Not every scientist featured on “Before They Were Scientists” grew up next to an astronomical observatory or traveled to Kenya as a kid. Many scientists, like citizen science champion Caren Cooper, actually had a rough time in middle school. Read on to learn how Caren Cooper learned she definitely did not want to become a veterinarian, realized the opportunities that citizen science had for both scientists and citizens, and got in trouble with a very famous scientist’s bodyguard.

Lea: Do you have any specific memories from middle school? 

Caren: I was in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the late 70’s. It’s just funny, because R.E.M. was just this little band that used to come to town and play just at the little clubs. Middle school was a difficult time — I know most people tell all these cheery stories. I mean, there were girls who got pregnant and left school in middle school. My favorite science teacher quit midway through the year. And then we had sub after sub, so there were a lot of bad things. I’m trying to think about happy things, but I just remember so many dramatic things. It was a time when real life started happening for people. But science was my favorite subject. I played softball. I didn’t do that much else. Most of my time I would spend at a creek in the woods near my house. That’s where I would hang out.

“I’m trying to think about happy things, but I just remember so many dramatic things. It was a time when real life started happening for people.”
What got you interested in science? What got you excited about it?

I wish I could put my finger on it, but I don’t know. It’s just one of those things where I thought, “Oh, I like that.” I mean there’s things I definitely didn’t like. I didn’t like history. I didn’t like English or literature. It was all relative then. I really did find science interesting. I always liked pets so I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, but that’s because it was the only profession that I knew where you could deal with animals. I didn’t know of zoology or wildlife biology or any of those things. So I thought, “Oh, I must want to be a veterinarian because I know I like animals, I mostly like wildlife — but I like pets.” It turned out I really didn’t like medicine.

Because I said I wanted to be a veterinarian, my cousin in California who was a veterinarian invited me out to volunteer with him at his vet clinic during one summer of middle school. What I didn’t realize until later was that his mission was really to show me that I didn’t want to be a veterinarian. He wanted to show me that being a veterinarian was not about just dealing with animals, but that it was about dealing with pet owners and their animals. He took me on house calls to put down animals that were at the end of their life. It was terrible! I was so unprepared.

I remember walking into this one house — these were very wealthy people — and there’s literally a huge portrait of their dog right there. This pet was the center of their lives. So they’re crying, and I have to hold off the vein, and then I’m crying. It became clear to me at that moment that there was no way that I was going to become a veterinarian, that was not what I really wanted when I envisioned things. I was more interested in animal behavior; I liked to watch pets… so it was later that I learned that there were actual professions where you could watch animals and study their behavior and not just be a medical person.

Spring-boarding from that to what you do now, how do you study animal behavior now?

Well, I guess that’s kind of what’s funny. So I never really went fully into animal behavior, per se, but into wildlife biology. It was really beyond middle school when I started reading Jane Goodall’s books and I got interested in other people like her, people I’d see in National Geographic magazines or whatever, who worked doing fieldwork. I was like, “THAT is what I want to do.”

In middle school, I would go to the creek — and that is where my first real bird struck me. It was a belted kingfisher. I don’t know if you know this bird, but they have a really big head, a really big beak, and then a really tiny body and really tiny feet. They were as close as a toucan as I was going to get in my backyard in Chapel Hill. I was fascinated with this belted kingfisher — they fly up and down the creek. I got a book out of the library about them, I wrote about them, I made my own little book about them. I thought, “Wow, I’m like a scientist studying belted kingfishers.” Then I realized, “Well, actually, I’m not… I guess I have to wait until I’m older to do this.” Eventually this experience came full circle as I ended up studying birds in graduate school.

I did fieldwork all through my college years although now, for the last dozen years or so, I’ve been at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and I don’t go into the field at all. My research is all done through citizen science, so really all the data that I use are collected by other people who get to go out in the field, whether that’s their backyard or further away. What’s funny, is that if I had known about that when I was a kid, when I had seen that kingfisher, I could have participated in citizen science and submitted my observations. But I didn’t know it then. I still go in the field a little bit, but not exclusively the way most field biologists would. Sometimes I say I’m a “field martyr”– the most fun part of research is to go and collect those observations, but I sacrifice it and I let everyone else do it. I let the public enjoy that, and then I sit at the computer and grind those numbers and try to make sense of it afterwards.

“Sometimes I say I’m a ‘field martyr’ — the most fun part of research is to go and collect those observations, but I sacrifice it and I let everyone else do it.”
Does the public get to participate in the “grinding of the numbers” too? Do they get to see all of that?

They do, they can get access to their data. Anyone can request their data as it’s all publicly available, but it’s just very cumbersome and hard to deal with. There’s more variables than meets the eye. There’s a lot of different coding. We do have some tools — we call them “data out” tools —  where people can graph and visualize the data. We help them so that they can explore and visualize aspects of the data that the might be most curious about.

So they can be involved in the process as well, not just the observation.

Yeah, so they can.

I’m curious about that because I hear a lot of citizen science projects that just involve reporting; but science is more about asking questions and the process of analysis.

I don’t want them to be like the failed PhD student; wait, that sounds terrible. But there is this prevailing culture in science where we tell graduate students, “You are not done with your PhD, you have not proven that you can do independent research until you publish it. You have to complete the cycle.” That’s what I learned when I was in school. So I’m happy for citizen scientists to do that if they choose to. They don’t just have to submit observations; if they want to know more they can pursue that, but it’s hard. It’s a whole other level. On the other hand, a lot of people are just interested in making observations and having a record of it that’s nice and neat. A lot of the research we do, of course, is combining a lot of people’s observations to get a bigger picture. Some people might be interested in that very much bigger picture, and some are not. We always have newsletters and things to convey those kind of results that we find based on their work back to the citizen scientists.

What was your biggest worry when you were in middle school?
[laughs] That’s a tough one. You know I knew you were going to ask that, I had made notes. My biggest worry, was how to keep my hair from curling too much from being frizzy. I don’t think I was that superficial… did I have a big worry?

Well, it’s humid in Chapel Hill.

It’s so humid, it was really hard. My biggest worry… I did worry about species extinctions. My favorite animal was the snow leopard, and they’re endangered. I was concerned about snow leopards; that was one of the conservation oriented things I was worried about. In terms of my personal day-to-day, more trivial type of life, what preoccupied me – was trying to control my hair. I could emulate Einstein.

What did your parents want you to be when you grew up? What did they do as a profession and how did they support you?

I think my parents didn’t have any huge great aspirations for me, I’m the fourth child, I have three older brothers. They were just like, “Whatever happens, happens.” But they were really supportive. My parents were from New York City, so they didn’t understand at all why I was in the woods all the time. We moved from the city when I was really young, so my childhood was really different from theirs. They couldn’t understand that. They thought it was odd. They never thought it could be a career. But they didn’t discourage it, and  just said things like, “Check for ticks,” [laughs] “Don’t bring in fleas.” They did different things; now they run a vanity press for people who self-publish books. But then, when I was in middle school, they owned two stores that sold uniforms for nurses, doctors, police officers, whoever needs to buy uniforms. It was really fun at Halloween, to just go and get some uniforms to wear. Nurses were their main customers. They had one store in Durham and one in Raleigh. Alas, they didn’t have Indiana Jones uniforms.

“We moved from the city when I was really young, so my childhood was really different from [my parents’].”
So what was your favorite outfit for Halloween?

I do remember having some lab coats that I thought were pretty cool.

Is there anything that you learned in middle school that really stuck with you that you remember? A life lesson?

That’s a good question… I mean, there were harsh lessons. There was a lot of real life things. One of my classmates was killed while he was walking to school — he was hit by a car. We all learned that we’re mortal.

You had very formative life experiences that most folks do have until they’re well into college. Were you involved in any extracurricular activities?

I just played softball and I won, “Most Improved Player,” which was nice. I played second base. It was fun.

I remember one of my science teachers had freckles like me — so freckles was the other bane of being a middle schooler. He was an adult when he had freckles, so of course he was kidding when he said, “Don’t worry, they fade when you get older.” I remember hating him. He was rubbing it in. That’s what people always say, “They fade…”

They don’t fade.

Did you read when you were younger? Did you have any favorite books?

I think that’s when I read To Kill a Mockingbird and Watership Down — about the bunnies. It’s kind of like an Animal Farm thing, in the sense that it’s animals in different cultures, but they traveled around and met different bunny societies [laughs] … I think I was a little older when I read In the Shadow of Man, which was Jane Goodall’s book. It wasn’t like today where there are books with vampires and all of that. It’s funny now that there’s this whole young adult genre, which I read because my kids read that. I don’t think that genre existed when I was young. It was reading The Phantom Tollbooth or Watership Down. I also remember reading The Snow Leopard, which was Peter Mattheissen‘s book about traveling with George Schaller while he studied snow leopards.

Did you collect anything?

I collected everything I found outside. I had turtle carapaces, or shells, I had bones, rocks, feathers. I collected a lot of feathers, anything outside. From trips to the beach, I collected shells.

Where did you keep them? Did you have a display?

I had lots of little old lunch boxes. I still have a lot of little boxes with stuff in them. I didn’t always display my collection. I wasn’t that neat, but I would look at them occasionally. I always liked to collect stuff.

Did you ever have a professional crisis?

Do I ever not have a professional crisis? I think there’s a point in grad school when almost everybody goes through that because you come to grad school and you think you’re going to do the best project ever and that you are the best. Grad school has just been waiting for you to arrive. And then you learn how hard it is. I did my PhD at Virginia Tech but my field research was in Australia, so I was really far from home. I only came back once just for my qualifying exams. My husband did his post-doc there so we started a family just before my last field season. I knew I wanted a family and thought I may as well find out then if it was compatible with a research career — that was my logic. So I had a child right before my last field season.

It’s really fortunate that I had some amazing field help that year because it was insanely difficult to go in the field and collect data with a baby. I would say that was definitely hard. It was insane juggling it all. I don’t think I ever doubted that I wanted to do it, but it was more like, “How am I ever going to do all the things that I want to do in my lifetime? And fit them all in?” They kind of all have to happen simultaneously to get them all in there – and it’s really hard to do all of these things simultaneously, but it all worked out. Actually having a daughter made me super efficient. When I came back from Australia she was 4 or 5 months old — she would take these three hour naps and I got so much done then. Other grad students would be procrastinating — you can procrastinate forever — put stuff off… I didn’t have time to procrastinate. It really made me so efficient. I finished my PhD in five years total. That’s three field seasons that were really long — August to January in Australia. That was faster than any of the other students, and I had a kid, and I published five papers and a book chapter. It helped me to be much better at my time management. I’ve heard this expression since then, “If you really want something done, ask a busy person” …because they’ll get it done! I have seen that again and again. I suppose there’s limits to that, and I worry now that I’m hitting those limits.

“I’ve heard this expression since then, ‘If you really want something done, ask a busy person.’ …because they’ll get it done!”
You brought up something important. Women in science struggle with having a young child at home — but you embraced it and you did it.

I took a job that wasn’t quite in traditional academics, but where I could still do research. I did this partly because that last field season made me never want to be in the field again. It was so hard. Now with little kids, that’s partly why the appeal of citizen science was really strong for me, so that I didn’t have to go into the field anymore — other people would contribute the data. When my kids were young that was super important. But now my kids are older, and I wish I had been able to take them in the field more, actually. Now I’m more curious about a traditional academic job, but I can see when they were younger how that would have been super hard. It is a struggle.

What were some of your successes that were due to chance?

I think anything I have done has been due to chance. I’ve been so opportunistic. I’ve never been one of those people who was like, “Here’s my plan,” you know, “X, Y, Z and I’ll end up where I want to be.” I was just like, “Oh! That’s looks really fun, I’m going to do that.” So when I was in high school I met Jane Goodall, my total idol. She was at the North Carolina Zoo and she gave a talk in Greensboro. I went there ahead of time with my friend and we scoped the place out. We were like, “We think she’s going to exit at that door over there,” and we were totally right. Everybody else went right and we went in this one little place left and there was a man and a woman there and then Jane Goodall came out. Well, actually this is kind of a funny story.

So the woman that was there was talking to Jane Goodall first, and I totally budged in and I’m amazed because I’m really a shy person, but I was just so excited — I exclaimed, “I want to work for you! What can I do? Please hire me! I really want to work in the field!”

She politely replied, “I’m really sorry, but I only hire local Tanzanian people.” — which I think is a great philosophy — “So I can’t…” and then her bodyguard shoved me out of the way. As he took her away, she called over her shoulder, “But contact the ZOOOooo!!”

She had a research project at the NC Zoo. Unfortunately the zoo was too far away for me to go, but it spurred me to contact the Duke Lemur Center, where I then volunteered and had a great experience. But here’s what’s funny: the person I budged in front of is named Laura Mitchell and she was a graduate student in the Forestry Department here at NC State. So a few years later, I applied and got a job as a field technician for her studying songbirds in the Alabama Delta. She and I were both sitting around one day telling our Jane Goodall stories [laughs] and she was like,

“Yeah! I got to meet Jane Goodall in Greensboro and then this obnoxious kid comes right in front.” and I was like,

“Oh. My. God. I’m that obnoxious kid.” It was so funny, such a small world. [both laugh] But that was a really formative experience. It was really good that I worked for her, because she let me do more than just the field work. I got to help design her study, like where the line transects go, so that was really fun. It was actually that project in particular that helped me be more independent and take more initiative in research rather than just following directions.

“She and I were both sitting around one day telling our Jane Goodall stories…”
When you were younger, what did you think scientists did all day?

That’s a good one. I had two views of scientists: There was the ones that worked in the lab with the lab coats and they were evil; they were the mad scientists that mixed chemicals and made bombs and did things that I didn’t trust. Then there were the ones that were the field biologists that were really awesome. I had these two views. They were all legitimate scientists to me, but I guess I did separate them that way. You might not want to print that — it might come back to haunt me.

It’s ok, it’s what you used to think.

It’s what I used to think [talking and looking directly into the microphone]. I of course do not think that about lab scientists anymore, ever. I think they’re wonderful people. They’re obviously not evil.

If you could give your middle school self, or just your younger self, some advice, what would you give?

I guess it would be to be true to yourself. That’s what I tell my daughters all the time too. There are so many pressures to be certain ways, to conform to what your peers do, your friends, your frenemies, your parents want you to do. It’s hard to look really deep and be like, “No, this is me and I’m going to be true to that, whether it makes you be a nerd or a geek or whatever it is — not that you’re that — nobody really is those things.” It would be to always look inward to see who you are and then be true to that person.

So how do you know when you’ve done that?

When you’re in middle school you don’t, you’re still forming… so I would modify that. You’ll know because it just feels right. But you’re still forming… so you can also think about the kind of person you want to be and be true to that.

Which might be like the people around you?

It could be a mentor, you know, but it’s really being in touch. I’m terrible at advice… [laughs] I’m just going to say, “Don’t second guess yourself.” [laughs] I think deep down we all have certain things that we think are important in life and it’s important to stay connected to all of those things, and be true to yourself with all those pressures. I think that’s how you’ll know that you’re being true to yourself because you’ll stay connected to those things that you, deep down inside, know are important.

“I think that’s how you’ll know that you’re being true to yourself because you’ll stay connected to those things that you, deep down inside, know are important.”
That was good. Your middle school self won’t be sitting there outside the time machine going, “Thanks for nothing!” I always imagine these poor dejected middle school past selves saying, “Why? Who was that person? Her hair was not as curly as I had imagined.”

And have a good [hair] product. [laughs]

When did you go to your first concert and who was playing?

I never got to go to those R.E.M. ones when they played locally because my parents wouldn’t let me and my friends would go. My first concert was probably James Taylor… or something local. I’m not remembering. I guess I didn’t go to the most exciting entertainment… You know what I remember was entertainment? This was middle school — this was 4th of July in middle school: We’d go to the big stadium in Chapel Hill where there’s all these festivities. They’d have a pipe smoking contest with all of these older men sitting around smoking pipes. Literally we’d sit there and watch people smoking pipes to see who could keep it lit the longest. I remember pointing out, “That guy in the back row, he’s going to win.” I was right. That was entertainment. I look back and can’t believe we watched people smoke pipes! So a concert… I do remember a few here like Bob Dylan… but I don’t think I went to any in middle school.

Are there any mementos that you keep with you from your childhood?

Through college I had an envelope full of my feathers. I would put them up on my wall. I moved with it everywhere, it was a big manilla envelope. I don’t think I have it anymore. I kept it for a long time.

Did someone ever tell you that you were wrong?

Did someone ever not tell me that I was wrong? As a kid? In middle school? I’m sure that happened… I guess I don’t remember any super discouraging people. There’s times when people should have told me, but it’s good I found it out on my own. When I was in middle school, my friend Jean and I went through this period where we thought maybe telepathy was real. We were determined to find out if that was true so we spent hours during our lunch and recess trying to send messages to each other telepathically. I remember discussing it with my father and he was like, “Yeah? Well you keep at that — keep at it, because you might just find that you can do it. You might have that power.” He knew full and well that we didn’t have that power. I think it’s what helped me learn to become skeptical of things, like a good scientist is. Or a good person is. We really tried for a long time and then I think we both came to the conclusion that it was a lot of malarkey and that we just don’t have that power. We could not just close our eyes and transmit messages. So what I’m saying is that sometimes it’s good to find out you’re wrong all by yourself.

“So what I’m saying is that sometimes it’s good to find out you’re wrong all by yourself.”
That’s the best answer to that question I think I’ve gotten. What is a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?

Well… The first that comes to mind is my dissertation. I studied these birds in Australia that are declining where the habitat is fragmented and not where it’s contiguous . I translocated birds, moved them around into the fragments to understand why they were declining. Was it bad quality? Did they not like it? There were males in the fragments, but there weren’t any females. Females were the dispersers — they’re the ones that move from territory to territory when they’re old enough. So I moved females to these fragmented areas, and they stayed in there and bred and they liked it. So what I learned was that they actually can’t fly and disperse across these spans of just several kilometers of cleared land… where it’s just cattle pasture to get to these little isolated fragments. Our birds here in North America, they can fly all over the place. But these ones in Australia are not migratory, they were the kind that stay near where they’re born. They were only traveling through woods and never crossed any gaps. That’s why they were declining. I think even in middle school  I would have found that interesting — that a bird couldn’t fly across a gap of non-forested land… I hope I would have.

Did you ever get into trouble?

Did I ever not get into trouble? Just kidding. In middle school? Actually, in middle school I was very much not into trouble. Even in high school, I was not much into trouble. You know when I was in trouble? We were in New York up to first grade and then we left. That’s when I was in trouble, when we lived in New York. My mom had to call the police on me once because I had wandered so far, and the police had to bring me home. That was scary. When we moved down South and I was always out in the woods and stuff, I just didn’t really get into trouble. Actually my mom complained when I got to high school and I was still going out into the woods. One day she came home and she goes, “You are so square.” She did like this her hands — she made a square box. “You need to go have some fun. Go out with your friends. Get out there!” So I guess I was a little dull in that regard, I mean I might have gotten into trouble with a snake here or there, or something like that, but I didn’t get in trouble… I got in trouble with some poison ivy, with some chiggers… but people trouble? No. I don’t recall… no.

I mean there was Jane Goodall’s bodyguard, I got in trouble with him.

Dr. Caren Cooper is a Research Associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. She’s literally writing the book on citizen science. Follow her on Twitter @CoopSciScoop