I recently sat down with Dr. Barry Brook, a leading environmental scientist from Australia, to talk about his middle school years. Learn about how living next to a giant astronomical observatory and frequent visits to a natural history museum as a kid set Barry up for a successful career in science. He also shares some interesting insights about what he’d do with a superpower…
Lea: So, we’re thinking back to middle school.
Barry: I’ll just think about my two boys who exactly span that period.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to become a scientist?
That’s an interesting point – when I was eleven, our family moved to a special place in the countryside in New South Wales, which is a state in Australia. Because my dad was an electronics technician, he got a job at a scientific installation called Siding Springs Observatory, which is an astronomical observatory. You’ve heard of Kitt Peak in the U.S., well this is like that but in Australia. We lived on the mountain at the astronomical observatory national park. From the age of about eleven through to when I went to university, I was exposed to cutting edge science and also living in an area with magnificent biodiversity and a natural forest. But long before that I knew I wanted to be a scientist; I always had a real interest in the natural world. I remember when I was about four and we lived in London for a while, we’d go to the Natural History Museum and really enjoy the dinosaurs that were on display there. My particular mindset was always focused on science and inquiry; it was always going to happen for me. Now I look at my own kids, for instance, and they’re interested in a lot of other things – not focused on science in particular. So I think I was unusual, most children have no idea what they’re going to do until later in high school or even after. My biggest dilemma when I went to university was whether I was going to become an astronomer or a biologist – they were my two passions.
“We lived on the mountain at the astronomical observatory national park.”
How did you decide? Or did you decide?
I did decide, although I did a bit of both in undergraduate, but I don’t know quite how I decided. It was just, for longer I had been interested in the natural world and I figured I could always do astronomy as an amatuer. It’s much harder to do biology that way. Also, there were probably more opportunities available to biologists than astronomers – astronomy is a very narrow field.
If you couldn’t be a scientist – I know that was decided by you very early on – if you took that off the table perhaps… what other jobs would you consider?
Hard to imagine! I can’t be a scientist? I would be a depressive! Maybe something like a librarian? I’ve always enjoyed learning and libraries are always very peaceful places to me because you’re surrounded by a store of knowledge. My mum was a librarian, so I always had a close affinity with libraries. It was never really something I wanted to do as a job; I’ve always wanted to be a scientist or something like that.
Were you always interested in conservation?
I would say “no.” I mean I’ve always been interested in the natural world, but I never really thought about becoming a conservation biologist until late in my university career. Originally I went to university to be a paleontologist and I did complete some paleontology but I was interested in computer science as well. So I did a double degree in environmental science and computer science. Then when I got to my honors year, which in Australia is our first research year–our fourth year of our undergraduate where we focus on a research project–I was looking for something where I could combine ecology and computer science. There was a project offered by one of the academics to build these extinction models. Building extinction models seemed like an obvious way to combine my interest in population biology and ecology and models. So that led me into doing conservation as a career. I came at it by combining my past interests rather than being passionate about being a conservation scientist. So I did my PhD on those extinction models and naturally followed that pathway. But a lot of my research is non-conservation related; it has to do with invasive species or management of wildlife populations. And I’ve continued to do research in paleontology as well, like extinctions of megafauna and so on. So I haven’t taken the classic route that some people have taken in conservation biology where they’re impassioned about saving threatened species and that’s why they moved into science. I moved into science and then found that an interest of mine was building models of extinction.
Do you have any advice for young children growing up in Australia today? Children who might want to be scientists?
A lot of times kids get advised in school or by their parents that there’s no jobs in science and that you’d better become an accountant or a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. But, we know there’s really a shortage of well-trained technical and scientific people who could fill a variety of science-related jobs. Science gives you a really flexible base for working a range of different careers that may not be directly doing research; it gives you the skills for knowing how to collect and interpret data and build models and so on. From that perspective, being a scientist really sets you up really well for many careers.
In terms of why you might want to be a scientist otherwise, it’s just a really interesting thing to do. You’re not going to a job or work where you’re doing the same repetitive thing every day. You’re basically inventing your own schedule and coming up with interesting ideas and testing them. Every day is a bit different. There are always difficulties with any job. In science you have to write grant applications and if you don’t like writing papers then that could be a problem, whatever, but every job has it’s downside. But I like writing papers, I like thinking of new ideas and presenting applications. It provides a lot of variety. There’s too much of a stigma against science in that it doesn’t provide you with many opportunities. That’s clearly wrong in our modern society. Science and engineering are fundamental to driving our economy – that realization is gradually pervading the populace, but more people should be aware of that. It’s not just some guy in the museum in the basement scrubbing the fossils. There are a lot of different opportunities.
“It’s not just some guy in the museum in the basement scrubbing the fossils. There are a lot of different opportunities.”
Do you have any advice for your middle school self?
If I went back and advised myself I’d say “Do exactly what I did.” I’m pretty happy with where I’ve got to, actually. One decision I made that I think was a good decision was my degree program (and I hadn’t really given it a lot of thought, I just sort of happened to fall into this). Some universities in Australia, at the time at least, had a very structured course your followed for your ecology degree. There were all of these units you had to take and if you did that, then you’d get this degree. The university I chose wasn’t the top university in the state (even though I had the grades to go to the top university), but it allowed me to mix up courses and do a range of things like computer science and ecology all under one degree and essentially tailor the program to something that exactly suited my interests.
I think this is good advice to people: don’t get forced into a very structured program that doesn’t suit you. Don’t go into an area that you are advised to because it is the sensible thing to do; go into things that you are passionate about. It will give you the flexibility to pursue your interest. Too many students get trapped into something that isn’t quite what they want and so they get disillusioned and they give it up and they go and do something else. And that’s a real shame. So for my kids, the advice I would give them is that I have no expectations for them: go do whatever. Neither of my sons wants to be a scientist, and that’s fine, I don’t care. One of them wants to be a policeman and the other one really isn’t sure what he wants to do, and that’s fine. I say, just be sure you keep your options open and when you find something that you’re interested in, then pursue it. Don’t feel like you have to meet my expectations or their mother’s expectations. We want them to do what they’re happy with. Too many kids I think, again, are trying to please other people. It’s your life – choosing your own university course and pathway in life really sets you up for the rest of your life and you don’t want to make the wrong decisions.
You should should be able to encourage and reward and allow your kids to pursue their interests as far as they want to go, but you shouldn’t be forcing them down pathways that they’re obviously not interested in. I think forcing kids to do too much homework and all of that is bad. They should be pursuing their interests because it’s something they like to do. And if they’re not academically inclined, fine! Most of the world isn’t academically inclined, but they’re still happy – that’s fine, do what makes you happy.
“Don’t go into an area that you are advised to because it is the sensible thing to do; go into things that you are passionate about.”
Do you think a child growing up today can still make a great scientific discovery? Have all the big discoveries been taken?
That’s an interesting question. I think the age of the solitary scientist who makes landmark breakthroughs is over in almost all cases. Not always, there will always be exceptions. But basically science is much more of a large-scale team, collaborative, incremental-type exercise. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a whole range of discoveries still happening, but I think it does mean that it’s more difficult for any individual to make a quantum leap in thought or discovery. It will happen in some areas we can’t predict right now, but ultimately science these days is mostly about finding an area where you can work with people who have other specialties and interests and push new boundaries of scientific knowledge rather than totally reinventing it. It’s just that there’s so much knowledge and information that’s out there now–it’s not like it was in the 19th century when there were whole domains that were unexplored. All of the major areas are being explored and now it’s looking at ways of incremental improvement and the biggest breakthroughs come in “big science” where you’ve got to have large instrumentation and big experiments and so forth, and that inevitably involves large teams. It’s less of the case in something like ecology, but even in ecology these days we generally get better quality of work from groups of people working together on something rather than alone.
Your talk at NC State about nuclear power and conservation is provocative in its material, has your work always been provocative?
I mean, where I felt it necessary. So I have never been afraid to say what I think or what I think the evidence suggests. I’ve always tried to look honestly at given problems and say, “Ok, what is a logical underpinning of this?” People can get trapped into fooling themselves, and I think my job as a scientist is to try to minimize that. Everyone perceives their world in a way that is determined by past experiences and is biased by your knowledge. You should always be questioning yourself and saying, “Alright, what is wrong with my opinion?” rather than trying to find ways to reinforce your opinion. So, for instance, in nuclear energy I didn’t come into nuclear energy by finding out why nuclear energy is a good thing. I actually came into it thinking, “I’ve got these preconceived notions about nuclear energy, how correct are they? How can I test the validity of these arguments?” It came about when I was working on climate change and I had the task of looking at alternative energy options, figuring out what’s going to be viable and what are our mitigation options. With nuclear energy I had accepted the idea that there wasn’t much uranium around and we would run out of that if we tried to run the world with nuclear power and that we didn’t have a solution to nuclear waste and so on. But I’d never really thought about it in detail. I’m sure there are plenty of scientific issues that I’m really ignorant about and haven’t thought about the details, but nuclear energy was one where I forced myself to look at it in more detail. As I did that I found there were a lot of half-truths and untruths about it and I think as long as people transparently look at these problems and look at the tradeoffs involved and accept there are compromises in any of these decisions, then you can take a scientific approach. So in my talk at NC State I wasn’t be beating the drum saying, “Everyone should be a supporter of nuclear energy.” I’m saying if you don’t support nuclear energy then you need to be really careful about how you articulate your reasons for not doing it and why you prefer others and what tradeoffs you’ve accepted as a result of that. There are always compromises whether it be in energy or other forms of conservation science or any other part of life. There are very rarely single, obvious answers and if the answers really are that obvious and singular, then people will have already chosen them. So in any area that is fairly gray, it means that there are complexities that you have to keep track of.
“There are very rarely single, obvious answers and if the answers really are that obvious and singular, then people will have already chosen them.”