Not every scientist got their inspiration from their science classes — in fact many have gleaned inspiration from museums, family trips or extracurricular opportunities that they had when they were younger. Dr. Holly Menninger got her start in science communication speaking to groups of visitors at the Cincinnati Museum Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. While sitting down to talk to her about middle school, I noted a subtle Midwestern accent emerged as she excitedly described her experiences and reflected on time spent with her family and important mentors.
Lea: Tell me about your middle school setup to get us started.
Holly: I went to Catholic schools from first through twelfth grade, and for grades 1-8 we were all together in the same school (no distinction for elementary, middle or junior high school). I was essentially with the same 25-30 kids for eight years straight. It was a really small, Catholic grade school in Ohio. You can imagine that by the time you reach seventh and eighth grade, it got a little… old. It was hard for our teachers, too, because there were kids with varying skill levels in my class. Some students really struggled while others were much more advanced and so keeping everyone across all of these skill levels engaged, motivated and excited was a real challenge for the teacher.
I was essentially with the same 25-30 kids for eight years straight. It was a really small, Catholic grade school in Ohio.
Do you still keep in contact with any of your classmates?
Not really. We had a reunion a couple years ago; it was nice to see people, but it was also a little bit hard. When I left my grade school for high school, I never really looked back. I went on to an all-girls Catholic high school. It wasn’t a giant high school — there were about 150 to 175 in my graduating class — but it was enough of a difference that I made all new friends. I didn’t really hangout with anybody I went to grade school with. I’m Facebook friends with some of them now, and it’s cool to see that some of them have gone on to do exciting things, but in truth I’m much closer to the friends I made in high school and college.
You were in Ohio? What was that like?
I was in Cincinnati. Are you ready for the name of my grade school? I went to Saint Aloysius-on-the-Ohio, named so because it was quite literally situated next to the Ohio River. “On-the-Ohio” was used to distinguish our school from the other St. Al’s — believe it or not, Cincinnati had two St. Aloysius grade schools. Cincinnati is a weird place because it has a ridiculous number of Catholic schools. Grade schools are associated with church parishes, which are closely affiliated with neighborhoods. Those grade schools feed into the larger high schools, many of which are single-sex institutions (although a few are coed). There was an all-guys school right next door to my all-girls high school, which meant that, yes, I did have guy friends, and occasionally we even had shared classes.
Did that present any special challenges?
My grade school was coed, but then I attended a single sex high school. Thinking back now, I wonder if life would have been better in those middle school years if our classes weren’t coed! Just based on my experience, the seventh and eighth grade years are such a hard time. Your body is changing, you’re figuring out who you are, people start getting interested in boys and girls… And you can imagine that when you’re in a class of 25 people, there’s a limited number of people that can be interested in each other… Socially, even with just 25 kids, there was always a lot of drama. In general it was a hard time, socially and academically because I just wanted to do more.
I was on the St. Al’s academic quiz team, participating in the citywide “It’s Academic” competition. Each match, we competed against two other teams and would buzz in to answer questions on different subjects: math, science, literature, social studies, and so on. We had coaches, too. During practice, parents would ask us questions to help us prepare. Our team was pretty good… well, we won during my 7th grade year! I was the captain and I was also the only girl on our team. I actually still have the calculator that I received as a prize for winning the competition! I won a TI-81 calculator – and I still have it! It’s a graphing calculator, and I used it through high school AP Calculus. I used it in college physics. I still use it. We also won season passes to King’s Island, which is the amusement park near Cincinnati. Everyone was more excited about winning that over the graphing calculator… but I don’t like roller coasters, so that was kind of lost on me. I went once or twice and put a brave face on and rode The Racer, and that has been the one and only roller coaster that I’ve ridden.
I also competed in the Geography Bee and Spelling Bee (but wasn’t so great at spelling). I won our school’s Geography Bee in sixth grade and then again in eighth grade. After winning the school competition, you take a test to qualify for the big State Geography Bee (which I did twice) — and then the winners of that that go on to the national competition sponsored by National Geographic (it’s still going on today). My teachers, parents, and grandparents all came to support me at the State Geography Bee. In preparation for the competition I was coached by a lovely retired woman named Mrs. Knue – pronounced “canoe.” She grew up in Hawaii and even after many years in Cincinnati still truly embraced the Hawaiian Aloha spirit. She took it upon herself, and I’m not sure how it all came about, to be my coach for the Geography Bee. We’d have special study sessions in the library where she would quiz me. We would look at maps and she’d drill me with questions, and yet she was also very positive and always sending me affirmations and words of encouragement. She passed away a few years ago. Preparing for the Geography Bee had this escape aspect to it for me. It wasn’t just memorizing country capitols — I was getting to learn about these far off places and cultures, something so very different from the small, closed-in world I lived in. It provided a nice escape and break for middle school-aged me.
Preparing for the Geography Bee had this escape aspect to it for me. It wasn’t just memorizing country capitols — I was getting to learn about these far off places and cultures, something so very different from the small, closed-in world I lived in.
How did you end up in science?
Looking back, I realize I didn’t have a very positive science experience in grade school or high school. It was fine, it was adequate, but it was not hands-on — it was not inquiry-based. We had these crazy giant textbooks and did Earth science in sixth grade, life science in seventh grade, physical science in eighth grade. We just went through the text and there weren’t any demonstrations. We just had to learn facts. When I got to high school there were occasional demonstrations, but it wasn’t like we were learning by doing at the bench in any way. That’s why the work that we’re doing now with science in the classrooms is so cool; kids get to meet real scientists and they get to get their hands dirty in science. I had no experience like that whatsoever.
The supplementary things to my education were where I found that love for science. The summer after my ninth grade year I applied for and became a part of this program called the Lab Rats. It stands for Learning about Biodiversity Research and Teaching Science; it was a youth program at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History. They brought in students from all over Cincinnati and we went through this training program that was both about science and understanding how the museum works behind-the-scenes. We were then placed within a particular exhibit area and worked out on the floor. We were constantly engaging and interacting with visitors and doing demonstrations and taking people on tours. My first summer I worked in “Pathways to Change” – it was more of an exhibit on sustainability and environmental education. Then I stayed on as a volunteer and by the following summer I was hired as a full-time employee. I worked at the Museum all through high school – that was my job, every weekend, during the summer and holidays. It got to the point that I was one of the team leaders for the “Ice Age Exhibit”
But the thing about that job – it was more than just talking to people about science. I think what inspired me while working at the Museum was that we were introduced us to all of the scientists who worked for the Museum. That’s where I first got to know people with PhDs. I remember Jackie Bellwood was the bat biologist on staff and she would come speak to us. I remember talking to her and realizing… Wait a minute – you study bats all day? You get paid to do this? I remember being totally flabbergasted by that possibility. I did summer science camps throughout high school and I got to go for a week to Denison University, which is where I ended up going to college. There I finally had that experience where I got to do real science. I worked for three days with a professor who later became my advisor in college. We worked on a project studying ebony jewelwing damselflies in the stream. We were interested in what role the shiny green coloration on the males played in terms of female mate choice and their ability to defend territories. We designed this experiment where we collected a bunch of males and painted them black with Sharpie markers and put them back in their territory. We wanted to know if they were still able to attract the ladies. They ended up getting beat up by the other males. That was the first time I got to actually do some real science; I remember thinking, This is amazing. This is what I want to do.
I think what inspired me while working at the Museum [in high school] was that we were introduced us to all of the scientists who worked for the Museum.
And then, there was my trip to the Amazon. A group of donors and supporters of the Museum had just returned from a trip to the Amazon. They decided that, in conjunction with the Omnimax film about the rainforest that was playing at the Museum, that they were going to sponsor an essay contest for the students who volunteered and worked at the Museum about “Why should the Amazon rainforest be saved?” I wrote an essay and I won and so I got to go for a week to the Amazon, which was really crazy. My mom was not going to send her 14-year-old daughter to the Amazon by herself, so she paid for her own trip so she could come along, too. It was pretty amazing to be a 14-year-old kid on a canopy walkway and see this tremendous biodiversity that surrounds you. At that point I was like, “Alright, yes, I think I would like to study something like this.” It also motivated me to be very conservation-minded and environmentally oriented throughout high school. I founded our environmental club. I attended a lecture series sponsored by The Cincinnati Zoo where I was able to hear Jane Goodall and ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin speak– really inspiring. So when I went to college I majored in biology.
It was pretty amazing to be a 14-year-old kid on [an Amazon forest] canopy walkway and see this tremendous biodiversity that surrounds you. At that point I was like, “Alright, yes, I think I would like to study something like this.”
Did you ever get into trouble in school?
In school or at home? I didn’t get into trouble in school. I got into trouble at home – I was mouthy. I am the oldest of four and there were times during my seventh and eighth grade years that I had troubles keeping my mouth shut. I wasn’t generally a very pleasant person to be around. I was kind of mean to my siblings… I spent a lot of time after school at a neighbor’s house across the street. They had two boys that were a lot younger than me. It was sort of a place where I could chill out and not be around my family. I distinctly remember being in ninth grade and at one family dinner, my dad looked at me and said, “Welcome back!” It was as if I had an out of body experience where I had gone away for two years and I had finally returned as a human being. I don’t remember anything specific that I did, but I imagine I was testing boundaries. Most of the fights I had were with my sister because we used to share a room. It will be no surprise to anybody who has been into my office that I am kind of messy. Outwardly I have my life all together, but the chaos manifests on my desk and in my closet at home and… in my bedroom when I was an adolescent. We each got our own room after my sister put a line of tape down the center of our shared room because she was not tolerating my mess. She was just done.
I distinctly remember being in ninth grade and at one family dinner, my dad looked at me and said, “Welcome back!” It was as if I had an out of body experience where I had gone away for two years and I had finally returned as a human being.
Did your parents have any rules that were annoying or that you rebelled against?
The funny thing is that I never really tested those rules — it was my younger siblings that really pushed the boundaries. I think as the oldest kid I was too afraid and too goody two-shoes to break rules. I learned later, after I went to college, that my younger siblings would have parties when my parents went away. I would never in a million years have thought of doing some of the things they did; I was too afraid to get into trouble.
What did your parents do?
My dad is in business and worked in the energy and public utilities industry, but mostly on the business side of it. My mom was a teacher before I was born and was a stay-at-home mom throughout most of my childhood. When my youngest brother, Mark, who’s eight years younger than me, started preschool, she started substitute teaching and then later got re-certified to full-time teach. She went back to teaching right as I was about to start college. In fact, she couldn’t go with my dad to drop me off for college because she had to start back to school — that was a bit traumatic for both of us. I think she would have loved being a biologist as she loves nature. She came and helped me in the field when I was in college and helped me do field work in grad school. I think she really likes doing that kind of stuff. She still has this carousel of old-school Kodachrome slides that we made from our trip to the Amazon. When I was in high school, we would go around to schools and give presentations about biology in the Amazon.
A lot of what you’re describing as what got you into science came from opportunities you had when you were younger. Have you been able to provide those types of opportunities for others now?
I’m not in a position to sponsor students to take trips to the Amazon, but I think creating opportunities to the public to get involved in doing science is something that I can and am actively doing. We’re creating opportunities outside and inside of the classroom where people can contribute to real science and learn something interesting about our world. You don’t have to go to the Amazon to be inspired to be a biologist. There is so much that I think is under our noses that we don’t know. That’s not something anybody ever shared with me. But it’s one of our key messages at Your Wild Life: there is so much we encounter in our every day lives that hasn’t been studied. And there’s an opportunity for people who aren’t trained professionally as scientists to make real discoveries, to make contributions to the advancement to the field of science. That’s pretty exciting and inspiring. I hope at some point it inspires some kid who might find his or her science class boring to participate in some real science and realize it can be exciting. I think that’s something that’s cool about this Before They Were Scientists series — we show that scientists are people, too. Everybody has an origin story. They come to this field from so many different places.
We’re creating opportunities outside and inside of the classroom where people can contribute to real science and learn something interesting about our world. You don’t have to go to the Amazon to be inspired to be a biologist.
Working at the Museum and becoming comfortable talking to the public about science was something that – and I didn’t realize at the time how scary it could be or would be – I was lucky to learn how to do at a fairly young age. It’s a skill that anyone who is a scientist or wants to be a scientist needs to be able to do, to explain what their research is and why it matters to a general audience. Having had that skill set and commitment to science communication instilled in me at a young age was something that I value highly. I get lots of phone calls and requests to come talk to classes or to speak on panels about science communication – it’s something that’s high priority for me because we want to foster better science communication not only in this current generation of scientists, but also in the next generation of scientists.
Tell me about your musical skills.
I am terrible. Terrible. I took piano lessons from fourth grade to eleventh grade. I think I there was no measurable improvement from the time before I started taking lessons to when I finished. My mom thought she was going to raise a group of musicians. This was coming from a woman who was told – by a nun – at her first communion in second grade that she should mouth the words instead of sing them because her voice was so terrible. So that is my family history. I think my mom had hopes that it would be different for her children. My siblings have good voices… but me [shakes head]. I love musicals and supported the production of them at my high school from behind the scenes — I worked on the stage crew. I have a lot of really talented friends who performed in our high school musical series, but I had zero talent. Sometimes I forget that fact and when I was first dating my husband, I would sing in the car and I was terrible and he would give me these looks. I do really like belting it out in the car.
I took piano lessons from fourth grade to eleventh grade. I think I there was no measurable improvement from the time before I started taking lessons to when I finished.
Did you collect anything?
I had the usual obsessions… New Kids on the Block. In fact, I believe, I sent away for a signed picture of one Mr. Joey McIntyre at one point. I was obsessed with Debbie Gibson. I wanted to be her. My grandmother visited relatives in New York City and the one request I made was for her to bring home a Debbie Gibson hat for me. It was a black hat with a brim worn back on the head. I loved that hat.
Because of Cincinnati’s geological history, our stream beds were full of fossil deposits from 450 million years ago, when that part of the world was covered by ancient oceans. There were a lot of trilobites, bryozoans, crinoids and other cool fossils in the limestone rock lining the creek beds. We were always looking at rocks in search of fossils, especially trilobites, but I didn’t turn those into any official collection of sorts.
What was your first concert?
I did get to go see Debbie Gibson at Riverbend, our big outdoor concert venue. True fact: my dad and my friend’s dad were in the back of the amphitheater drinking beer while we were closer to the front [starts screaming and waving her hands in the air] “WOOOO DEBBIE GIBSON!!” I did end up seeing New Kids on the Block at Riverfront Stadium, where the Cincinnati Reds used to play. It was a big deal because our parents dropped us off, and we were by ourselves. We did not have chaperones with us in the stadium, so that was a big deal. I don’t remember the concert, but I remember walking into the stadium. It was probably a much bigger deal for our parents because for their generation there had been an incident at the Riverfront Coliseum next door when The Who played in 1975, so that was stuck into the consciousness of their generation.
Did you ever feel bored when you were a kid?
No, I felt restless. I may have been a little bit bored in school, but when I was home we were always playing outside, and I also read a ton. We were involved in a lot of stuff. I played soccer, volleyball and basketball. We didn’t have a lot of time where we were just twiddling our thumbs. There were times that if we were driving my mom nuts she would make us go outside and run around the outside of the house. We had a woods behind the house so we made camps and explored trails. I don’t distinctly remember feeling bored.
Have you ever had a professional crisis? Thought of throwing in the towel?
I went to grad school thinking I would be a professor at a small liberal arts college, but I had gotten burned out on teaching and had a series of experiments that didn’t work so well. My field work in streams was at the mercy of environmental fluctuation — I had a hurricane happen during an experiment one year, and a drought the next year. Then beavers ruined one of my experiments. I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to be a researcher. This may sound cliché, but then the 17-year periodical cicadas changed my life. They emerged in 2004 in the midst of my professional crisis – I call it my quarter-life crisis – and so I had the opportunity to be a part of this team that did extension and outreach about the cicadas. We talked to school groups and garden clubs and did tons of media outreach.
My first television interview was live on CNN at 8:30 in the morning during the cicada emergence. It was terrifying, but it was also exhilarating. It reinvigorated me and reconnected me to what meaningful work communicating science is. It’s something that I knew from when I was a high school student, but at the time I couldn’t see a long term career in talking to visitors at a museum. I thought that would get old and so I wanted to get a higher degree in science. Reconnecting with my high school science communication experience and learning how much I enjoyed translating complicated or even scary topics for public audiences, how getting people excited about the cicadas, this amazing natural history phenomenon that only happens in the eastern US really sparked something in me. That realization led to a series of informational interviews with people who had PhDs in science, but who were doing interesting work talking about and communicating science. Because I was in Washington, DC at the time, a natural path for me was to work in science policy where your job is to be the bridge between research science and the policy makers in government agencies and on Capitol Hill who are making the decisions about how resources are allocated for science research. I think I worked through the crisis and came out on the other side. I’ve done a series of things since then but I’ve always remained connected to the idea of communicating science and connecting science to society.
I had a hurricane happen during an experiment one year, and a drought the next year. Then beavers ruined one of my experiments. I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to be a researcher.
If you could have a superpower what would it be?
I didn’t even think about this one! I don’t like this question. I don’t want to read people’s minds. Sometimes it would be helpful, but I think it would be overwhelming. There are things you just don’t want to know. I don’t feel compelled that I’d want to fly; I get terrified at heights. I don’t have a profound answer for this, and that bothers me. I think that time travel of some sort would be interesting. I would love to be there when people discovered new places or new ideas. I’ve thought about this a little bit in the context of the work we’re doing in citizen microbiology where we are using these new molecular tools that allow us to escape the bounds of culture-based microbiology. [At this point she starts talking quickly and excitedly about the potential of her work.] We can now see and explore the “invisible” species living in places that we were never able to before. In many ways, this is very much akin to the old school natural history explorers who catalogued biodiversity, seeing all of these different creatures and recording their existence for posterity. That must have been pretty cool. When I think about some of the parts of science that I read about when I was younger that seemed exciting, it was the exploration and discovery phase that seemed most exciting. We can do it now on the micro level, but it would be really cool to have witnessed it happening on the macro level.
I think that time travel of some sort would be interesting. I would love to be there when people discovered new places or new ideas.
If you could give your middle school or younger self some advice what would it be?
It gets better. Your hair will get curlier. Other participants in this interview series have said this over and over again, but so many aspects of your life get so much better. You’re not constrained to the friend group of 25 students. You will meet people who have big ideas and who think big thoughts. You can find your groove. You may feel like an outsider, an outcast, but there are opportunities and people that will welcome you with open arms. And your relationship with your parents and siblings will get better.
Dr. Holly Menninger is the Director of Public Science for the College of Sciences at North Carolina State University. In her free time she likes to knit, garden and put food in jars (making jams, her grandmother’s catsup, and pickles). Follow her on Twitter @DrHolly.