It was an honor to chat with biologist Dr. Emilie Rissman before she officially assumes the role of department head for the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences here at at NC State University. My M.O., of course, was to learn about her life as a middle school student and what it was about her particular experiences back then that brought her to where she is today. Read on to learn how her middle school years spanned very different experiences in Chicago and northern California, how she is decidedly unlike her artist father, and how she has no problem being told she’s wrong.
Lea: Where were you in middle school?
Emilie: I was born in Chicago and went to middle school in Chicago through seventh grade. My family moved after seventh grade to northern California and eighth grade was different than the rest of middle school. In Chicago I went to a school called the Lab School, as in Laboratory School, which is associated with the University of Chicago. It’s a private school, relatively small, but a lot of faculty members’ kids went there, but my parents were not on the faculty; it was a really excellent education. John Dewey founded the school and he was an avant garde thinker, philosopher and educator. He was very interested in experiential learning, hands-on learning, problem solving and hypothesis testing. I think it was all of those things combined; we had a lot of hands-on science, lab courses and stuff, even in middle school that got me interested in science.
You moved to northern California for eighth grade, how was that different?
I sent you that very hippie-looking picture
We moved from that kind of area and that kind of educational system to a tiny little town in northern California north of San Francisco – in Bolinas, where Point Reyes is. I went from this very rigorous Lab School to Bolinas Middle School, with all of 15 or 16 other eighth graders. Intellectually it was a completely wasted year. That was completely different. I don’t think there was any science. There was a good math teacher. [laughs] I just kept to the straight and narrow with the things that I liked to do. I did that for a year and then went to high school.
Did you have a particular teacher, from either school, who made a big impact on you?
I had a great teacher in sixth grade, and that was the most influential teacher that I had. She taught math but also was the home room teacher. Her name was Ms. Williams. She was terrific, really outgoing, and liked to organize things. We had all kinds of great activities that we did; everything from problem solving in the class to going ice skating in the winter as a group. She was really my all-time favorite elementary school teacher. She died recently, but I did see her one time about six years ago when I was back in Chicago. It was not unusual to have women teachers in any elementary school; but in ours it was unusual to have a woman teaching science and math. That, I think, was really important. She was also African-American, so that was unusual at that time too.
What are some of the things that you learned in middle school that you bring with you or still remember?
What did I learn last week? One of the reasons I’m excited about being a department head is the inclusiveness of having different people of different education backgrounds and different ideas and putting them all together into some kind of functioning unit. I think that I saw that in my neighborhood and in my school. Doing hands-on science, I’ve always liked, and middle school is where I started doing that.
What was one of your biggest worries in middle school?
Every year we would find out who our homeroom teacher was. We’d all call around to everybody to find out who got which teacher. We liked all the teachers, but the question was who was in the class. The day before school when they sent those letters out we were all on the phone to find out who was going to be in your homeroom; that was really essential.
I was a pretty carefree child. I lived in the city so I did worry about things like getting my bike stolen and stuff, but anybody who lives in the city has those worries.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up and what did they do?
They wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do and be happy. They didn’t really care what I did. They knew I could take care of myself and that I would do something where I could take care of myself. My dad was an artist, a painter. He did large abstract canvases. He never made any money doing that… it was a struggle. He did other things on the side, like educational workshops and we got through somehow. He loved art. I am not artistic at all. He was not practical at all, he just figured things would work out. I’m very practical; so if anything I’m not like my father.
My parents split up when they moved to California. I think that was very typical; at that time the divorce rate in California was higher than any other state in the country. My theory always was that people with rocky marriages would move to California as the new start, but unfortunately their marriages were still rocky so they would just contribute to the high divorce rate. But what was good about that was that half of the kids I knew were from divorced families, whereas in Chicago that would have been an unusual thing. My mom did whatever she could do to get by – she worked in grocery stores a lot. She ran a nutrition counter at something that was a precursor to Whole Foods. She sold vitamins. She did anything that she could do with very little background. I had pretty unusual parents, so I didn’t have a typical childhood in that way.
Did you have any siblings?
I have a brother who is five years younger and he still lives in northern California.
Were you in any clubs or have any extracurricular activities that you participated in?
I was in orchestra and played the flute. It was not a time when women did sports — I wish I had done sports because I love them. I knew how to play tennis and I did play tennis some, but I was not encouraged to do any sports. I feel like that’s one thing I would do over if I had a do over. I think I just studied a lot and was pretty much a nerd. Some of my friends were in choir, but I was not ever a good singer; I’d rather play an instrument than sing. There were not clubs in that same way that there are clubs now where students, even in college, are doing so many different things it’s amazing that they get any sleep. In high school I was in student government.
Did your parents make you practice the flute or did you practice on your own?[laughs] I practiced on my own. They probably preferred that I didn’t practice because I wasn’t that good. [smiles wryly] It was painful. Now I’m a lot better — I started out not very good, but by the end of high school I was good at playing the flute.
You still play?
Yes, but I’m not very good. I don’t have as much time, but I still do like to play behind closed doors. We have a little music room. My husband plays banjo and is now learning mandolin. He also has a ukulele but that’s not serious.
Did you ever think that you would become a scientist one day? What did you think that scientists did all day?[nods] I think in middle school I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I liked science and math. I had no idea what scientists did until I was in college. Yes, I pretty much fell in love with it immediately. Before I met some scientists and started working in a lab at UC San Francisco, I had no idea what scientists did.
What was it about science that you liked?
I liked figuring out how things worked. I love designing experiments and analyzing data. I like animal behavior a lot and so it’s not at all difficult for me to sit for hours and watch animal behavior. I’d rather do that than do molecular stuff where you don’t get to see anything and you just put tubes of stuff together. I like seeing what is happening. In February we went on safari in Africa; it was the most fabulous experience. Everyone in the van would get bored while I would just sit there watching the lions sleep. I got the feeling that everyone else wanted to move on, but you just never know in the natural world what’s going to happen.
What’s your favorite animal behavior to observe?
I used to work with shrews – I loved watching their mating behavior. It was really rowdy and really fantastic to watch. With mice, their mating behavior is not quite as interesting. Now we’ve gotten into behavior research where you don’t even watch the animals – it is just recorded in a box. That’s fine, it’s still data… but the thing I really like watching is maternal behavior. I learned that from a postdoc who was in my lab. I had never looked at maternal behavior before, but she had done that for her PhD and wanted to switch and do it in mice. It’s quite wonderful — now that’s my favorite.
If you could give your middle school or younger self some advice, what would you tell yourself?
I was very uptight when I was young. I would probably say, “Relax!” That would be my advice. I was really self-motivated to do well and to do everything. I think I probably missed some of being a kid because I was so serious.
I think I probably missed some of being a kid because I was so serious.
What do you think made you so serious?
I think probably having a dad who was marginally employed. Also being in the school that I was in, which was pretty high-powered for middle school, with a bunch of smart people. I never considered myself smart because I was with this incredible group. When it came time for college they all went to Harvard and Yale and the “dropouts” went to Bryn Mawr or something; just an amazing peer group. I thought I was just average. I was always trying to get better because my fellow students were so amazing and gifted. I still am in touch with some of them and they’re just amazing people. Peers are really important.
I have two stepdaughters and they were always incredibly good students and they also both played a lot of sports. They learned how to work as a team, which is so important. We never worried about them because a) they were such good students and b) they were doing their sports and too exhausted to get into any trouble. They hung out with such really great girls that it was never an issue. Your peers are critical. Now they’re really amazing women.
I thought I was just average. I was always trying to get better because my fellow students were so amazing and gifted… Peers are really important.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?
I think my middle school self would have predicted that I would stay in school and be a permanent student. I would have predicted that I would have a job that’s secure — which is what a tenure-track job at a university is; it’s the ultimate in security. I don’t think there are too many surprises… [reflecting] interesting. I was pretty much grown-up at 13. Maybe that I like sports as much as I do, because that was something that I just didn’t do, that’s the only thing I can think of. The other stuff is pretty predictable.
Is there a memento that you keep with you from your childhood?
There are lots of things. I have some little pins that were my dad’s that he gave me when I was young. They were goofy; pins from his fraternity when he was in college. I have a lot of photographs, which I guess when I retire I’ll have time to organize these things. I have a funny Scottish cap that was my father’s; it’s red, white and blue with a tail and a button on the top and it sits on my head like a beret. Aside from school pictures, I don’t think I’ve kept anything of my own. Both of my parents are deceased so I have things that were from them that were in our house.
Did you collect anything?
I collected shells. I used to keep them in a bowl and then other places as I grew up. I gave them to my stepdaughters and they did stuff with them including putting them in an aquarium. I finally threw them out, but most of them were from Cape Cod. I’m not a pack rat.
When did you go to your first concert and what band or artist was playing?[falls into a very nostalgic voice] Once we moved to San Francisco I went to tons of concerts, rock concerts and stuff. The most notable concert that I remember was seeing James Taylor when I was about 13. He was amazing, and is still amazing. There used to be concerts in San Francisco – there would be Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles and all of these people playing all day in Candlestick Park or Golden Gate Park. I went to tons of concerts. I remember seeing Joan Baez when I was in college at the Greek Theatre on the Berkeley campus. Those people were so good.
The first concert I went to was when I was six or seven when I started going to the ballet. There’s nothing like the artistry and athleticism. I used to love Giselle; I suppose it was the Chicago ballet. I just loved ballet – I took modern dance and tried ballet, but liked modern dance better. That was something I did in middle school — I took dance lessons. I was exposed to orchestra early.
When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming one day?
I wanted to get out of my crazy home.
What did being an adult mean to you?
I thought I wanted to be a firefighter. I probably wanted to be a doctor at some point because I liked math and science, but I didn’t really like being around sick people so that didn’t make any sense. But once I got into a lab — that was it.
Did you play outside a lot?
Yes. In middle school we played outside in the summer and winter. In the winter we would ice skate. There were these fields called “the Midway” and they would freeze them over and people would go out and skate on them in the winter. We did sledding, but we only had very tiny hills. When I see them now when I go back to Chicago, I laugh because they were such tiny hills. In the summer we rode our bikes a lot and played softball in the street. We were outside all the time cycling and rollerskating. When I moved to California most of the little girls had horses, so I had a horse. I was outside all year round riding my horse. I think that’s an excellent thing for adolescent girls. It gives them a sense of power; to know you can control an animal that’s that big is pretty darn cool. That’s the main thing I did in California. I also played tennis — I liked tennis a lot. I was outside a lot. We also did things like collecting fireflies and torturing tiny spiders; my brother and I did that.
You can see the appeal of Bolinas when you have a horse. We used to ride to the beach and then we’d go into the water. It was pretty fun. We occasionally used saddles, but hardly ever. You may as well be bareback so you can go into the water. It was really fun. All the little boys surfed and all the little girls had horses. I kept that horse for three years, but once I really got interested in high school it was hard. The high school was in Mill Valley, so it was a 45 minute ride over a very curvy road every day. My dad moved to Mill Valley, so once he moved there I moved there with him. I kept the horse for a little while but could only see him on weekends. Someday I hope to ride again.
I was outside all year round riding my horse. I think that’s an excellent thing for adolescent girls. It gives them a sense of power; to know you can control an animal that’s that big is pretty darn cool.
Did you ever have a professional crisis and think about throwing in the towel?
I did, actually, when I was in the middle of my graduate career; I was going to do my thesis on a field project. The field project wasn’t working out at all. I didn’t know what to do – it was just not working. It was not going to get me a dissertation. I went through six weeks of freaking out and trying to figure out what I was going to do. I wound up switching to a very straightforward, streamlined lab project to just make sure I wasn’t there for the rest of my life.
I’ve had a lot students that do their work more piecemeal. Their dissertation is not one unit that hangs together; I think that cohesive unit is more rare now. Graduate students will start out doing one thing and get to a certain point and then it just doesn’t look like the work is that scientifically interesting or they get interested in something else. So their dissertations end up being a little of this and a little of that. I tell them that that’s OK. I always tell postdocs that it will never happen in the first year. The first year nothing will work, and usually that’s true. That avoids panic.
I’m sure they appreciate that honesty and understanding.
Well, it’s true; my first year of my postdoc we did a bunch of different things and nothing worked.
How much of your scientific discoveries were due to chance?
Not very much. It was chance that I started working on a project that I was doing, but not chance like there was an outcome that was totally bizarre. It was “chance” in that the things that I studied sometimes were not predicted or not necessarily the most straightforward organism or question.
Who were your adult role models? What about them did you or do you try to emulate?
The second person with whom I did research was a guy at UC Berkeley named Irv Zucker. He was doing circadian rhythm work, work on biological processes that happen on daily cycles, but was transitioning to circannual rhythms (processes on yearly cycles) and seasonal breeding. He was definitely a role model. I really liked how open he was with people, how he had an open door policy. He had a big lab; he did not have very many undergraduates, but he was very nurturing of people in the lab. We still have a community of Zucker protégés out there in the world. Nobody has a bad thing to say about him. He’s also very good at experimental design.
My postdoc advisor, Frank Bronson, was also excellent at experimental design. Frank was not as nurturing as Irv, he was at the University of Texas at Austin and just retired a year ago. He had a small lab and cared about what people were doing. He wasn’t interested in the whole person like Irv was. Irv would know everything about you and would know if you had kids, what your kids’ names were, more paternal. Frank wasn’t like that, but Frank was the best experimental design person I’ve ever met. He knew exactly how to cut to the chase and design a study that would get you the best results most quickly. He was really fantastic in that way. Those were the best science role models.
How often did someone tell you that you were wrong? Were there any particularly memorable occasions?
That’s a weird question… I’m told that all the time. Especially by my husband. I’m happy to be wrong, it doesn’t bother me to be wrong. I would say that happens with frequency and I can’t even remember because it happens so much and that’s OK. That’s the beginning of a good conversation. I’d rather have a student that tells me that I’m wrong than a student that does everything I say that they should do without questioning it. It’s good for people to challenge me; don’t say that to any of the faculty, though.
I’m happy to be wrong, it doesn’t bother me to be wrong.
Did you ever feel bored when you were a kid?
No, I liked to read. There was always something going on.
What were some of your favorite books?
I loved The Hobbit, that was one of my favorites. I remember one summer when I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That was the summer before we moved to California, and we stayed in Big Sur at a campground for a month. I read the trilogy then, that was pretty fun. We went to the beach every day and looked for wild boars, which were evidently roaming in the campground and if they got into your tent they would rip their way out through the other end.
Did you ever find one?
No, I never saw one, but I’m sure they’re there.
Did you ever feel that you were somehow different from other children?
When we moved to California I was… different. The other kids had grown up in Bolinas. I was a city girl. I was different. I think I fit in pretty well, it just took a little time.
Did you ever get into trouble when you were in school?
No. I remember once I was in a school play and I messed up a line and I felt like I had gotten into trouble, but really nobody cared. Nobody knew what the line was supposed to be. I was a goodie goodie.
What is a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
I think that the work on sex differences, just in general, was a topic that was not discussed or thought about in middle school in those days. It was clearly something that middle school students knew. It was the beginning of the age of flirting and hanging out with boys and girls. Sort of in couples and sort of in groups. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but I think that sex differences would have been really cool to know about.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be, what would you do with it and why would you want it?
I’m sure everybody says reading other people’s minds. [I shake my head] No? Let me just think about it… it’s a pretty complicated wish because there are times that you don’t want it. I think I’d want it when I want it, but not have it most of the time. But when I needed it — that would be nice.
Dr. Emilie Rissman is a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. We look forward to welcoming her to Raleigh, NC, in November 2014 as the first permanent department head of the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences at NC State University.