Lea: Describe the experience of middle school to me.
Chris: It was a pretty stressful time of life I would say. I remember it as being awkward and difficult, both socially and physically because you’re growing into your body. A lot of situations with friends change a lot from elementary into middle school. So a lot of change and a fair bit of stress – that’s definitely two of the drivers, I would say. In the perspective of the classes I was taking – I was engaged and enjoyed it. I liked the content of the classes, even though the parts outside of classes were often awkward.
Did you have any favorite classes?
Chemistry – I had a good teacher. Biology was great too – my dad was a high school biology teacher, so I was naturally inclined to enjoy biology, I think. I hated phys ed because I didn’t like team sports.
You liked cross-country skiing, though?
Yes, but that was an individual sport. I was fine doing sports when it was only me. But I didn’t enjoy team sports.
Were you in any clubs? Have any hobbies?
Yes – I was on the cross-country ski team club, of course. I was in band – I played trumpet for many years. I was in drama, because I was one of the only guys that did drama so that’s how I could hang out with girls
What was your favorite part you played?
Oh, gosh, I don’t remember. There were so many plays and things! I don’t remember. And I was horrible.
What was lunchtime like for you and your friends?
Lunchtime? I think I’ve blocked it out of my memory completely. I have no memory of lunchtime.
Not even the plastic trays or the loud room?
I remember when there was a food fight in the cafeteria everything would go silent.
There were food fights?
Yes, I remember a couple food fights. It was awful, I was terrified.
Why were you terrified?
I don’t know, I was scared, I was a wimpy kid. They used to call me “the Wart” – wimpy worry wart. [laughs]
What did you worry about?[immediately] Everything. I was worried that there would be a volcano, even when I was really little – because my parents would have those National Geographic books out with all the natural disasters. So when I was a kid I would look through those and they would bring terror to my every day life because I would worry that a natural disaster would strike our house down. So I think that carried through to middle school. I worried about all things, I was a worrier.
Where did you live?
Just north of Peterborough, Ontario – which is about an hour and a half north of Toronto – in a small town. I remember my teachers favorably, I don’t remember awful teachers. Which was a good thing.
Did you play outside a lot?
Yes, my childhood – I grew up in a small town that was very close to lakes and forests, so I would fish and canoe and camp with my cousins every summer. So, yeah, I was outside all the time. When I think of my childhood, I think very much of being outside in nature a lot, for sure during my formative years. One of the clubs I should mention being involved with was called the Outers Club, which was the outdoors club. We’d go out camping and canoeing and things like that. Lots of time outside, definitely. And I lived in a beautiful part of the country where there were lots of freshwater lakes and big pine trees – it’s just sort of quintessential Canadian Shield country. Because I’m an entomologist, people always think, “Well, you must have spent your childhood looking at bugs,” and no – not so much. I can’t say I was drawn to entomology more than any other subject outside. I remember looking at ferns with my dad, going cranberry picking and all sorts of things, the bugs weren’t central. Nature was, but not bugs, per se. I could have gone towards anything, but as an undergraduate I was on a research summer project – I was a field assistant – and that attracted me to working in entomology. I could have been anything. I’m really glad it was entomology, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if I was a mycologist or a botanist.
Did you ever get into trouble at school?[immediately] No.
Yes. I was too worried. [laughs] I remember once in grade four or three – I had a fight with a friend over a Batman comic book and I had to go to the principal’s office. That was one time I was terrified. It was awful. And that was the only time I ever got into trouble. A couple of times later in high school, but middle school – no, no, no. I see that in my own kids now, their moral compasses are straight as an arrow.
Did you ever get bored as a kid?
I don’t ever recall being bored. I lived in nature’s playground – big backyard and lots to see and do; riding bikes around town. In the teenage years, a little more – a little older, I remember being bored. You know, when you start to think that you’re the center of the universe. You start to get bored. But middle school, no, I don’t remember being bored. Except for those long family trips where you all get in the van and drive for hours. But in general, no.
If you had a time machine, and you go back to whichever year you happen to be in middle school (I won’t age you), you open your TARDIS doors, they creak, and you jump out – what do you tell yourself?
I think reminding myself of the importance of being grateful for the position you’re in, because if you can be more grateful at that age, I think that can do a lot of good things for those around you and for those in your life. We tend to enter an age where we tend to take things for granted and as we get older, and I think it’s around the middle school age that starts to shift and you don’t recognize what a beautiful life you have. I think I would probably say, “Don’t forget that every day.” Because as an adult now, I think about time – I think it could have been good to know that younger.
How do you think that would have changed you now, if you would had said that?
Well, I think I might have been kinder when I should have been kinder to people. Maybe more empathetic, more understanding, more caring… There’s a period of time when you’re a teenager – I think I was a jerk for a while and I think most kids are at that age, and I think a lot of that comes because we don’t recognize that growing up in this wonderful part of Canada, I had nothing to complain about. So, that might have changed… hard to know. I’d also probably tell myself to keep doing music, because I stopped that for many many years and I didn’t get back to it until I was an adult. Things like that.
What did you think scientists did all day?
Well, I was lucky that I grew up in a house with a biology teacher. So I really appreciated that science was about observation. That’s what I thought scientists did. They observed things carefully and recorded those observations. So I came to science with the perspective of a natural historian, more than the biologist sort of approach. So I’m not at all surprised that I do what I do now as a scientist because I think that was very formative when I was younger. That’s how I viewed science, that process of observation and analytical thinking and critical thinking skills. I think that’s how I saw scientists. I don’t think I ever had that really bad stereotype of scientists. I think I had a pretty good idea of what they did, generally speaking.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about, considering your life now?[pause] Probably that I have three kids.
Why would that be surprising?
I think when you’re in middle school, you don’t see yourself as a father. You see yourself as a grown-up having a job. I don’t think, at that age, I would ever see myself as a father. Though I had a good father in my life and I had a very good upbringing, I don’t think I saw that. I saw myself in some job. When I was a kid I wanted to be a pizza maker, and then I wanted to be a fireman and then as I got older I wanted to be an engineer or a doctor – that was later in high school. So I always thought I would have a job, that would be great, but I don’t think I ever saw myself having kids.
What’s one discovery that you’ve made that would really excite your middle school self?
I think some of the work I’ve done in the Arctic would have excited my middle school self. Because I was always reading books about explorers and was always fascinated by exploration, especially polar exploration, so finding spiders, interesting aspects of the biology of spiders in the arctic would have been pretty interesting.
Are any of your successful discoveries due to chance?
Due to chance? I would say most. [laughs]
Do you think that’s the story for most scientists?
I think it depends on the field. But I think in entomology there’s so much to discover. And in my area of biodiversity sciences there is just so much to discover. I wouldn’t say by chance, but unexpected or surprising.
I don’t think I look back and say I am surprised I ended up being a scientist. To me, when I look back, it’s not an unsurprising path based on the fact that I liked certain parts of school better than others. I don’t think it’s surprising – and I think it’s interesting to look back and think – that the time that you spend with your kids outside at that age is pretty telling of their interest in nature down the road. That’s an important signal, I think.
Dr. Chris Buddle is an Associate Professor of insect ecology at McGill University in Quebec, Canada. He also blogs about arthropod ecology, spiders and life at McGill University at ArthropodEcology.com and writes for SciLogs as Expiscor. Follow him on Twitter @CMBuddle