58– Where researchers come from: How 6 people turned an interest into a profession

January 19, 2022 Utah State University Office of Research Episode 58
58– Where researchers come from: How 6 people turned an interest into a profession
Show Notes Transcript

In this podcast, six different researchers share what motivated them to pursue their studies. The beginning of each of these journeys look different — a gentle push from a friend, a role model to aspire after, or even a crush that happened to be working in the lab. The common thread, though, is a flame that was carried on by a long-lasting curiosity. Learn about these unique research topics and the first step that started the journey for each of the researchers in today’s episode.

Episode clips from 

Episode 23
Witches, ghosts, and pesky high schoolers; polishing-up your legend detector, with Dr. Jeannie Thomas

Episode 17
Don't touch my hive! Honey bees and killer hornets with Dr. Joe Wilson

Episode 5
Earthquakes on the wasatch, with Dr. Alexis Ault

Episode 53
Spiders and silkworms and hagfish, oh my! Justin Jones on spider silk research at USU

Episode 35
Horses & Veterans; judgement free help in the therapy arena with, Judy Smith

Episode 57
Dust. Janice Brahney explains how synthetic materials are driven into a natural phenomenon

[00:00:00] Jeannie Thomas: And what folklore did for me is it opened up the world to make me think about a lot more things and feel really engaged with a lot more things. 

[00:00:18] Wyatt Archer: So that's Jeannie Thomas, she researches folklore, and she's talking about. Getting involved in folklore research changed the way she viewed the world. Um, it's kind of like going from black and white to color, 

[00:00:36] Jeannie Thomas: you just see more detail and start thinking about it. Or life becomes really vivid and interesting.

[00:00:43] Here's Jeannie explaining what her life was like before she could see the color that a folklore perspective. 

[00:00:49] I basically lived, you know, for looking for one really good movie or one really good book. You know, you have those things, whether it's movies, books, food, sports, whatever it is that it makes you feel really alive.

[00:01:02] Wyatt Archer: So Jeannie had to seek out experiences that made her feel alive. Until she took a folklore class

[00:01:09] Jeannie Thomas: . Remember being a student taking 

[00:01:11] a folklore class and going, 

[00:01:13] Hey, this person gets to do this for a living. That is 

[00:01:18] Wyatt Archer: so that's just a little bit of the story of how Janie Thomas became a folklore researcher.

[00:01:24] And that's what today's episode is about how people end up in the world of research. We've gone back over past episodes and we've collected it's of people's stories to share with you today. I'm Wyatt Archer. You could be watching some old, black and white movie, but you are listening to this instead, a podcast from the office of research at Utah state university.

[00:01:55] In today's episode, you're going to hear five more researchers. Talk about how they became researchers. Some like genie were motivated by a new perspective that their disciplined offered. Others were pushed by mentors. One was motivated by acute college co-ed and in this next clip, you'll hear how Joe Wilson got started.

[00:02:17] Joseph Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who focuses on bees and wasps. 

[00:02:22] Joe Wilson: I always liked nature. I mean, in a bio that I sent around, I say, when I was two years old, I told my dad, he asked what I wanted to be when I grow up. And I don't remember this, this, this, he told me I'm not, I'm not a kind of a guy that remembers what I said when I was two or three, but I said I wanted to be a lion when I grew up.

[00:02:37] And so I, they Al I was always into animals, like when we went to the. The library. I would go to the field guide section and check out field guides, even as a little kid, but I grew up in kind of Provo Orem area and my field guides, you know, it was like, I liked mammals because they're soft and fuzzy. So I look at all these squirrel pictures and raccoon pictures, but we don't have that kind of.

[00:02:57] In Provo and Orem, you know, we don't have red squirrels and gray squirrels and flying squirrels. And so one of the kind of defining moments of my life was I found this book at the library called how to build a backyard zoo. And it was telling how you can manipulate your landscape in your backyard to attract animals like birds and squirrels and frogs and stuff.

[00:03:17] And I realized. As I could ten-year-old and this was not written for Utah. You know, you can't put a pond in your backyard and suddenly have a bunch of frogs because Utah doesn't have that many kinds of frogs. Um, but I still spend a lot of time outside. And in doing this, I realized the animals that I was mostly seeing were insects, insects, and their relatives, you know, scorpions and spiders and stuff like that.

[00:03:40] And so I started learning about the insects because that's what I had in the backyard. So I was kind of a bug geek from a young age. But even then I thought I wanted to study something big, like wolves or bears all the way until I got to college. 

[00:03:55] Wyatt Archer: So we know that Joe Wilson didn't end up studying wolves or bears in college.

[00:03:59] And later in this episode, we'll circle back to his story. So you can find out why he ended up studying insects. Instead, Joe, isn't the only researcher I've talked to who study plans have changed. Alexis Ault is a geoscientist. You can learn more about her work to understand the geologic history of the ground beneath your feet, by going way back to episode five.

[00:04:20] But in this clip, Alexis explains why her educational plans had to change. And then she talks about how taking groups of local middle-schoolers out of the classroom and into the mountains to investigate local thought lines helps today's youth envision a future in research.

[00:04:40] Alexis Ault: My parents were physicians. And of course the sphere that I knew was medicine. So when I was thinking about going to college, I was like, oh, I'm going to go into neuroscience. And when I, when I. To Wellesley college where I did my undergrad, I was a little bit fried from being a perfectionist in high school.

[00:04:58] And I didn't want to be in lab all afternoon in the pre-med track, basically. Um, and so I floundered for a long time, um, tried various different things until I took my first geology class. And for me, it just clicked, but I would not be where I am today without mentors and role models. And so part of what I'm doing, not just me, but the team of graduate students, postdocs and undergrads who are working with me when we're connecting with these kids is we are serving as rolling.

[00:05:31] So that they can see what we do and they can actually envision themselves in that position, in the future. You know, part of the reason I wanted to, to go into medicine is because my parents were my role models and I mean, they still are in terms of my work ethic, but I've also been profoundly impacted by my.

[00:05:51] My science role models. 

[00:05:52] Wyatt Archer: Alexis Ault had examples of people in research-based careers. Her parents were physicians, but like Jeannie Thomas things didn't really click until she took a class where she found her science role models and collecting the stories. For this episode, I realized how important it is for future researchers to have examples, to look to and mentors, to help guide their careers.

[00:06:14] And this next clip, Justin Jones explains how his mentor got him into a spider silk lab and how his undergraduate students find their way into his lab. 

[00:06:23] Justin Jones: Um, I started out as an undergraduate at the university of Wyoming where Dr. Randy Lewis was at the time and he was my academic advisor. And along towards my sophomore year, he said, you need to get involved in a lab.

[00:06:35] And so he handed me a pamphlet with all the different labs in the university that I could jump in and be a part of, and his research on recombinant, spider silk stuck out to me, uh, because of the applications and, and you know, the novelty of the work. Um, and so I joined his lab as an undergraduate and about.

[00:06:52] Teen 96, somewhere in there. Uh, and then I went on to get my master's, uh, in his laboratory, uh, as well, working on the first, uh, spider silk films. 

[00:07:05] Wyatt Archer: Yeah. So. I went to college, you know, and like, none of, I was never close enough with any of my academic advisors that they would like, like even know my name. And how did you develop a relationship with somebody who is like, you need to be in a lab.

[00:07:18] It'll be good for your career kid. Just like shut up and do it or whatever. Yeah. 

[00:07:23] Justin Jones: Uh, it's kind of a roundabout story, but, uh, I was, I was probably a little overly direct and, uh, my job, my first job in Randy's lab was washing the dishes. And, and this was back in the day when you made, uh, sequencing gels on your own.

[00:07:37] And so the graduate student that I worked for. I cleaned his sequencing plates and poured the gels form, but then wash dishes. And then as I got into it, good enough. I found myself with a fair amount of spare time. And so I went straight to Randy and I said, Hey, I need, you know, more to do, um, you know, what can I do?

[00:07:52] And so he started assigning me projects that were, uh, You know, we're calm that we're competent production of spider silk proteins and that kind of thing. And I just built it up from there. 

[00:08:01] Wyatt Archer: How do undergraduate get involved in your lab? 

[00:08:04] Justin Jones: Most of them, uh, reach out to me. Um, I don't have to do a lot of searching for people.

[00:08:09] Um, and, and that's great. Cause I usually get very bright and very motivated people, uh, because they have reached out. Um, and if I have positions available, then you know, we try and hire them if, if we can get them through the hiring process. So. Um, yeah, it, it works great. Yeah.

[00:08:24] Wyatt Archer: So I guess like what I'm learning from you and your students is, um, It only feels like you're being overly direct when you're actually saving people, the step of having to like recruit students.

[00:08:37] Justin Jones: Absolutely. Absolutely. And, and, you know, if you've got the Moxie to approach a professor directly, um, it says something about your character and what you will be in the laboratory. So, um, I actually, I prefer that people to step forward and say, Hey, I'm interested in your research. Um, and I'd love to come learn and work.

[00:08:56] Wyatt Archer: So for students who want to get involved with research, just sending an email to a potential mentor is a great way to start finding research experiences. The thing is there's lots of bright people that may not have had the examples they needed growing up, or may not be able to see themselves reflected in their field of interest, or maybe just like watershed sciences, researcher, Janice brainy.

[00:09:18] Some people kind of just need to be straight up, told to get involved with science. You can hear more about Janice Brandy's research and episode 57, but in this clip, you'll hear how one persistent friend and one observant teacher now. Or pushed Janice brainy onto a path towards research.

[00:09:43] How did you end up becoming a research? 

[00:09:46] Janice Brahney: Um, well, by accident, I guess I. Graduate from high school in a past the college. So I did graduate, but it wasn't a path to college. Um, so, and I wasn't thinking about. College for a long time, but I was super nerd. So I would read, discover magazine and cut out articles that I liked.

[00:10:12] And one of my friends was like, you should go to college. And I was like, no, I didn't like high school. Um, she was going to college and she said, Come with me. So I went with her and, um, decided to enroll, but I couldn't get into a science program. So I enrolled in a non-science program and took geology. Um, and my teacher halfway through the semester.

[00:10:39] I said, you are clearly a scientist, you should switch programs. So I thought about it and I went back and did all my high school equivalencies to get into a science program. And then mostly I wanted to learn about all the sciences. So I wanted to take classes in biology and geology and geography and statistics and math.

[00:11:03] So I did, and I ended up getting an environmental science degree and just found that I really liked working at that intersection of the different disciplines I liked using what I understood about geology, to answer questions about biology and what's driving change in, in the, in the ecosystems based on.

[00:11:27] The natural environment. And so I liked, I liked being at that intersection. And so I just tried to stay 

[00:11:33] Wyatt Archer: there once again. That's a clip from episode 57 of the instead podcast. If you listen to the rest of the episode, you'll be even more grateful that Janice ended up a researcher at Utah state university.

[00:11:45] So you've heard how parents, friends and teachers can influence a person's path towards research. But in this next clip, Judy Smith talks about the many influences that led her to her research. Judy Smith researches, equine assisted therapy programs, and like Joseph Wilson, her story starts at a young age.

[00:12:04] Judy Smith: My love for horses started very young. My grandmother, when I was five insisted that I needed to have a horse and my father being the, um, very proper Dutch farmer that he was and very practical. He grew up with horses, using them to farm the place when he was a child. And he. On D using tractors and he didn't need a horse to chomp up the ground.

[00:12:29] And then also you can't eat them. But my grandmother won and my fifth birthday, I received my first horse and then my great uncle, he said, well, if she's going to have a horse, she needs to know how to do this. Right. So they signed me up for four spore age. I was in four H for 12 years. Also, um, during my teen years, I rode competitively hunter jumper and had a wonderful mentor who really developed my skills and my horsemanship ability.

[00:12:59] Then I got married and, um, my husband was in the air force and we moved away from the farm and life happened. And I found myself 20 years later, not having a horse in my life and. Working in a university that had a small equestrian program. And I realized I really missed horses. I hadn't been busy doing other things, going a different career path.

[00:13:23] And I got back engaged, helping out with their equestrian program and rekindled this love. Um, I went in a different direction. I went back to school. I picked up. My undergrad is in organizational leadership with a minor in equine studies. And then I went on to graduate school at Oklahoma state university, where I studied their pubic recreation and they allowed me to specialize in the recreation and therapeutic development of equine program.

[00:13:54] Wyatt Archer: How do you think growing up with a horse inform, um, who you are? 

[00:13:59] Judy Smith: Well, the main reason my grandmother felt I needed a horse, it was because I was terribly painfully shy and she felt with my two older brothers who were a little bit of bullies, a horse would help me develop confidence. And she really was right on the farm.

[00:14:15] We hadn't a lot of neighbors. I didn't have any siblings my own age and my horse became my best friend. And as I grew, especially in the forage program, I was forced in a position to have to speak in front of people, but it wasn't so bad when I could talk about my horse or anything to do with forces, because I was so connected to that relationship.

[00:14:39] So Def definitely the horses helped me kind of come out of my shell and gain those interpersonal skills that I could apply to the rest of my life. And. 

[00:14:51] Wyatt Archer: So, as you've heard in this clip from episode 35, Judy Smith had quite a few reasons to be interested in researching and developing equine assisted therapy programs.

[00:15:01] And I'm sure it's helpful to have lots of reasons to be interested in a research field, but sometimes you need just one reason. And we're going to circle back to Joe Wilson to finish up this episode of instead here's Joe Wilson telling us why he started studying bees. 

[00:15:18] Joe Wilson: Even then I thought I wanted to study something big, like wolves or bears all the way until I got to college.

[00:15:24] And what really converted me back to insects was I met a girl who was super cool and she had just returned back from her summer field job, studying bees in Southern Utah, the grand staircase national monument. And so I started hanging out with her. And hearing all these stories about bees and, and, you know, I visited her at work and she was working up at the B lab up at the Logan campus.

[00:15:47] So I started volunteering in the lab so I could spend time with her and she got me a job there. And then she graduated and we got married and then we both. I then I started, I kind of took her place in the lab and I studied bees down in Southern Utah. So anyway, so it was, it was kind of a girl that got me back into, I mean, to, to realize that bugs were the we're still cool, but then as I got more into it, I realized that all the stuff I liked about other animals watching nature, documentaries, You don't see the documentaries about bugs, usually see a lion chasing a gazelle or cool things like that.

[00:16:25] But you can see all that with bees and wasps. The wasps are the carnivores. The bees are the herbivores and there's really cool behaviors and hunting. And you know, it's like a nature documentary. Uh, but it's almost like a hidden one. So I'm finding, it's like, it's like going to the jungle and finding a new animal, but the jungle is your backyard in Willa, Utah.

[00:16:45] So yeah, we've been married now for. 18 years almost. And we still spend every summer out cash and bees. Now with three kids there, my field crew. Now 

[00:16:55] Wyatt Archer: I, I don't think I could ask for a better story to end this episode with than Joe's. Thank you for listening to this episode of instead, if you are somebody who.

[00:17:06] People become researchers or you're somebody who wants to pursue a research career. I hope this episode has helped you see the roles that motivation, interest, mentorship, and access played in the development of these and other researchers. Careers. This episode of instead was produced and edited by me, Wyatt Archer, and Tabitha Smiel as part of our work in The Office of Research at Utah State University.