Julie Horvath-Roth spent her middle school summers in the back woods of Wisconsin trying to train chipmunks and birds. Her early questions about why animals behave in different ways would be ones that she continues to ask and seek answers to during her career as a researcher. I was able to sit down with her and chat about her childhood dog, what it was like to have a dad who was an expert in lie detection and beer hats.

Lea: Were you in any clubs, have hobbies or extra curricular activities?

Julie: I spent a lot of time playing outside with my friends…trying to save a nearby forest that was being torn down to build houses.

What were your favorite subjects in middle school?

Math and Science

Why? What made those subjects so special?

I loved nature and exploring the world and being around animals. I thought animals were fascinating and the natural world was so interesting and beautiful.

“I thought animals were fascinating and the natural world was so interesting and beautiful.”

Did you ever think you would become a scientist?

I wanted to be a veterinarian to help save animals. I thought scientists sat in a lab and did boring work all day – who knew it would be fascinating and I would love it?!

What was science like for you in middle school?


What made science so fun?

It was so interesting and exciting! I mostly remember my 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Collins. He organized a time capsule dig and he had a huge scar on his shoulder. I believe it was from a surgery, but he told us he had been bitten by a large shark!

What did your parents want you to be when you were in middle school?

I don’t think they wanted me to be anything – just do what I wanted. They were really supportive and great. My dad loved science and outdoors, so he’s what got me interested in science – because he was always outside playing with animals and doing stuff, you know science-y and natural world-ish. And I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian, so I imagine that they supported that because that seemed like a good career. I didn’t want to do something crazy like be a pop star. So I think they were just really supportive of me, I don’t remember them gearing me one way or another in certain directions.

What did your parents do? You mentioned that your dad got you into science.

Well, we had a cottage. We would go to the cottage in the summers and it was very remote and in the back woods of Wisconsin. It was a 12-hour drive up there and we’d drive up there at the beginning of the summer. My dad was a college teacher so he would get the summers off. Then, depending on what job my mom had, we’d take 2 weeks and go up there. And we’d get up there and it was literally the back woods. The town was 10 miles away, it was on a dirt road, so it was a half an hour drive to town. And there really weren’t any other kids around, so usually there were kids down the way, but a lot of times it was just me – I’d go out and play.

You were an only child?

Yeah, I was an only child, but I had a dog. I’d go outside and play with the dog or play with the animals. That’s where I got interested in animals.  I’d try to tame the chipmunks and squirrels and the birds; I’d hold my hand out and see which animals would come to me. Then we went fishing all the time because we were on a lake. That sort of got me immersed in nature, right? I didn’t have people to play with so I played with the animals. That got me interested and curious about nature and the environment and I knew I wanted to do something to help animals.

I didn’t have people to play with so I played with the animals.

Did you ever feel lonely when you were a child? Did you feel like you were the only person like yourself when you were in middle school? 

I had three friends who I got to be friends with in elementary school and that sort of continued through middle school and high school. I still keep in touch with most of them now. So I think in that sense I felt like I had friends, and I wasn’t alone. But, you know, I was an only child. So when we’d go on trips or things that felt kind of lonely. Sometimes, when I got older, I got to take somebody with me. I had a cousin (who was really my third cousin, but I called her my cousin) and she used to go on trips with me because she was an only child too. She was sort of my confidant, but she lived in Chicago and I lived in Michigan, so it wasn’t always like we saw each other a lot. We saw each other at holiday time. I had some people around, but my dog was a good friend of mine.

Is there something you learned in middle school that has really stuck with you?

I enjoyed a lot of my classes… wood working, sewing, baking, science dissections of frogs.

Did you get voted “Most Likely to Something” by your peers?

The only thing I remember getting voted anything was when we did this dig. It was 7th Grade Block, and Mr. Collins was sort of in charge of this dig. We got in groups and we made a secret society with a new language and different gadgets in it and then we’d bury

[our time capsule]. And then we switched, and so a different team would have to dig it up and try to decipher what our society was like and what our language meant and stuff like that. That was a lot of fun, but during that we were outside and it was hot. I had one of those hats that people have for beer a lot, where they put two beer cans on either side and then the straws come down. I had one of those for soda. So I got voted, “Most Unusual Hat” or something, that was all I really remembered. I wish I had a picture of that, that’s probably a good picture.

 “I had one of those hats that people have for beer a lot, where they put two beer cans on either side and then the straws come down. I had one of those for soda.”

What question did you long to know the answer to as a child, but still don’t know the answer to?

Oh, wow.

Yeah, it’s a big one.

I said I spent a lot of time with these animals and I would try and train them. And so there were chipmunks and squirrels and birds that I was playing with. And the chipmunks I could train to eat out of my hand or to get close to me. The squirrels would never come near me. And then the chickadee birds and the hummingbirds would get close to me, maybe not eat out of my hand, but get close to me. And some of the bigger birds, like the crows, would never come near me. I was really curious about what makes them different and what makes some species more interactive with humans or more trusting of humans. What is that basis? SO that formed a lot of where I went, and I still sort of wonder that, though I do now do some work with behavioral genetics. What’s the genetics underlying behaviors and why do different individuals of different species have different behaviors?

I gave a Teen Science Café when I first came [to the museum] and I sort of talked about where I grew up and spending time at my cottage and wondering about the chipmunks and the squirrels. And I told them how that sort of bridged into my career and how I try to bridge disciplines now and merge genetics and behavior and neuroscience. All the kids at the end of my talk were like, “So, why are chipmunks more interactive with humans? And what did you find out about these birds?” They said,  “You must have answered this question! That’s an easy answer! What’s the answer?” And I had to break it to them, “I have no idea! Nobody knows.” These kinds of questions have developed into a whole field where researchers are trying to understand behavioral genetics and what’s the basis for some things. The students just couldn’t believe it: “Well it has to be answered by now, because that was when you were little and that was forever ago.” This is like when I talk to my daughter, who’s 4, and I ask her “How old is old?” and she’s says, “Oh, gosh, 20 is old, mommy. If you’re 20 you’re so old.” And I ask her, “How old do you think I am?” She says, “21.” Thank you. I’m a little bit older than 21, but thank you. But even teenagers think I’m old now and that these questions should have answers.

“You must have answered this question! That’s an easy answer! What’s the answer?”

And I had to break it to them, “I have no idea! Nobody knows.”

What was your biggest worry in middle school?

I don’t know – not knowing what I wanted to do when I grew up? I mean, I said I wanted to be a veterinarian – I was pretty comfortable with that. I don’t know that I had a whole lot of worries, just trying to fit in, I think, was the main thing. I wasn’t a popular kid, but I wasn’t a loser who didn’t have friends, I was sort of in the middle where I had friends and we were in a good place, so I think in that sense I was pretty happy.

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

I think I would be surprised that I’m a researcher. My father was a researcher and he spent a lot of time doing research, and research never ended, right? You would go to work and do your teaching and do research and then you’d come home and you’d still have to work on the research, so I remember that and feel like I didn’t get to see him as much as I wanted. And he was always going to conferences and traveling and I didn’t really appreciate that until I was getting out of college. I always thought “I don’t want to be a researcher because I don’t want to do that, I want to spend time with my family.” Yet here I am a researcher.

And I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian and really help animals and work with animals, and so I think I would be surprised by how I ended up. But now I completely understand my father’s perspective, because I understand that you love research and you love doing all these things and you’re really curious and it never ends because there’s always new cool questions. I came full circle and understand it, but it’s not where I thought I’d end up at all. It’s still science, but a different aspect. I think my father did have a lot of influence in my life and how I ended up. I don’t fish much anymore, but some of the other stuff.

…I understand that you love research and you love doing all these things and you’re really curious and it never ends because there’s always new cool questions.

What were your favorite books?

Murder-mystery kinds of things – Encyclopedia Brown, I know I liked that. I didn’t really read Nancy Drew much, I think I only read a couple of those, but I read all of the Encyclopedia Brown, for sure.

Did you ever get into trouble at school?

I don’t think so. I was a really good kid. I would avoid trouble pretty well. My father teaches Criminal Justice and he is an expert in lie detection, so I had to be very cautious. I think I learned how to do things the right way and not really get caught. One time in high I got in big trouble with my parents and I kind of skirted around it and said, “You’re just going to have to trust me because I’m responsible and don’t typically do bad things, so you’re just going to have to trust me here.” And they, surprisingly [did] – I didn’t remember getting grounded or anything. There were a couple of times where we got into fights or something like that, but nothing ever really serious. I don’t think I ever got called to the principals office or anything. I was pretty good, a run of the mill good kid. We would do little things, like sneaky things, but nothing ever really bad. I was a good student.

…my father teaches Criminal Justice and he is an expert in lie detection, so I had to be very cautious.

Is your childhood over yet?

I felt like it was getting “over,” but now having kids it’s sort of coming back. I’m trying to do some of the fun things again. I’m a lot more responsible now and I have to take care of some things, but I still have a little bit of it left. Some people have a little bit of their childhood still in them, but having kids has sort of helped bring it back and revitalize it. Like working in this museum, just seeing the wonder in kids. I have the primate skulls out and they all think they’re so cool and want to touch them and stick their finger in their nose. It’s really fun to see that again and that’s sort of bringing it back. I think maybe I was losing it a little bit and now it’s coming back. I think I’ll always be a child at heart at some level.

Do you have any advice for your middle school self? 

Read more… question everything. Do what you love. Just be passionate about what you’re doing.

How did you know when you found something you loved?

Like with the animals, I wanted to spend all my time playing with the animals, trying to understand the animals and work with them. It was something I thought about a lot and something I was very interested in and I would try to help them, change them. If ever an animal were injured I’d take it in and take care of it. We had some chipmunks and some birds that I would try to nurse back to health. We’d find these animals in the yard and we’d go to the vet and we’d get food and I’d have to try to put their medicine on a grape or something like that to try to take care of them. Things like that, I realized were all encompassing and would permeate all aspects of what I did. Not everyone finds out what they’re passionate about. Even though I say I am passionate about animals, I’m not a veterinarian, I’m not working on them. I now have a different type of passion that I’m following; I think you can have a lot of passions —  just make sure you like what you do.

Dr. Julie Horvath-Roth is a comparative evolutionary genomicist interested in understanding the evolutionary forces that have shaped primate genomes and that cause human disease. She is a Research Associate Professor at North Carolina Central University and the Director of the Genomics and Microbiology Research Laboratory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences where you can see her and colleagues work through the glass walls of her lab in the Nature Research Center.