The making of a scientist

An expert in STEM education weighs in as researchers recount their own childhood experiences with science.

Getting children interested in science is crucial to ensuring continued scientific progress in coming generations. The question is how to go about it. We asked four researchers to tell us about the childhood experiences that put them on the path to careers in science. Education expert Tim Höffler also weighs in, explaining how these scientists’ experiences relate to findings in STEM education research.

johnston_smallMichelle Johnston
Research Marine Biologist

Michelle Johnston is a marine biologist and NOAA scientific scuba diver at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in Galveston, Texas. She manages the sanctuary’s long-term coral monitoring program and coordinates invasive lionfish response and removal efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

ResearchGate: What was your attitude about science as a child or teenager?

science_fairsMichelle Johnston: As a child growing up in landlocked Ohio, I was always fascinated by the ocean. I remember collecting National Geographic Field Guide cards that I would read and categorize, planning to do research on all the different animals one day. I loved science, and was the first place winner at my middle school science fair.

RG: Can you think of anything your parents did that directly or indirectly encouraged you to go into a career in science?

parentsJohnston: My parents did everything they could to make my dreams of becoming a marine biologist come true. My mother, despite being a single parent of two young girls, took me on vacations where I could experience diving. Both my parents were school teachers, so they were instrumental in instilling in me a respect for the importance of education. Despite coming from a very modest home in Ohio, they helped support the expensive of out-of-state tuition for me to attend the University of North Carolina Wilmington, which has one of the best marine biology programs in the US.

RG: Are there any school projects that still stand out in your memory?

girlsJohnston: When I was in high school, Dr. Bob Ballard did a series of live telecommunication programs from the Aquarius Underwater Habitat. My high school was a participating school, and we got to tune in and talk to the scientists while they were underwater in the Florida Keys. I remember standing up, extremely nervous and excited to ask a question about coral reefs. It is incredible that my journey has come full circle. In 2010, I participated in an Aquarius Mission in the Florida Keys, conducting similar live programming to schools across the United States. It was thrilling to get to talk with students who were so excited about the ocean, knowing that in the past, I was one of those students. As a scientist at the Flower Garden Banks, a big part of what I do is about education and outreach, and I spend a lot of time in Texas educating other about the important of our ocean and their national marine sanctuaries.

 

mutungi_smallJoe Mutungi
Molecular Biologist

A citizen of Kenya, Joe Mutungi is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Tokyo, doing laboratory research on molecular aspects of malaria parasites as potential antimalarial targets.

RG: What was your attitude about science as a child or teenager?

Joe Mutungi: As a kid, I was curious. But because I grew up in poor rural area, I did not have much exposure to science beyond what we learnt in primary school. I loved science very much, and I strove to perform well under very difficult circumstances; I was a day school student, and I could only revise at home in the evening using firelight or moonlight. It was at university that I first had a real chance to live and read my books under electric light. In my undergraduate studies, I did a small project on malaria that ignited my passion for research on tropical diseases—in part because I was reminded of a bout of severe malaria I had myself when I was seven years old.

RG: Are there any school projects that still stand out in your memory?

crazyMutungi: In high school, I was in the science club and was selected to demonstrate a dissection and explain the anatomy of a rabbit during parents' day. The chemistry laboratory technician was an old man who was constantly mixing chemicals and doing calculations. I eventually requested the role of cleaning the laboratory in order to get to know him better.

RG: Were you interested in media featuring science and scientists?

Mutungi: In our rural home, we had a radio, but no access to TV. My real exposure to media coverage of research, science and scientists started in Japan. In the future, I plan to initiate a media project in Kenya replicating a Japanese TV program called "Science Zero," in which both junior researchers and prominent scientists explain their research in a simple way. Currently, science is given almost no real airtime in our Kenyan media. I expect many children and their parents to get more enthusiastic once the science is demystified by practitioners. To reach the poor in the rural areas I plan to organize physical forums along these lines as well.

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RG: Can you think of anything your parents did that directly or indirectly encouraged you to go into a career in science?

Mutungi: I would say that I just found my own footing. My parents are not educated, but I would say they gave me the genes. My father is now 81 years old, and he has always been very curious about the world around him.

RG: Do you have children? If so, are you trying to foster their interest in science? How?

Mutungi: Yes, my first son is nearly nine years old, and he too is very curious. Recently, he was in a clinic, and a microscope sample was taken from him for examination. He insisted that he wanted to check it himself and was allowed to look through the eyepiece. My second born son is just one month old, and I plan to encourage him from early age as well.

 

breuer_smallDoris Breuer
Planetary Physicist

Doris Breuer is a planetary physicist at the German Aerospace Center (DLR). She studies the formation, interior structure and evolution of terrestrial planets and moons.

RG: What was your attitude about science as a child or teenager?  

magazinesDoris Breuer: I think I was always interested in science. I read a science journal for kids, for instance, and liked repairing my bike and figuring out how it worked. I have to admit that I was simply more talented in math and physics and less so in languages.

RG: Were you interested in media featuring science and scientists?


Breuer: Yes, when I was 14, I started reading PM Magazin, a magazine by Peter Moosleitner. I was more interested in the science than the scientists. I don’t remember who introduced me to it—I may have seen it in a book store.

RG: Can you think of anything your parents did that directly or indirectly encouraged you to go into a career in science?

Breuer: No, they didn’t directly encourage me, in part because they didn’t really relate to science. Their idea was for me to do a professional education—as a banker or something like that—but when I decided to study geophysics, they supported my wish and paid for my living expenses during my studies.

RG: Do you have children? If so, are you trying to foster their interest in science? How? 

extracurricularsBreuer: I have a 16-year-old daughter and tried to foster her interest in science. When she was younger, I took her to science museums and to the “Long Night of Science,” an event where labs, museums, and research institutes have programming for the public. She also attended a microscoping camp. However, it looks like she will not be studying a science subject. Her interests lie elsewhere.

 

mcgimsey_smallRobert McGimsey
Volcanologist

Robert McGimsey is a research geologist at the US Geological Survey's Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO) in Anchorage. He works at many of Alaska's historically active volcanoes, monitoring them and providing information on volcanic hazards—including warnings of impending dangerous activity—to officials and the public.

RG: What was your attitude about science as a child or teenager?

curiosityRobert McGimsey: I was certainly curious as a child, particularly about all things outdoors. As a teenager, I was drawn to the mountains, streams, and woods for reasons inexplicable to me at the time. Later, as a university student, I discovered in geology the reasons for my innate interest.

RG: Are there any school projects that still stand out in your memory?

McGimsey: In primary school—perhaps 2nd or 3rd grade—I took on a simple project of gathering different types of sediment and "dirt" to fill a large glass jar halfway, adding water to top it up. This concoction was well-shaken, forming a turbid, cloudy mix, and then set aside to see what would happen. Several days later I was mesmerized at the multiple horizontal sediment layers of different color and grain size that had settled out.

nature_of_scienceRG: Can you think of anything your parents did that directly or indirectly encouraged you to go into a career in science?

McGimsey: When I was little, my mother was constantly dressing me up in a doctor's garb; she obviously wanted me to be a medical doctor! Later, she encouraged my interest in the outdoors. Indirectly, I think that my father being a certified public accountant gave me incentive to seek a polar opposite career path.

RG: Do you have children? If so, are you trying to foster their interest in science? How?

gradesMcGimsey: My wife and I are both professional geologists. Our kids developed an interest in science, probably because they excelled in those classes, but also because we constantly exposed them to all kinds of science topics, ranging from our choice of TV shows to watch with them to the places we took them on vacation. Although they both are now studying science fields—environmental science, math, biology, and psychology—neither has ever had any interest in geology.

I’m also an adult leader for BSA Cub Scout and Boy Scout units, and have been interviewed by Boy’s Life about working as a volcanologist.

Featured image courtesy of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center