campaign signs with Joey Lawrence on them and the school didn’t appreciate that. I was coming up with acronyms with naughty words that I could be for the student body. They didn’t appreciate that… things like that; I was getting myself into trouble. I was starting to figure out that… you grow up thinking that adults are all superheroes and that they’re infallible and they’re masters of the universe. Once you start hitting your teenage years you realize they’re just people as well and I started to embrace that and also try to take advantage of it. Some of my poor teachers that I had… it was a fun time, but at the same time when I think about those posters… I hope I never run into a kid that was as bad as me when I’m teaching. I really pushed it as far as I could when it came to things like that. Oh well.

I hope I never run into a kid that was as bad as me when I’m teaching.
Tell me about the form you sent me.

My mom bought this book and at the beginning of every school year we filled it out. We put what we wanted to be when we grew up. My first one from pre-school my job I really wanted to have was to fix clocks. From there it went from fixing clocks, to being an artist, to then ocean explorer, ocean explorer, ocean explorer, oceanographer when I finally learned there was a name for that. From a very early age I was quite interested in the ocean. Really that was inspired by seeing it on TV. Back in our golden era when you watched the Discovery Channel and National Geographic it was about discovering things, and cultural things and these beautiful natural history things that were occurring. That’s kind of changed in recent years, but that was what really started me – watching things like Shark Week when I was a kid and seeing all these incredible animals in the ocean. Being so far removed from that living in Michigan, that was something I wanted to see in my life and be more involved with.

When I started to finish my undergraduate degree I moved to Florida. I did a lot of work in Florida, had my first internship there. I did eventually make it to the ocean, it just took a long time to finally get down there.

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I like that you had your career written in and didn’t use one of the suggestions.

No.

[miming writing] “Oceanographer”

You didn’t need a checklist.

I made my own box, thanks. [laughs]

Do you have any memorable classroom moments from middle school?

This is a good example of me being irritating to my poor teachers: I had a science teacher, Mrs. Kushara, who I absolutely loved because she just seemed like the funnest person in the world and she taught science. It was a combination of being amazing and her teaching science – who knows, could have played a hand in me going into science later in life.

We were learning about the planets and the order of the planets and Pluto being the last planet. But at that time Neptune was the last planet because they swapped orbits. I was that obnoxious student that raised my hand and said that Neptune was the last planet. She said it was Pluto. We had this long discussion about it, I can’t believe it, twenty minutes of class time was gone talking about it. What was cool about it was that the next day she came back and said, “Actually, I went home and looked it up and Neptune is the last planet at the moment.” So something we all got to learn with Neptune being the last planet at the time. That’s probably one of my favorite science-related classroom moments. There were quite a few band things… getting in trouble.

What instrument did you play?

I played alto saxophone. And I thought I was the bomb. You had to carry that huge case onto the bus, that was not cool. People push you and stuff, but it’s a saxophone. Did you practice on your own or did your parents make you practice?

I really liked music. That was my first calling in life. I really thought that when I grew up I was going to be a music teacher. I knew that in the core of my bones that that was what I was going to be when I grew up. I was huge into music. I would practice a lot, just because I wanted to. Which was strange and uncharacteristic. I loved it; especially the jazz combos we used to do – I was crazy about jazz combos.

I really thought that when I grew up I was going to be a music teacher.
Do you still play?

No. We found my saxophone a few months ago and I can still make noise on it.

What was your biggest worry in middle school?

I think social stuff really becomes your forefront worry in middle school. I wasn’t so concerned about being popular, I was more concerned about just not being the weirdo. I think I was, anyways, I should have just accepted it. Just being the awkward, nerdy kid I was highly aware of not wanting to be portrayed in that way. Which is probably why I resorted to dying my hair black and wearing chains just to fit into something other than what I actually was – which was the geeky girl. I should have just accepted that instead and saved myself the hair dye and other expenses. I think that was my biggest concern in middle school; not being exposed as being this person that was interested in science and wanting to go on into that path.

Especially in my area, being from near Flint, a lot of people worked for General Motors. The goal in this area is to become an engineer or some sort of skills trade career that could translate to General Motors and into a good paying job. To be a woman in science – not having an interest in cars – I was very aware of trying to avoid that kind of stereotype and tried to be something else. My poor parents. My mom always said, “I didn’t care when you were dying your hair because hair can grow back, do what you want with your hair.” But when I wanted to get my face pierced she said “No. That’s not going to grow back.” I wanted to have six eyebrow rings – the more piercings the better. All the way down my ear. I was desperate to do the cheek piercings you put in dimples, I wanted those so bad… luckily my mom put her foot down.

That’s good parenting, right there. What did your parents do? What did they want you to be when you grew up?

My mom works at the community college in town. She works as an office assistant. My father worked at General Motors and worked on the line. Their goal for both me and my older sister was just to go to college. It wasn’t trying to be a particular career or whatever, they just wanted to see us finish college, which was something they both really would have liked to do themselves if their circumstances had been different. Just finishing college and graduating from it was a big celebration in our family, for both my sister and I. Now that I’ve just completed my masters I might be the only person in the family who has gone on to graduate school that I can think of so far. It was really completing stuff, not necessarily a particular career to go into.

Congratulations, that’s a big deal. How did you get to school? You said you rode the bus.

Rooooooddde the bus aaaaaaalll the way. Being way out in the country it was a loooooonnnggg bus ride. I was the first one picked up and the last one dropped off. The bus, again it was another one of those social territories where if you could just be unnoticed, that was a benefit. Just be as small and insignificant as possible. I would always try to sit in the front, because no one wants to sit in the front, and I would use my saxophone case as a guard to hide behind so I could just be left alone. It was the bus the entire time – back when you could only put the windows down only two notches. Buses were a bit of a death trap back then, I don’t know if they’re the same now.

They haven’t changed much. They put new vinyl on the seats, but other than that it’s the same bus.

Man. The bus. It was almost dark by the time you got home, too. It was terrible.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

I really liked science, music and art class. Those were my three favorites ever. I also quite liked the technology class. But back then, again, it’s so incredible how much technology has changed in just our generation. Back then laser discs were the premier technology. Just being able to make a program draw a star for you – you were the technological guru of the school if you could manage that one. Those were definitely my favorites.

What was it about science that you liked?

I could learn about science and then see it. It wasn’t just a book. I felt like English and history were just something you read, committed to memory and spat back out again when you were done with it. With science you learn something about chemistry or the natural world – photosynthesis in the trees – and walk outside and there it is. I think that’s what I appreciated most about science and what really brought me into it – it’s immediate tangibility to your life and being able to apply it immediately.

I was terrible at art, I just really liked it. I think it had to do with art class being one of those places where it was OK to do whatever you wanted. You didn’t have to worry about drawing the best flower; the more weird your flower was, that was considered more cool. It was a place where you could just be you. It was a judgment free zone amongst kids in middle school. That’s what I liked about that one.

…[A]rt class [was] one of those places where it was OK to do whatever you wanted.
Is there something that you learned in middle school that really stuck with you?

Middle school for me was also the beginning of really becoming passionate about music. I think that’s what stuck with me and carried on through high school and college. I really loved it. That was the beginning of it all.

What was the first concert that you went to?
[nostalgically] Warped tour. Remember Warped tour? It was the Blink 182 year. That was my first concert – it was amazing. It was down in Detroit… life was just getting real going down to Detroit for a concert in a parking lot. All of the stages were stacked on top of each other. I remember thinking it was amazing – I had made it as a person to be able to go to a concert – it was phenomenal.

Did your parents drop you off?

My friend’s parents dropped us off [laughs] and went to the casino and came back and got us afterwards.

Other than band, did you have any other hobbies or extracurricular activities?

I tried to do cross country. I thought – all the people in cross country were really fit – so I could do that. I’m terrible at running and I have a short attention span. I don’t know how people run for hours – two minutes into it I’m looking for something else to do. I couldn’t do it very well; I was always last. I was the worst cross countryer. The pinnacle moment in my cross country career when I decided it wasn’t for me was when we were at a meet at another school to run and I was the last one. I was exhausted and could not believe I had done this to myself. Coming up to the finish line there were two older guys sitting next to the line eating hot dogs. They look up at me and yell, “run faster!” I was like, No. I’m done with this. So I stopped – that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back that day. That was it. Couldn’t do it.

Don’t sit and yell at middle school kids to run faster, that’s pretty low. I think there was a cooler of beer there as well, it just wasn’t right.

Did you ever think that you would become a scientist and what did you think scientists did all day?

No, not until University did it strike me that it could be a real possibility that I could be a researcher and that somebody would pay me to do this. It wasn’t until then – I think I was about twenty, maybe even twenty-one that I figured out that this could be something that I could do. When I did my first internship – that really opened up my eyes down in Florida. I worked with a nonprofit and met those researchers and saw that real people that had houses and kids that had real lives and that science was a real thing that people do as a job. From then on out I decided I needed to find a way to make it happen.

If somebody asked me what a scientist did in middle school I would have assumed the stereotype of working in a lab with a white coat and safety goggles. That’s what researchers were – I had no that there were such things as animal scientists or zoologists – I just thought it was just David Attenborough and he was the only zoologist in the world. There was only room for one and he was doing it. That was my exposure to it – that’s what I thought. That was a big turning point in my life when I finally figured that out. Most later than most people probably do, but I got there in the end.

If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would you tell yourself?

I would tell myself not to care so much about the social scene. To not give it any weight. It was something I was quite fearful of in middle school. I would tell myself it doesn’t matter – all these things that I stressed out about: where I was going to sit at lunch, who said what about somebody… just let it go. Just focus on the things you want to do and be OK with who you are. Embrace it, go with it. Don’t try to fit into something else. Just chill out about the social scene.

Just focus on the things you want to do and be OK with who you are. Embrace it, go with it. Don’t try to fit into something else. Just chill out about the social scene.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?

All the travel that I’ve done. I was a real homebody – even when I went to University. We often joke about this in my family. They moved me to my dorm I was 19 and crying like a baby. I did not want to leave home. I had no interest in moving outside of Davidson, I wanted to stay there my whole life. Why were they forcing me to go away? It was a really traumatic thing. Now, I’ve lived in South Africa for four years. Traveled in Europe, did the Antarctica thing… once the travel bug bit me it just never let go. I think she would be most surprised that I’ve traveled as much as I have.

Is there a memento that you keep with you from your childhood? What is its significance?

I’m at home, so I’m surrounded by old Polaroid pictures. I’ve got quite a few of those from middle school – my friends I hung out with. All of my graduation tassels – I still have those; a few of those little things that I keep around to remember where I’ve come from.

What were some of your favorite books growing up?

The Narnia collection… when Harry Potter came out, that was a life-changing milestone in everybody’s life. I tried to read more of the serious books; I think there’s something from my seventh grade yearbook where I said I was trying to read Moby Dick… no way. I may have had it in my hand, but I don’t think I ever really attempted more than a few sentences of it. Reading was big in my family. I came from a big reading family [gestures to books behind her] that’s just one of the walls in the house that’s covered in books. It was a big part of our lives – it never struck me as anything different. I assumed everybody read books like my parents did. I was really shocked when I discovered that wasn’t the case with everyone.

How much did you play outside?

All the time – I would only come inside once dinner was ready and the bell would go off in the back yard.

There was a bell?

Oh, yeah – not the triangle kind, but a ship bell. When that would go off we’d come in and eat. I was always outside, even in the wintertime.

What did you do outside?

I was always obsessed with predators – whatever they were. Bears, fox, hawks – in my backyard that was wooded – I would pretend I was a wolf. I would move through the grass as quietly as I could as if I was stalking an imaginary deer. That’s what I used to do in the backyard. “Where’s Michelle?” “Hiding in the bushes, pretending she’s a wolf…”

I would pretend I was a wolf. I would move through the grass as quietly as I could as if I was stalking an imaginary deer.
Did you collect anything?

I used to collect plants. Mostly seeds. I used to have this tea set… I don’t know if it was given to me as a gift thinking I would use it like a tea set… but I took it outside and used the cups – like a witch. I would keep the seeds in all the cups. I’d come up with concoctions. I was huge into seeds. That eventually translated to rocks and I got quite a good rock collection going for a while. I was big into the plants… all the cattails and dandelions; I’d line them up like they were some special potion ingredients.

Have you ever had a professional crisis or think about throwing in the towel and think about doing something different?

Definitely. Especially when you work with particular species – especially if you work with a charismatic species – it attracts a lot of attention. Working with great white sharks, there are a lot of people attracted to that species. Any time you get a big group of people together you’re going to get a few outliers in the group who are out there with their beliefs who want to attack you and what you’re doing, especially when it comes to research.

We were doing a tagging campaign in South Africa with white sharks and there were a few people who thought that the tagging protocol wasn’t great. They were non-scientists criticizing the protocol. It started to get attention and people were starting to go to government offices with complaints. There was a time during that when I thought I don’t think I can do this. You’re working so hard to try and help a species; to conserve areas – and then you get personally attacked by people who have a belief that what you’re doing is wrong. I just thought that was insane. During that tagging campaign and a few other times I thought… Maybe it would be best to go back to hiding behind my saxophone case and be done with it.

Is there anything that gets you beyond that?

If I sit back and think about how far I’ve come. To let one or two people try and stop my journey in life… that’s not going to happen. I’ve come way too far and worked way too hard to let the opinions of one or two people get in my way of what I want to carry on doing.  When I look at the bigger picture – especially with white sharks in South Africa – the things we’ve achieved and that we now know that we didn’t know before. The huge leaps and bounds that we’re having with the conservation of them and how that links to the rest of the ecosystem… that’s been phenomenal as well. It’s sometimes a bit challenging to ignore those one or two voices when they’re so loud, but if you can step back and see the bigger picture around you – it can get you through those moments.

I’ve come way too far and worked way too hard to let the opinions of one or two people get in my way of what I want to carry on doing.
How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?

Being a young researcher I haven’t really had the ability to take many chances on things. Most of the methods we’ve ever used or equipment has been tried and true. Especially working in South Africa where funding is so limited, you have to basically prove that absolutely 100% what you’re about to do is going to work. There’s no chances of failing. For me that doesn’t really apply – not yet – in the future I’m hoping to take a few more chances and explore a few more ideas. So far I’ve been sticking to what is known already.

What fascinated you as a kid?

Predators. My dad was huge into nature as well; when he used to work third shift at GM (that’s overnight) and would have a day off – he’d still be on third shift mode. He was used to starting work at nine at night and quitting at seven in the morning. During the summer break it was really cool to hang out with him outside at night. He’d show all the stars – he knew all the stars – and fireflies. One of the things we absolutely loved to do was sit out back by this marshy area and see the bats. I thought bats were incredible – you could hear them using their echolocation to try to catch things. Those were some of my absolute favorite memories of being a child and I think inspired my love of predators. Those late nights watching the bats chasing down the poor moths; I thought it was fascinating.

Those were some of my absolute favorite memories of being a child and I think inspired my love of predators.
Who were your adult role models? Did you try to emulate anyone?

David Attenborough. I thought he was the only zoologist in the world – I thought he was phenomenal. Back then, people weren’t featured in documentaries; it was all about the animals and the science. It was just the voices and the narrators – so David Attenborough was my number one idol. Whatever he was doing, I wanted to be that someday.

How often did someone tell you that you were wrong?

All the time… I think that’s part of being a scientist. Sitting around talking about who’s most wrong about the idea we’re talking about. I’ve been told I’ve been wrong a few times – sometimes proven wrong – I think that’s cool. If you can surround yourself with a group of people that you can have good conversations with and prove each other wrong about one thing or another, that’s good – it helps you grow. If I had to narrow it down to just one time that I’ve been told I was wrong… it’s impossible.

If you can surround yourself with a group of people that you can have good conversations with and prove each other wrong about one thing or another, that’s good – it helps you grow.
Did you often feel bored as a kid? What did your parents say when you said, “I’m bored.”

I was mostly bored at school – that’s where the rebellion kicked in. I lost interest in school so fast. That’s when my sarcastic self kicked in – that’s what got me in trouble… thinking about something else to do… go read something else or make inappropriate signs for student government. At home I was outside so I never got bored with that.

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

When I was in middle school I used to love watching Shark Week. Basically the premise of Shark Week is how Great White sharks are the ultimate predator and how seals stand no chance. If they’re near the water, they’re going to die. That’s how it’s portrayed. What we found out in my masters is that seals are quite clever; especially in the system I was working in – they used structures to their advantage. They use kelp and shallow reefs; they’re good at hiding and getting away from sharks if they see them coming. I would be interested in that as a middle schooler.

Did you ever feel like you were somehow different than other kids?

Yes… when I was a really small child I used to tell my mom that I was an alien. I knew with 100% conviction that I was an alien. She said, “No – I was pregnant!” I said, “No, it’s all a conspiracy and I came from a space ship,” and that she was in on it too. I knew I was an alien – I stuck out as something completely different. We often joke about my alien days. I was convinced; there was no amount of pictures she could show me as a baby – that wasn’t me.

knew with 100% conviction that I was an alien.
Were you really into Superman?

Big time. Batman the most… but Superman was up there too.

If you could have a super power, what would it be, why would want it and what would you do with it?

If I could have one superpower… I think if I could have one it would be the ability to breathe underwater. I think that would be awesome – and to be able to go at any depth in the ocean – that’s a key part of it as well. With that… I would explore everything. I would be in the ocean the entire time, I don’t think I’d ever leave it. Just see what the animals are doing – that’s a huge limitation we’re hit with, especially with oceanic species. Once they go below 100 meters underwater we have no idea what they’re doing. There’s only a handful of people on this planet who have gone to the real depths of the ocean.

I’m obsessed with sperm whales – I think they’re incredible. I would follow a sperm whale – I want to see where they go and what they’re doing when they go that deep. I have to know.

Michelle Wcisel B.Sc., M.Sc. Zoology is a science communicator working with EDNA Interactive as the scientific communicator and advisor. In her free time she loves to read everything about anything and loves the Internet. Here’s a little preview of what her shark research in South Africa looked like. Follow her on Twitter @ExpatScientist 

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:57+00:00 August 22nd, 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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