Before They Were Scientists: Julie Hecht

Julie Hecht began our interview by admitting she was nervous because, to her, middle school was horribly awkward. I assured her that she would never have to go back, but just had to share a few memories with me. Our interview, punctuated by lots of laughter, reinforced that even if you’re not into science as a middle school student, it doesn’t mean that you won’t end up a scientist. Learn how she eventually found her way into researching human’s best friend after being obsessed with Archie Comics, her dead end (pun intended, wait for it) career as a thespian, and how her fear of fire almost caused her to fail middle school science.

Lea: What comes to mind? Why do you think that middle school was so horrible for you?

Julie: I think it’s just a hard stage in people’s lives. I was covered in pimples and I thought a lot about that. I think it’s feeling socially awkward and not knowing whether things will be any different in the future. I had friends and a lot of fun… but my face was filled with pimples.

Well, it looks like things have improved.
[I refer to her current state of skin health gesturing to my face and noticing her stylish New York apartment peeking over her shoulder.]

It’s called modern medicine.

What comes to mind when you think of middle school?

Middle school – I picture running around with my girlfriends. I had a bunch of friends. Middle school for me was about how much I could get out of class and go hang out with my friends in the bathroom. It was a silly time, it didn’t feel very serious.

What was your biggest worry in middle school?

Besides my pimples… there were social pressures like wanting your friends to like you. I had four to five good girlfriends and we’d pair up into smaller groups for a couple weeks and there could be disagreements. I wasn’t someone who picked fights or had hugely different opinions, I just wanted everyone to like me.

Math was really scary for me, so I was really worried about math.

So we can probably rule out math for this question, but what was your favorite subject in middle school?

I liked English. I liked reading. I liked social studies. We read a lot of historical books, like The Diary of Anne Frank. We read a lot of stories about people’s lives. We read books about what not to do when you’re in high school. I really liked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I was very upset when I found out that the author, Betty Smith, had died. I remember that being traumatic for me.

I liked writing. I liked public speaking – we had a speech class in middle school. I liked acting, and I was in a lot of plays. I liked social things.

You didn’t really mention any science – how did you get into science?

I was trying to remember what science was in middle school. It wasn’t a draw for me – I’d probably put it in the same category as math. I wouldn’t say that it was as scary for me as math, but I didn’t see the joy in it. The way it was presented to me in middle school didn’t make me interested in exploring it further.

Science for me was marked by conflict. We would use Bunsen burners and I was really afraid of fire. I refused to light the Bunsen burner and they weren’t going to let me pass if I didn’t light the fire. At some point I had learned that fire was dangerous and so I didn’t want to light the fire.

I wasn’t drawn to science at first, but later I found a particular way of thinking about science – which was towards the end of college. The way I got into science later on was by asking questions about a particular topic that interested me.

I refused to light the Bunsen burner and they weren’t going to let me pass if I didn’t light the fire.
Where were you in middle school? Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Greenwich Village in New York City and then in fourth grade we moved to Westchester. So I spent most of my formative years in places where I had fields and sports. I would go to people’s houses after school, my parents would drive me there. I grew up with a very suburban experience.

I was lucky because I moved in fourth grade and immediately made friends and had a nice social group.

Were you in any clubs or participate in any after school activities?

In middle school I did a lot of sports. I think I just played because that’s what my friends did. For some reason I was big into theatre as well. I would do plays outside of school. I’ve been 5’4” for a really long time so I was usually cast as the undertaker or the male gangster in Dick Tracey. I was always one of the boys on stage.

I was also really into Keanu Reeves. We spent most of our time watching the movies Speed and Point Break. I can recite every line.

I was really obsessed with Archie Comics for whatever reason. I have no idea why I was interested in them – it’s a silly love triangle between a redhead and two girls. I even had a birthday party at the Archie distributor in Mamaroneck, NY.

What were some highlights from your birthday party?

We got to meet the artists. They were normal adults and that was really weird.  I remember some of the illustrators were fat and clearly smoked. Seeing the room with all the back issues of Archie was a highlight – seeing this room with all the comic books that I would have loved to have. I think some of my most valuable possessions are old Archie comics. That’s probably all I have to my name. I’d buy them in Florida when we’d go down there.

What did your parents do and what did they want you to be when you grew up?

My dad was an accountant in real estate and mom was (and still is) a great mom. When I was a bit older she went back to school to become a paralegal. I’m convinced to this day that they really just wanted me to be happy. It wasn’t like they wanted me to be something particular, but they just wanted me to have a lot of exposure and a lot of experiences. Through that I thought a lot about what I personally wanted and what I was really interested in pursuing – and that happened when I was older, probably 23. I don’t think that in the beginning stages of my life I was going towards anything, I didn’t have a particular passion.

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

Never. I didn’t even know that what I’m doing existed. I didn’t even know that being a scientist would be interesting. I’m still kind of surprised that I find it so interesting. I’m glad I was able to find something that I really want to ask questions about. I like asking questions, and I found that out over time.

I thought scientists titrated things all day. For me, whenever I would use a microscope I would break the coverslip, so I thought that scientists were better at that than me. I thought of science as lab coats and liquids. … I ultimately do that with dog urine. Now that I study something I enjoy, there’s also liquids involved and I’m interested in those liquids, like dog urine. But I didn’t realize biological questions about animals would interest me.

In my formative years I was exposed to the idea that there was not one correct way to do things. There are lots of different ways to do something and lots of different experiences that you can have. Maybe that’s what pushed me in this direction. I didn’t think that it was impossible to pursue something you found interesting.

I’m glad I was able to find something that I really want to ask questions about.
Did you have any pets when you were younger?

We had fish and they were all named after the Archie Comics. I remember that Mr. Weatherbee lost an eye and later died. We buried Mr. Weatherbee in the snow… and then the snow melted… and so Mr. Weatherbee came back.

My mom would tell me, “Dogs are dirty, Julie, they are not to be touched.” I had a really hard time with that. I was really interested in domesticated animals.

We did, ultimately, get a dog: Brandy. I got her when I was 13. I remember we (my mom, her friend, my best friend and I) went to the animal shelter. I had been in trouble that day, I had done something that would have put me in the category of a “brat.”

I was told, “We’re going to the animal shelter, but you’re not getting a pet today.”

We go into the shelter and I remember that a black Lab came out and it was a puppy so it immediately peed all over me. My mom said, “We’re not getting a pisser. We’re not getting that one.” The guy who worked there said, “I have a smaller dog, but she’s at my house because she’s so small.” So he went home and brought back what ultimately became Brandy. She was a Chihuahua/Dachshund-type dog — she had a long body with a yellow-Lab coat, but she was kind of anorexic-looking. Not because she was underweight or unhealthy, but because she was part Chihuahua and had a petite build and bug eyes… my mom’s friend said, “We’ll take her!”

I remember thinking that she was kind of ugly, but it was the best I could do… and whatever, she was a dog. We were so lucky. She was what you would hope for as a dog for a family that doesn’t understand what they’re getting into. She put up with our ineptitude; she was a wonderful dog that loved people. She would bark at other dogs and we never took the time to understand why. Knowing what I know now I’d love to go back and say, “How could I help you have a different relationship with other dogs?” But at the time I just wanted a companion.

I was told, “We’re going to the animal shelter, but you’re not getting a pet today.”
If you could give your middle school self, or younger self, some advice – what would you say?

Don’t take things so seriously. Things will get better.

Would your younger self have taken that advice?

Probably not. You don’t know that… advice is silly. I would just say it’s all going to be OK. It really is.

Did you play any instruments?

I played the clarinet. I didn’t really enjoy it because I never changed my reed so it smelled. I also played piano.

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

That I’m in a science field – that the career that I’m in even exists. My middle school self would probably be surprised that I’m choosing to channel my interest in animals in a scientific way – I’m choosing to think about them scientifically. I didn’t always do that; I was really just interested in thinking of Brandy as a companion. At the time I wasn’t interested in what was in her mind or why her behavior means certain things. In a sense it was a selfish relationship; obviously she benefited as well. But the way I’m interested in behavior and the way another species takes in the world probably would have surprised me back then. And that I’d be really passionate and dedicated to one thing; in the past I was kind of all over the place and interested in a lot of different things. I’m still surprised by my life today.

When you were young when people asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – what did you say?

A thespian.

That’s it. I must have learned the word and wanted to repeat it.

What was your favorite part that you played?

I was obsessed with Our Town. We did a production of that later in high school and my best friend got cast as Emily. I think she knows I was peeved about it. But otherwise I was the undertaker and male characters… I would have preferred not to be those characters.

How much did you play outside? Where did you play?

As a kid I had access to trees and backyards. I spent a lot of time in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. I went to summer camps and spent an appropriate amount of time covered with mosquito bites. I wouldn’t say I was outside exploring nature, I was just outside being in nature and doing activities.

Middle school was the age of making up stories. We would play house or play Barbies. I remember the last time we setup Barbies was in eighth grade. We set them up and we had forgotten how to play – we pulled out all the stuff and then it was like… Now what? It was a weird feeling.

My friends liked playing house a lot. I remember being the dog in those situations. I wasn’t the biggest fan of playing house. They would have their Baby Alive dolls and I would just go under a table and wait for it to be over. They would be like, “Oh! My Baby Alive pooped!” and I’d be like… “That’s disgusting.”

My friends liked playing house a lot. I remember being the dog in those situations.
Did you ever get bored?

In high school. In middle school I didn’t get bored. Boredom came with another level of consciousness – like not wanting to do things. I remember I had a hard time with transition. I would spend time at a day camp in the summer and then I would come home and there was a gap between camp and school. I wouldn’t know how to occupy myself.

How did you get to school?

In middle school I was under the distance for a bus, so I was driven most days. Elementary school I was within walking distance.

Did your family take any big family vacations when you were in middle school?

We went to Arizona one time and my best friend’s family surprised us so we were all there together. I think my best friend knew. We did these pink Jeep bus tours through Arizona and went to a national park. We made some prank phone calls from a public pay phone. We went tubing and listened to Huck Finn on tape.

Do you still keep in touch with your friends from middle school?

I do. I have many of the same friends from fourth grade. I have a group of girlfriends from middle school. It’s the nature of the school system – all of the elementary schools dumped into one middle school and one high school. In middle school you were put into one of three houses. I was in a house called “Popham” with my friends. That helped the relationships in middle school keep going and the same thing in high school where there was a way to keep people together freshman year.

Did you have a particular friend’s house that you enjoyed visiting?

Yes – one of my friends had really good food at her house. We also enjoyed her company, but she had a lot of shredded cheese and tortillas and we would make quesadillas. That was huge. She had the best snacks and everybody would agree with me. And she had a dog.

What was the most frustrating rule that your parents had?

I remember there was some sort of rule about television. I had to tape the program and watch it later. I couldn’t watch it live.

If it was my birthday and I got a lot of presents they all went in a garbage bag and I could only open one a day. But maybe that was when I was younger than middle school. I wasn’t a fan of that.

The other rule was made because I was reading too many Archie Comics and playing too much Gameboy. So my parents put them all in the attic. Whenever they would leave the house I would climb into the attic and pull down the Archie Comics and the Gameboy and put them back up when I heard the garage door opening… which was totally unsafe.

I didn’t like those rules.

If it was my birthday and I got a lot of presents they all went in a garbage bag and I could only open one a day.
What was the most embarrassing thing your parents did?

My dad wore short shorts. Cutoff jean shorts.

Short Jorts?

I’ll leave it at that.

You don’t want to get into trouble?

I didn’t learn that was embarrassing until later, but now I understand that it was embarrassing.

Do you think that the world is better or worse since you were in middle school?

It’s probably worse for middle schoolers now. I played with Barbies until eighth grade. I had a pretty sheltered life. I didn’t have to deal with any big adult concepts or adult-y type experiences. I got to have a very carefree life. There’s so much more coming at middle school students with technology and social media. I don’t know if they have time to play and create with their friends. That was such a vivid part of my childhood – running around and making up stories and acting them out with my friends.

Did you ever have a professional crisis and want to do something different?

When I graduated college I started working in the labor movement. I was dealing a lot with labor unions and labor organizing. I appreciated the ideals of the work at the time but I didn’t interested in the day-to-day. Between 23 and 27 I had all kinds of random jobs. I worked at a law firm getting insurance coverage for pregnant women. I worked at a private school doing fundraising – that taught me a lot about how to ask for things. A lot of scientists don’t know how to ask for things — how to ask for money or grants without feeling bad about it. All of that time was a general time of crisis because I wasn’t interested in what I was doing.

I tried on a bunch of hats and then went back to school and did a Masters in applied animal behavior and welfare. As an undergrad, I had studied with Patricia McConnell at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I learned that there were many unanswered scientific questions about dogs and the dog-human relationship. For some reason it really stuck with me. I read the research, wanted to read more and wanted to conduct my own research — which was probably one of the most surprising things in my life because I didn’t see myself as a scientist. It was a crisis until I found something I could latch onto. It felt bad to not know what I wanted to do.

When you finally found the field that you’re in now, how did you know it was the right place for you?

I saw that there was this growing field that was asking both applied and basic questions about dog behavior and cognition and I wanted to be part of it and that’s what happened. I contacted Ádám Miklósi at the Family Dog Project in Budapest and asked if I could come do my Masters research with them and he said yes. I just kept going and asking, “Can I do this?” and somebody would say yes. It’s like when I returned to NYC and contacted Alexandra Horowitz and asked if I could work with her and she said yes. With all of this I was also motivated to write and communicate what I was learning. Even though it was the scariest thing I had ever done to write something and put it out there on the internet. I had someone in my life who was incredibly supportive of what I was doing, so I don’t know if I would have done many of the things without his support.

How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?

In this field I don’t think we get to say “successful discoveries” because we’re just unearthing “what is.” Success for us is designing an experiment that dogs voluntarily comply with – that for me is success. Success increases if I can get dogs to participate and tell me something about them. It’s not so much chance, as you’re building on an understanding of dogs. There’s less chance involved in this field.

Who were your adult role models and what about them did you (or do you) try to emulate?

When I was growing up, I had a doctor that I saw for a long time. She was kind of a stern woman, but clearly very bright and direct. I think that I found her intimidating, but I also wrote my college essay about her because she was a woman in a respected position and she was the authority on things. Looking back, seeing somebody who had a really good sense of the field and who was the go-to person was something that intrigued me. I see that I can kind of have my own version of that. She was exactly who she was. There was no façade or airs about her. I respected that over time but found it intimidating in the beginning.

How often did someone tell you that you were wrong?

Most of them were about math. I was really wrong when it came to math. I was accustomed to feeling wrong in math and feeling like I would not get the answer on my own. I was scared to do math in front of other people. I was really surprised when I took the GREs (graduate school admissions test, like post-college SATs) and did better on the math section than the verbal section. I must have reaffirmed what I was hearing when I heard negativity about math. I never thought I could figure math out — I really just felt like I was going to get it wrong.

Has that changed?

In taking the GRE I learned that if I applied myself I could get it right. I still have hesitancy about math and statistics, but if I can apply myself, I can figure it out. I wonder if it could have been easier if I had a different approach to it from the get go.

Did you ever feel that you were somehow different from other children?

I’m an only child and it’s a compliment when people don’t realize that. I think that I have a unique way of looking at things and I’ve grown proud of that. I think that can happen over time for anybody.

Did you ever get into trouble at school?

The first time I saw somebody else get into trouble was when my friend threw a note at me in class in middle school. The note said, “Don’t look up or else I’ll throw a textbook at your head.” Of course I looked up… and she threw a textbook at me and got into a lot of trouble. We were just silly. We probably had too much sugar at lunch time. She got into a lot of trouble.

The time I got into trouble was also sugar-motivated. I had a lot of Mountain Dew and gummy bears and I was taking gummy bears and ripping them apart and putting them back together – like making them have red bottoms and green tops – and throwing them at people in the auditorium. That was the most trouble I ever got into. It was me and some other boy, I don’t remember what he did. We went to the principal’s office. I just remember being really confused and not knowing what the appropriate steps were or what was going to happen, I was probably still hyped up from all the sugar. I don’t know what happened. I got in trouble for throwing candy.

If you could have any superpower what would it be, what would you do with it and why would you want it?

I’m not going to go with being invisible because people should have their privacy.

I’m going to go with time travel. There are a lot of questions where we just need a time machine to help us out. I would go back and figure out the domestication story.

 

Julie Hecht, MSc, is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer. Her first study with the Family Dog Project in Budapest investigated the “guilty look” in dogs, and she has managed Alexandra Horowitz’s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College since 2010. Julie is currently a PhD student in Animal Behavior and Comparative Psychology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She covers the science behind the dog in your bed at Dog Spies on Scientific American, regularly contributes to The Bark magazine, and is co-founder of the canine science community Do You Believe in Dog?. Julie is a fan of action movies, and she would really like to meet your dog. Follow her on Twitter @DogSpies.

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:55+00:00 September 26th, 2014|

Share this story!

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.

One Comment

  1. Helena Koelle September 30, 2014 at 10:32 am - Reply

    I am part of the group of girlfriends Julie was talking about, and that is my claim to fame! I would like to say that Julie is both and outstanding friend and scientist and we remain friends to this day! As a side note, all of the girlfriends ended up working with children or dogs, or both.

Leave A Comment