Dr. Stephanie Schuttler grew up in Buffalo, New York, and went to a middle school that embraced high student achievement. There she wasn’t considered a nerd or picked on for liking conservation or listening to Nirvana. She spent time enjoying “splash hikes” with her family during vacations – putting on old sneakers and hiking up a streambed instead of a trail. It was her parents’ love of nature that eventually led her down the path towards biology. Read on to learn about Stephanie’s failed middle school science experiment, her grad research on elephants, and how she came close to a goth phase.
Lea: Do any memorable classroom moments stand out from middle school?
Stephanie: Not really. Middle school was kind of a filler period between elementary and high school. I remember Earth science pretty well. Even though I don’t think of myself today as liking the Earth sciences much, I remember a lot of the lessons from that unit. They were very hands-on.
What was your biggest worry in middle school?
Being popular and being liked. I started a new school in 6th grade, so I was getting used to a whole new set of friends, and missed my old friends. I was good at school and had a great family so I didn’t really have other major concerns.
“My dad just would always tell me to get good grades in school so I could work with my mind, not with my back.”
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up? What did they do?
They didn’t push me in any direction and were always supportive of what I wanted to do. My dad just would always tell me to get good grades in school so I could work with my mind, not with my back.
What were your favorite subjects in school? Why?
Art and science. Art because I loved drawing and painting and science because I loved animals. I wasn’t interested in science per say, mostly animals and nature (I didn’t really like science subjects like physics or chemistry or overall conducting experiments). My favorite things to draw were always animals (especially horses), so art and science kind of fed into each other for me.
Is there something you learned in middle school that has really stuck with you?
I remember the first time I learned about experimental design. I was really into saving the environment (I had the book 50 Things Kids Can Do to Save the Planet) and wanted to do an experiment that had to deal with toxic effects; I was thinking about how pesticides affect the environment and tested those ideas in a terrarium I made with different plants. It looked so cool and I was really proud of it, but when I took it to my teacher I didn’t get full credit because I used completely different plants and therefore no replicates or controls. I then had to re-design the experiment, but I messed up again. I didn’t know the difference between fertilizer and herbicide and bought the wrong thing. The plants treated with the fertilizer ended up growing better. Science fail.
I also made a timeline of the Earth’s history on paper. I remember it being super long and that humans were on the planet for such a short time comparatively that they were hard to draw in.
Were you in any clubs, have hobbies or extra curricular activities?
I think I did cross-country? This is definitely not reflective of what I am into now (I hate running). I was also a swimmer, which I did love and was good at.
“…[I] almost went through an alternative/goth phase in dress. I say almost because I liked color and sparkles too much to go down that road.”
What was your favorite thing to wear to school?
I don’t remember a favorite, but I was really into alternative music (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) and almost went through an alternative/goth phase in dress. I say almost because I liked color and sparkles too much to go down that road. Once I wore a black dress to school with eyeliner and some boys made fun of me and said I was mourning Kurt Cobain’s death.
Did you ever think you would become a scientist? What did you think scientists did all day?
No! Never. I had no idea. I don’t even think I thought about it. I think the only scientist I was aware of was Jane Goodall. I thought she lived in the jungle and watched chimpanzees all day. If I didn’t think about her, I just thought about people holding chemicals in beakers, which is so not true. I don’t think school does a good job of explaining the huge amount of diversity within the sciences.
“…I hated how there were popular kids, popular things, and cliques. It was harder to be your authentic self.”
If you could give your middle school or just younger self some advice what would it be?
I really like the “It gets better” campaign for the LGBT community. I think it can apply to kids just going through school in general. I had fun in school, and was not super popular. I wasn’t a nerd, but overall I hated how there were popular kids, popular things, and cliques. It was harder to be your authentic self. As an adult, you are essentially free from these restrictions and can always find like-minded people. I don’t think school gives you any perspective on what it’s like to be an adult.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about, considering your life?
That I study elephants! I would have never have expected that, ever.
Is there something (a memento) that you keep with you at work from childhood? Why? What is its significance?
Not something specific. I do keep photos of my mom around me. She passed away last year and was a big inspiration to me for my love of animals, which led me to science. She was very passionate about animal welfare and also conservation. We would always stop and look at animals together, whether it was ducks at the library or a snake in our backyard.
When did you go to your first concert and what band or artist was playing?
I think it was high school. I went to the Smashing Pumpkin’s Mellon Collie and Infinite Sadness tour. Good choice in retrospect.
Did you play an instrument? Did your parents have to force you to practice or did you do it on your own?
Ugh, yes. I played French horn. My brother convinced me to choose an instrument that was unusual so I could be unique. But it was horrible because it was so heavy and clunky. The advantage was that I had to do very little to be first chair. I quit after 8th grade. My parents didn’t really force me, just reminded me to practice, but when I wanted to quit they were fine with it.
When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming one day?
I had various – not really one I could pinpoint. Veterinarian, doctor, actress, at one point I thought about being a professional swimmer (although I had no chance).
What were some of your favorite books growing up?
Lord of the Flies – thought it was a very cool concept… and The Baby Sitter’s Club series.
“I would go out with my dog (my wolf) and put a rope leash on her and pretend we were lost in the woods (my yard).”
How much did you play outside? Where?
Somewhat often. I really liked animals so I would go with my parents to different local areas to catch things like snakes and frogs (and release them). We would also go to Allegany State Park to hike, take “splash hikes” where you look for salamanders and crayfish while walking through creeks in old shoes, and also search for animals by spotlight at night (just drive around and look at animals with a big spotlight). Those were some of my favorite things. I liked stereotypical girly things, but loved all kinds of animals. I also would play in my backyard, which extended into some small woods. As I got older, I would just walk around back there and explore.
When I was little I really liked the movie “White Fang.” I would go out with my dog (my wolf) and put a rope leash on her and pretend we were lost in the woods (my yard). We would have to collect berries (which I am sure were poisonous, did not eat) and look for shelter (I grew up in Buffalo, so somewhere to protect us from the snow). I’m pretty sure my dog didn’t like it.
Did you collect anything?
I went through a rock phase. We were learning about rocks at school and my dad is a jeweler so he actually had some nice pieces. I brought them into school and was really excited about the pretty colorful ones. I had two obsidian rocks – one was a sparkly copper color and the other was a sparkly navy-purple color. They were so beautiful! Then I learned later on that obsidian was used to make knives that were used for human sacrifices by the Aztecs, which stuck with me because of my rock collection.
Did you ever have a professional crisis? Did you ever think about throwing in the academic towel?
Yes! I think everyone does. You go through periods where you doubt yourself. Graduate school can be really intense and difficult at times, and it is hard to get the preparation for it from undergrad (however, it does seem like universities are doing a much better job at this currently). I didn’t get a Masters ahead of time, so I was probably less prepared than other students. You are essentially doing a large-scale project with you in charge for the first time from start to finish. I didn’t have much training for that as my previous jobs were always working on different aspects of other people’s research. I’m really happy I pushed through though.
“I was intrigued because I had always loved animals and figured I was too chicken to ever travel to Africa in the future.”
Why or when did you decide to become a scientist?
It wasn’t until college. I started as a dual major in biology and theater. I really wanted to be an actress, but chose biology as a back-up, just-in-case degree to potentially get me to med school. My brother influenced me to be a scientist inadvertently. He encouraged me to study abroad. I didn’t really need the college credit, but I liked the idea, so I started searching for programs. I looked at all different kinds of programs, mostly theater-based ones in Europe, but also found a couple of wildlife ones that looked interesting. One was the School for Field Studies that was in Kenya. I was intrigued because I had always loved animals and figured I was too chicken to ever travel to Africa in the future. I went on the program and it literally changed my life. I learned from this program that there were lots of opportunities in ecology, conservation, and wildlife management and that I didn’t have to move to the middle of the jungle permanently (like Jane Goodall) to be on that career path. From then on, I decided that I wanted to be a scientist. As I was already a biology major, I didn’t have to change much. I dropped theater to a minor and kept on moving.
How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?
For me? Very few. Most of my research has come from my work on forest elephants. There hasn’t been much research done on forest elephants, so my studies were carefully planned and when I got to the field, everything went according to plan (which is not the norm in science).
What fascinated you as a kid?
Animals! I loved finding them, seeing them up close, watching them. Even today I get really excited when I see one. I saw an otter for the first time in the wild and I was giddy. Also the Buffalo Museum of Science. I loved the themes of the different rooms and how they made you feel like you were in different places (space, Egypt, with dinosaurs). One of my favorite exhibits was one where they had enlarged models of insects and plants so you felt the same size as them. I would walk through it over and over, constantly finding new things.
Did you often feel bored as a kid? What did your parents do when you said this?
Not really. I had a good imagination and was always content playing alone when I had to. My mom said I was the best child ever – that when they would take me to a place like a restaurant they would give me a few toys and I would entertain myself. Also I had amazing parents. Every Sunday we would do something together. We had memberships to the science museum, art museum, and zoo.
What were your favorite outside play places?
My backyard, playgrounds, ponds (to catch frogs).
“The thing that made me most different was probably my connection to nature and animals.”
Did you ever feel that you were somehow different from other children?
Yes and no. I never really liked my new school district as much as my old one, so for that reason I felt different. The girls at my new school really liked soccer, and I didn’t and was not good at it, so right off the bat it was harder for me to fit in. However, I didn’t feel especially different or creative. I was good at school, but more of a jack-of-all-trades. The thing that made me most different was probably my connection to nature and animals. I was a vegetarian at 12, so that definitely stood out as being different.
Did you get into trouble at school?
No! I was scared to get in trouble. I once forgot my homework at home and the teacher was going to give me detention. I begged her to let me out of it, and she finally agreed to call my mom at home and have her read her the answers to her.
What is a discovery you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
I don’t think my middle school self would have cared as much about the discoveries as much as the process. For my Ph.D., I got to watch forest elephants in the field. For my postdoc, I get to spy on all sorts of mammals using camera traps. My middle school self would have found that really fun and cool.
Dr. Stephanie Schuttler is a Post-Doctoral Researcher with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in the Earth Observation and Biodiversity Lab. She is working on the Students Discover project wherein she will work with Kenan Fellows to integrate eMammal into the classroom to allow students to participate in authentic scientific research. When she’s not studying elephants or camera trap pictures, she enjoys painting, decorating her home, and taking care of her 2 dogs and 4 cats.