Before They Were Scientists: Rob Dunn

It seems kind of shocking that I’ve interviewed 32 scientists and science writers for our “Before They Were Scientists” series, and yet somehow our fearless leader, Dr. Rob Dunn, has escaped my probing questions about life in middle school. We’ve rectified that today. Read on to learn about the origins of Rob’s curiosity, his obsession with chasing critters (that’s him holding the two fish in the photo above), and his estimate for how many species live on and in the human body.

Lea: How did you first become interested in science?

Rob: The answer to any question like this one is a kind of lie. Who knows where things start. My favorite version of this lie though has to do with my grandfather. He was cursed with curiosity as though it were a sort of very virulent pathogen. It infected him systemically and never left him alone. This curiosity led him, for example, to be deeply bothered by the Dark Ages. I remember him asking me, when I was too young to answer but old enough to have already been designated as the family scientist, how it could be that curiosity so comprehensively died during the dark ages. I don’t have an answer to that question, but I do have my grandfather’s same infection. It is an infection he took into his everyday life and I was lucky enough to realize I could take into science. Curiosity is certainly one part of science and I get some of my curiosity from him.

What about the other parts of science?

I am a biologist. I think that natural history is at the core of how we should study biology. We notice things in the living world that make us curious, and we investigate, systematically, doggedly. My parents were and are both great natural historians and thanks to them I spent most of my childhood outside catching things. My dad loves snakes, my mom plants and mammals. They also, and this was a big piece, tolerated my tendency to bring anything and everything from the outside inside. I had turtles, snakes, crayfish, chipmunks, mean little baby raccoons, catfish, snapping turtles and nearly anything else I could gather as a “pet” at one point or another.  I was sprayed by skunks more than once. I’m even surprised they let me in.

The truth is though I didn’t really understand what science was until graduate school.

My parents were and are both great natural historians and thanks to them I spent most of my childhood outside catching things.
What do you mean?

I mean I thought science was the same as just watching nature and conserving it. As it turned out, science was something even better. Science was thinking of questions and then answering them. It was watching nature so as to come up with questions, but then combining history, experiments, and imagination to figure everything out. Science is so much greater than I ever would have imagined when I started graduate school, or as a middle school student. The more I do science, the more I feel this joy of being able to think of questions and work with people to answer them.

The more I do science, the more I feel this joy of being able to think of questions and work with people to answer them.
What would most surprise your middle school self about who you are?

I have trouble remembering my middle school self very well, to be honest. I do remember thinking about how cool it would be to be part of a team of super heroes, which is strange because I wasn’t so much a superhero-loving kind of kid. But I daydreamed about being part of a team that would solve problems. That is what science has become for me.  I get to work with scientists—students, postdocs, colleagues—who are superheroes in terms of their skills, in order to address questions I never could on my own. Ain’t none of us that can fly, but we can see the truth, or try to see more truth each day.

That probably wasn’t a story about middle school at all now that I think of it.

What do you remember about middle school?

I remember that for some reason I was supposed to calculate the number of bottle caps that would fit an enormous box. Or maybe it was the size of a box that would hold a million bottle caps. It must have been busy work, but it seemed special at the time. Also, holding mercury. We were given a glob of mercury to pass around.

Anything else?

Sports. I wrestled. I actually think that ended up being relevant to science. I wrestled and then did other sports from second grade on. I spent a big part of each year throwing someone through the air, being thrown through the air, or elbowing someone in the face.  I came to appreciate that if you tried harder that you could do better. That sounds stupid. But professionally I still live by that idea, that you can do better through harder work. That isn’t the whole story. Opportunities matter. Raw cleverness does too. Also, access to resources. But being willing to keep going, to persevere when you are getting smashed bloody in the face; that counts for a lot.

How did you start writing about science in addition to doing science. Isn’t that a little unusual, to do both?

I don’t think it is so unusual. Maybe. Anyway, I think writing and other arts and science are after the same thing, truths. I think writers and artists have an easier time achieving truths than do scientists, lasting truths anyway.  A great piece of art from the 1400s is still humbling and awesome. A great piece of science from the same time is just, most of the time, wrong. I like doing both science and writing, science and art. Both are humbling, joyful, rich and, when you get it all right, make you want to jump up and down and call the neighbors. This is probably a reasonable time to apologize to the neighbors.

I think writers and artists have an easier time achieving truths than do scientists, lasting truths anyway.
What about the belly buttons?

What do you mean?

I mean, what would your middle school self think about the kind of science you now do?

Oh, I don’t know. We study ridiculous things, but we do it because, as it turns out the ridiculous places in our daily lives are totally unknown. I find it fun to make discoveries, but making them where everyone else has missed them, it is like, to go back to the wrestling, winning a match you were supposed to lose.

What about –
[interrupted]…

Going back a little. The other thing about middle school was lakes. I grew up in Michigan. We had lakes. Cars and lakes.  So in middle school I spent a huge number of hours in boats, hours fishing, hours catching things.  I love being out in a boat catching stuff. On my wedding day (my wedding was at my parents’ house), my wife-to-be and I went out in a canoe. I nearly tipped us over trying to catch a snapping turtle. I vacillate between remembering that as a moment in which I narrowly avoided the most awful wedding story ever and the moment at which I almost caught an enormous snapping turtle but didn’t.

I vacillate between remembering that as a moment in which I narrowly avoided the most awful wedding story ever and the moment at which I almost caught an enormous snapping turtle but didn’t.
What do you hope to accomplish with your career?

That is a hard question.

One you won’t answer?

No, I’ll answer it.  I’d like to help bring together a team of superheroes to make discoveries all around the world, discoveries we can’t yet imagine. Discoveries I can write about until I’m old.

Is that all? You aren’t going to say more?

Probably not.

[silence]
Would you do something different if you were to do your early career again?

Oh, c’mon.

[silence right back]

Alright, I was just thinking. I guess I wished someone would have told me early on that essentially all the cool stuff remains to be studied and so don’t waste your time studying boring things. I’ve studied some boring things. We are still in the Dark Ages. Science is amazing as it has ever been, discoveries as new and possible. I wish I would have understood that, but it is a hard thing to believe. Yet, the more I see as a scientist, the more sure I am how little we know.  I could figure out how many bottle caps would fit in the box now, but I don’t have any idea, say, how many species are living in the average human body.

Yet, the more I see as a scientist, the more sure I am how little we know.
How many do you think there might be.

A hundred thousand.

Really?

Sure. Well, I don’t know. But neither does anyone else and so I could say a million and no one would be able to prove me wrong for a generation. Actually, can I change my answer. I think there are a million species in the average human body. Maybe that will convince some middle schooler to try to prove me wrong.

Maybe that will convince some middle schooler to try to prove me wrong.
Then what?

I’d hire her of course, for my superhero team.

 

Rob Dunn is a writer and biologist in the Department of Biological Sciences at NC State University. Through collaborations with the public — and now middle school students, especially — he studies the life inhabiting some of our last scientific frontiers: human backyards, basements, and bodies. His writing focuses on the stories of the scientists behind the science, who they are, what they do, and how and why they did it. He has written three books, Every Living Thing, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, and the forthcoming The Man Who Touched His Own Heart (2015). Follow him on Twitter @robrdunn.

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:57+00:00 August 1st, 2014|

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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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  1. […] “The truth is I didn’t really understand what science was until graduate school.” – Rob Dunn, in interview with Lea Shell, Your Wild Life […]

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