I met Conner Sandefur (left, above), a SPIRE postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at a small coffee shop in Raleigh. We exchanged pleasantries and then I turned on my recorder to begin the interview. Conner, like many of the people I’ve spoken to for Before They Were Scientists, was noticeably nervous. Who isn’t when talking about their experiences in middle school? Through the course of our conversation, I learned that Conner had a particularly rough time in middle school; he was painfully shy as a kid and now as an adult still has a hard time talking about himself. Gradually, he opened up and shared his story, one profoundly shaped by growing up in the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. We talked about the deep sense of community that motivates him and how we’ve been calling scientists by the wrong name all these years. Also, as you’ll read on, Conner thinks we should all learn to be a little more like turtles.
Lea: What do you remember about middle school?
Conner: I never really liked school. I remember we got to dissect a cow eye. I remember my math teacher telling my friend that she was smarter than me. We talk about that all the time. That’s about it.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up?
Happy. That was about it. They didn’t have any expectations in terms of vocation.
Did you have any favorite subjects in middle school?
Math. I really liked math. I was in the advanced math curriculum. For us that meant we would take math with the older students… I’m not trying to be difficult to interview.
It’s OK – middle school is hard. We don’t have to talk about it.
I don’t know if you’re going to have enough to write about. I really was pretty miserable in middle school.
OK – but things have obviously turned around for you – you seem to be doing fine now.
Oh, yeah. I think everyone has their awkward time, that was my super-awkward time. For us, our schools merged. I was just a really shy kid. So I went from having very few friends to even less because they all got sucked up in new people around us. But by the time I turned thirty a few years ago, I had it all together.
So, if you could go to back and talk to yourself in middle school what would you say?
Probably to relax more. Ask more questions in class. Try to be more engaged. I was pretty quiet — I liked to learn on my own. I just read a lot. I’d tell myself to try to get involved in some sort of club, something … there was a Math Olympiad and a Science Olympiad, and I really wanted to be involved but I was too shy. I think that would have been a good way to interact with new people.
I was pretty quiet – I liked to learn on my own.
You’re in the classroom now, was it hard being able to overcome being shy? Did you ever see yourself public speaking and doing the things that you do now?
No. I actually was really afraid of public speaking and I just worked on it. I try to practice, challenge myself to do stuff. For example, tomorrow I volunteered to give a seminar/presentation to some undergrads. I’m trying to just go out and make myself more comfortable doing that. I got a lot of practice in graduate school — I didn’t really want it, but it was encouraged.
And then someone just told me, “One time I blanked when I was giving a talk, and I told myself I would never do that again,” and he was somebody that I looked up to because he was so confident all the time and I was like, “You forgot what you were saying?” And he was so bothered by it that he worked really hard. I said, “OK, that’s what I need to do, I’ll just work really hard.” It’s easier, and then in the classroom, man, I was so nervous my first day. But it’s fine now. As long as no one asks me about myself.
OK, so this is like your worst nightmare right now?
It’s OK, I’ve got to get better at it. And in public situations I’ve got to get better at it. In public situations it’s really bad, but as long as I don’t have to talk about myself and the attention is not focused on me, but instead it’s focused on some concept, then I do better.
How did you get into science?
I’ve always been interested in science… but I didn’t realize it was science, though. I have a little different view of it than the Western idea of science. I’m Chickasaw Indian from Oklahoma, so my dad brought me up to be cognizant of my environment and work in my environment and be a good steward of the land and where I was. So I tried to be aware of what was going on around me. When you observe things, you notice things. When you care about things you genuinely have interest in them. I think that’s sort of where my interest in the natural world came from. Then, like a lot of people, I have been impacted by disease in my family and my path took me towards disease research. At first I thought maybe I would be a doctor, but that wasn’t really my thing. So I did what was interesting and tried to learn about people and disease. Then I became really interested in how what we do in our environment impacts our health and well-being. I started seeing the natural world around me and seeing myself in it, seeing people in it, sick people in my community and growing up thinking about how those things interact. Now my interests really lay in diseases that affect, particularly rural communities and Indian communities, like diabetes and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
I’m Chickasaw Indian from Oklahoma, so my dad brought me up to be cognizant of my environment and work in my environment and be a good steward of the land and where I was.
Is the research you’re doing now something related?
I do research on Cystic Fibrosis and COPD. In graduate school I worked on diabetes. The neat thing about being a computational biologist — you can work on lots of things. You get a toolkit and you can apply it to whatever your interest is as I go along. It’s nice because I get to work on what I’m interested in and I get to meet all kinds of people and help them which is another important thing to me — being a good community member and helping the people around me by using my skills.
I know some people struggle with leaving their community and going into academia and then, possibly, not returning to their community — is that something you struggle with?
No. My dad has a PhD, so he was really supportive. My grandmother is a Chickasaw woman whom the tribe helped after she raised my dad and uncle — they helped her to go back to school and she became an elementary school teacher. So she stayed in the community. My dad went on and got his undergraduate degree in sociology and then got his PhD in sociology. Then he went back to Oklahoma and he was very successful and then was offered a job at the University of Wisconsin. So we moved away at that point. That was what moved us away from our community, but we spent a lot of time with the Ho-Chunk and Menominee tribes in Wisconsin. They became our community. Right now I get to work with a lot of Lumbee people in Pembroke, North Carolina. When I was at Michigan I worked with the Nishnawbe people there. Indian people are generally very open to other Indian people, and accept them into their community and help them be one of theirs. Eventually I would love to go back to the Chickasaw nation. See this,
Did you play outside when you were younger?
Yes. I still play outside! I love to fish, hunt; I love to go hiking, camping. One of my favorite things is to go canoeing. One day I hope to have my own canoe. Sometimes my wife and I will rent one and throw our two dogs in it. I love to be outdoors.
Did you ever have a professional crisis? Did you ever think of just throwing in the towel and quitting?
I’ve never wanted to quit because I feel like this is my purpose. But I’ve been challenged with situations where I question whether I wanted to be in a community that would behave in ways that are not always the best. Sometimes when we interact and work with each other, we’re not always supportive — it’s stressful, and sometimes it brings out the worst in us. Those are times when I really question, “Do I want to be here?” For me, I felt like, “Well, yeah, I want to be here because I don’t want it to be like this for the next guy.” There’s this great poem, called “Bridge Builder” by Will Allen Dromgoole — it’s about this old man who made it across this giant canyon and then some other guy comes along and sees the old man building a bridge and he’s like, “You already made it, why are you building a bridge back?” and the old man is like, “Because I want to make it easier for the young man that comes after me.” That’s sort of my way of thinking about things. So when things get difficult, we have to get past those big obstacles and just try and think about bridging back to make it better for the next person.
So when things get difficult, we have to get past those big obstacles and just try and think about bridging back to make it better for the next person.
Do you feel that in education, now that you have the opportunity to teach, do you feel that responsibility to make their experience better than what you had?
Absolutely. I think I’ve had some really good teachers, and I’ve had some not-so-good teachers. I think that I’ve been really fortunate to get a really outstanding, first-class education. I think everyone deserves one. If I can bring my skill set that I learned at Michigan and Chapel Hill and bring it to some other place where people might not have that skill set, then I want to do that. I want people to be excited about science and school. It doesn’t have to be miserable.
How many of your successful discoveries were due to chance?
That sounds like a loaded question. I don’t know. I don’t know if I could identify something as chance or just a series of opportunities — almost all of my opportunities have come from people helping me. So I wouldn’t say that was chance; I would say it was people that cared about me and worked hard for me in ways that I don’t even know about.
Did you have any adult role models when you were younger? Did you try to emulate them?
I thought any adult in my family was pretty awesome. My parents were tremendous role models — they were very hardworking, very generous, humble, fun people. I try to be a generous person and I try to be a humble person as well. My maternal grandmother and grandfather were the ones that I saw the most. They were my role models. My grandfather was the kind of man who said, “It’s not the job that you have, you want to just be near your family.” He was really about having balance so that you could have all the things that are important to you. I think he did that well.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?
Middle school can feel pretty out of control sometimes, so I think my middle school self would probably be like, “Wow, you got it together, you figured out what you wanted to do, you seem really happy…” so I think that’s probably what my middle school self would say.
Are there any mementos that you’ve kept with you from when you were a kid?
I have some old postage stamps that my grandfather gave me. He got me into stamp collecting because he was a postal worker. I also have some coins that people had given me. I know I kept the stamps because they were a connection to my grandfather, the coins… I think I didn’t know what to do with them, so I just kept them.
When did you go to your first concert? What band or artist was playing?
I think my actual first concert wasn’t until I lived in Seattle after college and it was The Doves — which is a good band, everyone should check them out.
Did you play any instruments when you were younger?
No. I’m not musically inclined.
When you were younger, what did you think scientists did all day?
My dad is sort of a scientist, he’s a social scientist, and I thought that scientists sat in their office all day and read dusty books. And you had to wear a tweed jacket with the elbow patches. They wrote with calligraphy pens.
And [scientists] had to wear a tweed jacket with the elbow patches… [and write] with calligraphy pens.
Like Benjamin Franklin?
Basically I thought scientists were Benjamin Franklin. [laughs]
Did that ever change? Or is it still the same? Are all scientists like Benjamin Franklin?
Now I see scientists as individuals. I use the word “researcher” instead of “scientist” — I like the idea that you’re out observing and checking things out. “Scientist” sounds dusty and old or something.
Did you have any favorite books that you read when you were younger?
I really liked the Chronicles of Narnia and I liked The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. It’s about good and evil, and it has kids that have to fight against evil.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be?
I think I’d like to fly, because then I could get places really quickly. I could see people that I wanted to see that were far away. Also, I could just skip traffic. Commuting down to Pembroke would be like snapping my fingers. As long as I could carry stuff. If I can only wear a cape, then it’s not going to be useful to me.
Did you ever feel like you were somehow different than other children?
Sure! I feel like that’s the natural human condition. Life is about figuring out who you are and often when you are figuring out who you are, you are comparing yourself to others. Often when you are comparing yourself, you’re going to notice things that are different. Sometimes, depending on the period of life that you’re in, those things can feel a little more heightened. Other times, like how I feel now, we’re all very different, but we’re all very much the same in our differences. That makes me feel good.
Did you ever get into trouble when you were younger?
[long pause] Sure, but nothing major… That’s all I can say.
That’s the end of my questions.
Phew! This was my first interview about myself. I always avoid personal questions. But the next one will be easier. I didn’t have the most fun time when I was younger. I’m like a turtle.
A turtle moves forward; he can’t look behind him. He looks side to side but he just keeps going.
Dr. Conner Sandefur is a post doctoral research scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His research focuses on understanding and modeling the factors that regulate airway surface liquid in lungs. Follow him on Twitter @oshehoma.
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I’m so proud to be your sister in law, Dr. Sandefur! You inspire me to keep going and to never stop learning. Great job in your interview!