While interviewing scientists about their middle school lives, I often encounter a recurring them: scientists didn’t realize until they were much older that they could spend their lives researching something that fascinated them as a kid. They perceived the job of “scientist” as something held by dead and gone people from decades before. My hope is that these interviews serve as inspiration for students who would otherwise struggle to see themselves in the scientific field.
Today’s interview is with Chris Schell, a PhD candidate in evolutionary biology, who has already accomplished a lot in his early academic career. In middle school, it seems he was almost super-human. Throughout high school Chris was busy playing football, winning science fairs, aspiring to be a neurosurgeon, and playing in a successful jazz band with gigs along the Sunset Strip. Read on to learn about Schell’s path to research, his commitment to outreach, and how his dog ate his science fair project.
Lea: Where were you in middle school?
Chris: I went to Eliot Middle School, which was in Altadena, California. I was born and raised in L.A. We used to make fun of my middle school a lot because it was painted bright pink. It was really what you’d think of as a traditional middle school. I was involved in a lot of things; I was really involved in band – and to this day I still play the alto and soprano saxophone. I remember being the band major when I was in eighth grade, which was pretty awesome… I always enjoyed it but I felt like it went so quickly. Middle school felt like a stepping stone to something else.
You felt like you were transitional in middle school?
Maybe it was because I think, for me, in my elementary school years I was in private school and then in fifth grade I transferred to public school. It was that year to year-and-a-half where it was weird. My family moved a lot – we were all over the Southland. Middle school, again, was in that long line of moving – it just seemed like another place. There were a lot of things that, for me, were kind of signs of me getting into science and getting really interested in it in middle school. Looking back on it, I didn’t quite understand the importance.
What were some of those things that you think about when you think about your early science interests?
I oftentimes joke around with my friends, but it’s kind of true, that I was one of those kids who when I was really young – four years old – I would watch National Geographic specials on wolves, coyotes and foxes for fun. Most people wouldn’t do that, but I really liked those shows and learning more about the animals and learning more about what they do and why they do it. Around that same time Jurassic Park came out and a lot of people were scared of that movie. I went to go see it as a kid and thought, “MAN – I wonder why those dinosaurs are doing what they’re doing!?”
In middle school I got the opportunity to do science fair and scientific experiments in a lot of my classes. That, I think, was the first step of “Oh, I can build on something, or build something totally new and learn all of these new principles from just seeing and observing.” That kind of skyrocketed.
Do you have any middle school classroom memories that stand out to you from the classroom?
I do have a couple – and they seemed insignificant at the time.
In my sixth grade class we all had the opportunity to put together a report about a species of interest. So I took the assignment as an opportunity and ran with it. It was really just a book report, but I remember doing so much research on wolves and coyotes and their social systems, that I really felt like I had a passion for it. I didn’t know how to describe it because nobody in my neighborhood does anything of that sort. Normally, if you’re interested in science you’re getting into medicine. So, science as a form of research or science as a form of professorship was completely different than anything I had ever heard of. Learning a lot about some of the research that had been done at the time was really fascinating.
The other time was when I started to do science fairs – that’s when I got my feet wet. For my first science fair I looked at how snakes respond to vibrations in the ground. I remember this because I asked my mom to get me a snake. And she hates snakes. I said, “But mom! It’s for a science experiment, I promise! It’s going to be really really fun!” She ended up buying me the snake and I did really well in the science fair and I actually repeated it in high school. In high school I got first place in the science fair and it was awesome. It was great because it felt like I was doing something and I was succeeding and it was beyond just English, for which I had already done well in classes like that. I do really love English and the Classics and poetry and music… so that’s a whole other side of me that isn’t exploited in science. But, science was that one thing that I could cling onto. Needless to say… my dog later ate my snake and that was the end of that.
I didn’t know how to describe it because nobody in my neighborhood does anything of that sort…[s]cience as a form of research or science as a form of professorship was completely different than anything I had ever heard of.
Your dog ate your science project?
My dog literally ate my science project.
Was your dog OK?
Yes. My dog’s name was Copper, he’s since passed, and we got him when he was a puppy a year after I got the snake. The snake would sometimes get out… but when we didn’t have a dog it wasn’t an issue. I remember it got out one night and I was at a sleepover and I came back the next night and the snake was gone, nowhere to be found, and Copper was sniffing around the snake’s area where he would normally get out. Well… that snake was gone. It was fine, because he was going to be six feet anyways and he was already three feet long. It worked out for the best, I guess, for my mom. So that was my first foray into science. Funny ending.
It sounds like you had a lot of support from your family; do you think that their support contributed to your success in science?
Yes, absolutely. I think that the fact that my parents were so open to me exploring a lot of different opportunities was a strength of theirs. Anything and everything that they thought I would be interested in, they said, “Well, why don’t you try it out and see how you like it and we’ll go from there.” That was the case, not just for science, but for a lot of things. That’s why I have so many interests, I guess, because there were so many things that my mom or my dad were like, “Oh, you want to play the saxophone? If you’re serious about it, we’ll go to the store and buy one.” During high school I was also in a band – and apparently now you can find our CD online. We were called Saturn Jazz and we played all through L.A. and on the Sunset Strip and we had multiple gigs. It was legit. One side of me was very academic and the other side of me was playing music in a band. During the whole time I was also interested in football and was on the high school football team. I had multiple interests; I really liked playing football, playing the saxophone and I really enjoyed science. I just found the time to do all of it, somehow.
I had multiple interests; I really liked playing football, playing the saxophone and I really enjoyed science. I just found the time to do all of it, somehow.
How did you decide to go into the direction of research science in the face of deciding between football, music and possibly the medical field?
It was definitely a trial and error thing, similar to the way my parents raised me to try everything. They were excited when I said I was going to go into medicine but they also suggested that I should explore my options and take a look into what I wanted to do. Because getting an MD takes a lot of time (so does getting a PhD) – it’s a lot of money, it’s a lot of responsibility. When I applied to colleges I ended up going as far away from California as I could just to experience something new. All I knew was L.A. – so I did my undergrad at Columbia in New York – 3,000 miles away from my family.
I was already “adult” enough to be able to move out on my own and do what I needed to do, but I think I went in and tried my freshman year and volunteered at a hospital to see what it was like. I volunteered at a hospital and hated it. I was there for two and a half months and it was terrible. All they had me do was desk work and all of the behind-the-scenes, in’s and out’s that I wanted to learn about what these doctors were doing – particularly the neurosurgeons – wasn’t what I saw. I liked behavior so much and thought the brain was something that was involved in it, so I thought neurosurgery was related enough. I stopped volunteering at the hospital at the end of my freshman year and then the summer between my freshman and sophomore year I did a two month internship in ecology and environmental biology in the Dominican Republic. And I loved it. I didn’t even work on canids (coyotes, wolves, dogs and their relatives) — I worked on honeybee behavior. Completely different, but I was in a different country, speaking broken Spanish most of the time, and working outside and that was great because the experience was phenomenal. Doing the research and working with people was something I was looking to do when I was at the hospital and didn’t get any of that, but I got all of it when I was in the Dominican Republic. So that was the launching pad. From there it was a couple successive things after another.
I took an animal behavior class my sophomore year and really liked the faculty member teaching it, Sarah Woolley, and decided that I would go to her office hours every other week so I could talk to her about animal behavior research. As a result of that she brought me in to her lab for a summer internship the following year where I studied zebra finches and their behavior. I was with her lab for two years and learned a ton. I went straight from undergrad into graduate school, particularly because I had so much research experience and had such a good encounter with animal behavior that I figured that was a field I wanted to get into. That’s how I got to where I was now.
Deciding between schools was a little of a different story because I thought I wanted to be back in California. I applied to three schools in California and the University of Chicago was the only one out of state. I went to the University of Chicago because they had the opportunity to work with coyotes. I’d been thinking about coyotes for the longest and it was really what I wanted to do. That’s how I ended up here working on parenting behavior and behavioral endocrinology of coyotes. It was a little step and I wanted to try it, and if it didn’t work then that was OK because if a door closes, a window will open.
I liked behavior so much and thought the brain was something that was involved in it, so I thought neurosurgery was related enough.
You spoke a lot about the opportunities that you received as a student. Now that you are about to be in a position as a professor, or might have these opportunities to work with younger students as a PhD student, what are you doing to provide those types of opportunities for others who may be interested in science?
That’s a really good question! The answer is Yes and Yes. The first is that throughout all of my graduate career I’ve been working with a lot of different groups to increase not just interest in science, but also diversity in this field. As you can imagine there’s not too many people from my neighborhood who go into science. And there are not too many African Americans, in general, who are involved in science beyond medicine. I work with this group called Project Exploration. They do a lot of work in Chicago to do outreach for individuals in elementary school all the way through high school. We get students involved in all sorts of programs that are all about science – and it’s not just ecology or evolution or environmental biology. It’s astrophysics, it’s chemistry, and geophysics. And Project Exploration is great because they bring in a lot of different talent – different scientists and professors, sometimes government officials involved in policy, to talk to some of these kids and interact with them in a myriad of ways.
I more specifically got involved through the Junior Paleontology program and the Sisters4Science where there would be a group of middle school girls that all were really interested in science. And after their classes they would come to Project Exploration. I also recently got involved with an elementary school in the South Side, Beethoven Elementary. I’m working with this initiative called “Nature Fridays” where every Friday we talk to the elementary school students about how they’re connected to nature in urban environments. It started because a lot of the students thought they were seeing coyotes in their neighborhood. We have a lot of coyotes in Chicago, so it’s not that unusual to see one – and in the South Side there are a lot of railways that the coyotes use as transit. A couple of the teachers there contacted me and so we setup a camera trap to try to get some information. First we taught them how to setup the camera trap and then we taught them how to interpret the data. We got all of the photos downloaded and they were really eager to do that because they felt a sense of ownership of all of the work that they had been doing. They really wanted to know if it was a coyote or not… it turns out it was just a domestic dog, but it was still really awesome to see their responses and how excited they were to see the pictures.
The first picture that we pulled up of the dog, they were excited: “Look! It’s the coyote!”
I was like… “Hold on, guys, wait a minute… let’s dial it back a little bit and think about what a coyote is and what a coyote looks like.” We started building from the ground up and looked at the characteristics of a coyote, and thinking about when it was most active.
They eventually came to the conclusion that, “Oh… maybe it’s just a dog.”
Every time I get the opportunity I try to give back.
As you can imagine there’s not too many people from my neighborhood who go into science.
Were you ever bored as a kid?[He is reflective.] Sometimes… I always had something else to do – whether it was creative or academic. Because I was so involved in stuff, I wasn’t necessarily bored. I was just trying to find my way and trying to figure out growing up — figuring out my identity…who I was. I don’t remember being bored. Maybe partly because I was involved in so much, but also because whenever I felt like I was bored I was either reading a book or playing a video game, so my “bored” energy was always channeled into something else. That’s partly why I got so involved in reading. I also became an avid fan of anything DC or Marvel Comics related. All of the movies now that are coming out are reminiscent of what I had seen during my childhood.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
Two things. If I had to choose a superhero, maybe because I love The Incredibles so much, I’d have to go with Frozone who is voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, one of my top 5 actors of all time. My superpower would be cryokinesis – the ability to freeze things telekinetically. Telekinesis would also be fine. Something of that variety.
My superpower would be cryokinesis – the ability to freeze things telekinetically.
What would you do with that power? If you could freeze things with your brain?
The first thing that automatically came to my mind was to be able to somehow divert traffic so I would never have to be in traffic. If you could create your own lane for yourself, maybe I would never even need to use a car — I could be green at the same time. I’d never be cold so I could live in polar vortexes even when the climate changes. There are a lot of practical applications to this superpower. I’ve thought this through. [laughs]
You clearly have! What are some things from your childhood that have inspired your research interests?
That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in canid biology; I grew up with dogs. I had a dog when I was young, and I’ve never gone more than a year and a half without having a dog. That could explain the connection.
If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?
Be patient. A lot of the growing pains that I had in middle school were not necessarily about academia — I had that down pat. It was about understanding girls. That’s really what it broke down to. My mom was the one who I talked to the most, and for me I have a lot of friends, and for whatever it’s worth, during middle school I had an on-again-off-again girlfriend and at the time she was going through a lot of things that were way too serious for a middle schooler to be dealing with: from depression to domestic violence, all these really bad things. I remember just not knowing and wanting to know the answers and hoping that it would be easy like schoolwork was easy for me. I was hoping the answers would come quickly, but they didn’t. My mom told me that I had to be patient and that academics were way easier than it was to understand women and being married. Knowing what it takes to be in a relationship, that’s hard work. I would definitely tell my younger self to be patient.
Did you have any adult role models when you were younger?
I did. My grandmother, first and foremost, has always been a fantastic role model for me. Particularly because she was like my mom, very inspirational and wanted to make sure that I tried anything and everything. She was always the most supportive person I have ever known on the planet. Supportive, not just for me, but for the rest of my family. Even when everything was falling down around us, or at least it felt like it, she kept her composure. That astounded me. The ability to do that and have that grace and understand how families operate was something that I wanted to aspire to be. To aspire to be somebody who not just cared about what they do and solely focus on that, but also be able to love and take care of other people. Even when they’re not ready to receive it or even know what it’s all about. For that alone I can’t thank my grandmother enough. She is legitimately my rock. My parents, obviously, in multiple different ways have helped me.
My mom has been open in every step of the way and has always told me that sometimes she’ll be there to show me what she wants to show, but she’s not going to force it on me. She’s always been there to answer questions. My dad has always been one of those people who is really somebody that pushes the importance of knowledge and academics and understanding; he wanted me and my brother to be in a better position than what he was in. My dad grew up in Athens, GA, and attended segregated schools until he was in fifth grade and my grandfather was illiterate – he didn’t even go to school. My dad was always saying something to the effect of, “Get your education. Do good in school. You can do whatever you want. Do better than I did. Have it better than I have it.”
In different ways, my parents have shaped the way that I see my career and how I see myself moving forward. To more of a current extent, my wife does this. I tell her this all the time: I think that her ability to look at very complicated situations, particularly for things of hatred and insecurity with a lot of different people and a lot of different friends, she takes it with a lot of grace and a lot of strength and sometimes I don’t think she gives herself enough credit. But she’s really good at that. She works in diversity and inclusion so it’s her job to be able to understand the underpinnings of everything and why diversity is important and what people are feeling in terms of comfort in the workplace. All of those people were and are huge role models in my life.
What did your parents do? What where their jobs and backgrounds?
My dad has been working for FedEx since I was three. He’s been a carrier for FedEx for a long time. My mom has a lot of different skills and has worked a lot of different jobs. She used to work for the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles when we were babies and then when my brother and I were in middle school she worked a couple of different jobs. She’s currently working as a consultant for UBS Financial.
What is a discovery about science that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
Off the record, “Don’t pay any attention to paleontology because it’s not studying live dinosaurs.” I thought that for a long time. Most of paleontology is digging in the dirt. [laughs]
Look deeper into ecology. At the time, if you were interested in science, you’d go into medicine… if I had a time machine I’d go back and say, “Chris, there’s something else. Don’t just pay attention to medicine. Look at ecology. Look at animal behavior. These are the things you already like as hobbies. You already watch your dog and try to study your dog. “ My parents literally thought I was a dog whisperer when I was a kid because I was so good with dogs. If I could go back and say, “Alright, Chris, this is legitimate – what you’re doing right now – continue to grow that and continue to foster that.”
Chris Schell is a PhD Candidate in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago where he is a behavioral endocrinologist specializing in canids. He spends his weeks split between finishing up his PhD at the University of Chicago, working with schoolchildren to figure out what wildlife lives on their playgrounds, and studying canids at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Follow him on Twitter @cschell_canids.