Before Julie Urban was an evolutionary biologist studying planthoppers and armpit microbes, she studied human factors psychology, and before that…she was a middle school student. Her career has taken a few interesting turns since her middle school days studying math in a van. And one thing is for sure: she never imagined she’d be touching bugs (and liking it) for a living. 

Lea: What was your craziest/most memorable classroom moment?

Julie: Being able to go to the “Math Van” with two other kids for advanced math lessons. And the tutor-lady-person (I imagine she was a teacher, but she worked out of a van) taught us how to subtract integers with a tune to: “Take the smaller from the larger, keep the SIGN of the larger.” I recognize that the van thing may sound troubling — it was a cool innovative project that got funding to go around and teach sixth graders Pre-Algebra.

Were you cool?

I was a “smart kid” and got put into groups (math, reading, etc.) with the same other smart kids.

Was anyone cool? Tell us what made you a cool student in your middle school.

I seem to remember the rich kids as being cool (and I wasn’t one of those) and the kids who were really good at sports were cool (I played sports but wasn’t good enough to be cool). But I think I was in the middle somewhere, because I had friends — so not uncool.

What were your favorite subjects in middle school?

Math, I didn’t like all science, but I did like astronomy, and won the Astronomy Bowl, a quiz bowl competition among all kids in the 6th grade.

Do you remember what question you won the Astronomy Bowl with? 

I don’t remember the exact questions at the end that won the Astronomy Bowl, but I remember explaining how the moon influenced tides.

What made astronomy so special?

I think I liked astronomy because I spent a lot of time at that age wondering what was “out there.” Was there life in other places out there? How were time and the universe organized? It appealed to my “deep thinking.”

Did you have any favorite books? 

I liked The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Last of the Mohicans. But starting in the 2nd grade, I used my reading test scores on my mom as an argument for getting to read whatever I wanted (“If I am able to read at a high school level, then I should be allowed to read whatever I want.”) She bought it, and in middle school I remember reading Valley of the Dolls and The Amityville Horror.

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

I played basketball and was a cheerleader for the boy’s football team. I also loved to crochet. I also remember that the nuns from my school always had me participating in competitive math tests on weekends. I loved birds, too, but the thought of becoming a biologist never crossed my mind.


[T]he nuns from my school always had me participating in competitive math tests on weekends.”


Did you ever think you would become a scientist?

I thought I would be an astronomer, or an aeronautical engineer, not a biologist. And not someone who studied insects. Not in a million years!!

Did you have any pets? 

I had Tweety, my parakeet from 2nd grade through 10th grade, and we taught him to talk. (“Pretty Bird”, “Stupid Bird”, “Wanna Beer?”)

How did you get into science?

I had always loved birds and was interested in how they developed (evolutionarily) the capability to learn song. As an adult who was burned out in one career, I tapped into this old sense of curiosity about bird song learning, and followed where it led me.

What was science like for you in middle school?

Astronomy was fun, but I don’t remember the rest much.

What made science interesting to you, since you obviously didn’t give up on it?

Appealed to my sense of curiosity, but as an adult, reading scientific literature.

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?

They always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be.

What did your parents do? 

My mom was a homemaker. My dad was a firefighter, and worked 24-hour shifts every third day. In the in-between days, he was a foreman at a local cosmetics company.

What was your diet like? What were some of your favorite foods? 

I did not like to eat most foods — I was very fussy. I ate Tony Tigers (Frosted Flakes) for breakfast — dry, no milk. And I loved sautéed mushrooms and pistachio nuts (but not together).

If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?

Quit worrying so much (but of course, I still need to tell my adult self this :))

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

That I voluntarily touch insects. If I told my middle school self that I adore studying my planthopper insects, that would completely convince her that there was no way we were the same person.

What was your biggest worry in middle school?

What didn’t I worry about? I come from a people who worry. I remember most of my worrying being more along the lines of existential angst — for example, as the youngest (by far) of five, I was upset by the fact that no matter what, when my parents die, my brothers and sisters will have been able to have spent more time with them than I did. Mind you, my parents were completely healthy. Again, I do recognize this sounds somewhat troubling, but I have always been a deep thinker.

Did you get voted “Most Likely to _____” by your peers? Care to comment?

I was a bit older, but was voted “Most Likely to Cure Cancer.”

“…[I] was voted ‘Most Likely to Cure Cancer.'”

What was your favorite thing to wear to school?

We had to wear uniforms. But as 7th and 8th graders, the uniform was a skirt, instead of the jumper for grades 1-6. It was a very big deal to make that transition from 6th to 7th grade.

What was your hair like? Did it change throughout the years?

Mom gave me a bad perm once. Awful, awful, awful. [see featured image for this post]

What was lunchtime like for you and your friends?

It was really fun. We used to run around and play hide and seek (even as middle schoolers) and tell jokes.

Are there any questions that you had as a child that you still wonder about the answers to today?

Only the standard questions — does God exist and where (if anywhere) do we go when we die? But I care less about the answers now than I did back then. I would rather spend my time asking and answering questions about what fantastic things (specifically, species) ARE here on Earth (for the precious time they remain in existence).

Do you think your childhood is over?

No, I think I am having it now. It is only as an adult that I get to spend (and love to spend) an entire day (or when collecting) multiple days in a row outside. To me, that is a good day if you get to spend it all outside and get all good and tired out, like a little kid spends a day playing.

 “To me, that is a good day if you get to spend it all outside and get all good and tired out, like a little kid spends a day playing.”


Dr. Julie Urban is the Assistant Director of the Genomics and Microbiology Laboratory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. You can learn more about her research on planthoppers at Before earning her PhD in Evolution, Ecology and Behavior she received her PhD in Human Factors Psychology. See Dr. Urban talk about her research here.