Posted by: Jeremy Fox | March 6, 2012

What were you, or what were you going to be, before you became an ecologist?

So, when you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? Was the answer always “ecologist”? I doubt it, unless one of your parents was an ecologist. So, if not an ecologist, what did you want to be?

I wanted to be a paleontologist, until I found out that “studying dinosaurs” might involve “scraping at dirt with a toothbrush for hours”. Then I wanted to be a professional baseball player, until it became clear that I was not going to grow into a good enough athlete to make that feasible.

I know other ecologists who got much closer to pursuing their athletic dreams. I have a colleague in my department who went to college on a golf scholarship and at least toyed with the idea of becoming a professional golfer before becoming an ecologist, and I know another ecologist who went to college on a soccer scholarship (which, he’d be the first to admit, you’d never guess by looking at him now). And Amy Hurford apparently went to college on a basketball scholarship, although just as a means to the end of becoming an ecologist.

Or perhaps you did grow up and do something else, and then switched to ecology. I know a guy who was a professional ballet dancer before he became an ecologist, and someone who got a Ph.D. in physics before switching to ecology as a postdoc.

So what did you want to be when you grew up? Or what were you, before you were an ecologist? Answer in the comments.


  1. I was actually working in a neuroscience lab, because I was interested in complex systems and the brain is nothing if not complex. In researching detrended fluctuation analysis, I realized I was more interested in the ecological application of the method than what we were doing. Two months later I was wading through marshes and counting birds.

  2. Just to be clear, I do like basketball and I wanted my team to win. I was lucky that basketball enabled me to get the education that I wanted, but I was fully committed to the team, and being on a team at that level is very intense (in a good way).

    I wonder how much of this switching fields is from not knowing what the job entails until you start doing it.

    • Hi Amy,

      I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t serious about basketball, just that you didn’t take the basketball scholarship with the goal of becoming a professional basketball player.

      Re: reasons for switching fields, yes, you may know what you really enjoy, or know in some sense what you want to do, but you may not know what job involves doing what you want or enjoy.

      • No worries!

  3. When I was 15 years old I’d like to be a marine biologist to study dolphins (as a bodyboarder-surfer it looked like perfect; just spend my time in the ocean). But now, as a ecologist, and talking with my mother about my childhood (only last month) I’ve figured out that when I was 7-9 years old, I spent my time collecting small fishes, tadpoles and ants, then separating them into “species” in different containers. Maybe I really wanted to be an ecologist, but I didn’t know that!

    Thiago Gonçalves Souza

    ps.: sorry about my english 😉

  4. Responses via Twitter:
    Chris MacQuarrie: a vet
    Chris Buddle: as a kid: pizza maker, as an adult, environmental engineer

  5. Around 6th grade, I settled on astronomy, but when I found out about stellar evolution, that drifted into astrophysics. The more I found out about astrophysics, the more I realized that it was the physics part that I loved. I went to grad school saying I was going to do theoretical condensed matter physics without knowing much about it and there I met Roger Nisbet…

  6. Truck driver, then astronaut, then rock star. I found ecology in high school.

    More recently, I decided that if I didn’t get into graduate school I was going to open a brewery. But I was accepted to a PhD program, so brewing remains a hobby.

  7. I was also planning on becoming a paleontologist, but was subsequently talked out of paleontology into ecology and wildlife biology by other paleontologists.

    Incidentally, one of my university’s ecology faculty (Scott Creel) is a nationally ranked runner and nordic skier.

    • I went to college with a guy who is now a biochemist, and until a recent injury was one of the top ultramarathoners in the US. Perhaps I should do a post on athletic scientists…

  8. As a kid I wanted to be a toy-maker, an inventor, and then an architect, in that order. I dreamed about being one of those biologists in the National Geographic specials on TV going out and studying animals. But I “knew” that everything on TV was, if not make-believe, so impossible to achieve (actor, pop star, sports star) that it wasn’t worth really pursuing. Meanwhile, every year I collected the turtles that came up into our yard, weighed and measured them, plotted their location, noted shell notches (and took pictures once I had a camera) so I could re-identify individuals, etc. I had no idea anyone did anything like this for a living.

    I was a computer science major in college and did telecommunications research for a half-dozen years. The research part was fun. The goal of getting little packets of information around the Internet in the most efficient and error-free way was uninspiring. During this time I took a trip to South Africa to visit a good friend who was doing ecological research in the Karoo on a Fulbright. A seed was planted in my mind then — and six years later I enrolled in an ecology PhD program…

  9. Historian. Dropped that like a hot rock after taking a class with Tom Whitham

    • Sounds like Tom Whitham is an awful historian. 🙂

      • Nope! He just gives _fantastic_ ecology lectures!

  10. Since I was 10 I always told people that I wanted to become a scientist. When pressed I would say archaeologist or nature person. But nature person become ecologist by the time I was 14 or so. Look ma, I consistently followed through on one thing!

  11. Professional baseballplayer also. Got cut going into my sophomore year at Michigan State, then transferred, had to sit out a year by NCAA rules, knew I had no chance to take the spot of the guy at Ohio State that I played against in high school, and dropped it. Still regret that decision.

    • Wow, you got a lot closer to ‘The Show’ than I did! I quit playing high school baseball after my junior year because the guys on the team were a bunch of jerks and I knew that next year I’d be riding the bench. Tried out for my college team (Div III) freshman year, didn’t make it. Played for the college’s club team for a year (we played local high school teams), before it folded due to lack of numbers.

      • That’s really unfortunate, I’m sorry to hear that. A lot of kids suffer that same kind of thing and move to other interests for that very reason. Sports can be really harsh on the young ego. I was fortunate to be part of a group of great guys who played 6 years as a unit–my high school baseball memories are among the best in my life. Maybe the best.

      • Thanks, but it’s fine, I got over it a long time ago. I ran track instead the spring of my senior year, which was fun since I’d always run x-country in the fall and several of my x-country friends were on the track team. And I had a blast running x-country for four years in college (no tryouts for the x-country team, which was good because I was really slow). I had great teammates (two of whom remain my best friends), a beautiful setting, and a great coach who somehow managed to lead the best team in Div III (better than the majority of Div I teams) without putting the fast guys under any pressure at all and without making the slow guys feel like an afterthought. As Robin Snyder said, commenting on another post, your plans for your life may not always work out–but often that just means your life turns out better than you would’ve planned it.

        I still have lots of great memories of baseball, they’re just from a bit earlier in my career than yours. And it’s not as if baseball’s over for me now. I still coach, or did until my son was born, and will again when he’s old enough to play. I have delusions that, being in the relatively small baseball pond that is Calgary, I can teach him to be the best player in the city. 😉

  12. Around 10 I wanted to do something with math and animals. I realized that didn’t exist and gave up on it for years avoiding biology all together (didn’t want to just memorize stuff) and instead aimed to study some form of Physics. In my 1st year of my undergrad I learned that it actually did exist and was called Ecology and quickly transferred.

    • Hey, my students aren’t supposed to have time to read blogs! Get back to work! (just kidding)

      • haha, he fell for the trap.

      • Don’t think I don’t know your supervisor! And nobody makes fun of my students but me! You get back to work too! 😉

    • Wow, same thing! I didn’t take a single biology class all college because the intro classes were all cell biology with intense memorization meant to weed out the not-serious-enough pre-med students. Tried physics, liked it. Liked computer science better and went that route. I wonder how many quantitative people biology loses because they don’t want to memorize things that are easily looked up…

  13. I was actually a theater major before I switched to bio. Mostly, I did fight choreography and a little lighting design. As a super-young-un’, I was all about paleontology and marine biology, though. But from middle school, on, theater was it. Guess the stage combat was just an excursion.

    • So if you got in an actual fight, you’d trot out a bunch of impressive-looking but impractical moves and end up getting your butt kicked? 😉

      Thread-derailing question: Do you think your theater background helps you when it comes to giving talks? I can’t say I have a serious theater background at all, but I acted in a few plays in school and one in college. Also tried out repeatedly for my college’s improv comedy group (got cut every time, a fact that will surprise no one who reads what passes for humor on this blog). And I was a tour guide in high school and college. If nothing else, those experiences made me very comfortable standing up in front of an audience and talking.

      • Stage combat is ugly ballet with dangerous props. And, indeed, if you were to ever pull any of it out in a real fight….yeah, arse whooping.

        I agree completely that a theater background helps – both in presentation as well as talk construction. I’ve been working a little with some acting and playwriting faculty to develop some workshops on this, although they’ve been derailed for a bit. I was blown away, though, in a course I was teaching when halfway through the final presentations, after a coffee break, I took the students outside and had them do three basic theater warmups. The talks were 100% different afterwards – you almost wouldn’t have known they had the same background in the techniques they were talking about.

        But, in my experience, I’ve found that just being in a few plays in high school give you access to a huge toolbox that most other folk simply do not have unless they have taken public speaking somewhere along the way (something which I wish we had more grad students do). You may not even be aware of it. But, go see “Circle Mirror Transformation” (it’s been touring everywhere) and you’ll have some serious deja vu as well as become aware of just what were some of the things that you learned all those many years ago.

    • fight choreography…predator-prey dynamics. Seems like a natural transition.

  14. Love this. I’m actually not an ecologist, I’m an environmental scientist turned science writer. Before that, I thought I was going to be a psychiatrist. And when I was 10, I wrote an essay saying that I wanted to be the first woman President of the U.S. There are lots of wonderful stories on Twitter and elsewhere on the ‘net of how other scientists came to be scientists. Look for #IamScience and the collected tweets and blog posts on this Tumblr:

    • Thanks! Will have to check that out.

  15. I should add that I have **not** given up my goal of being chief know-it-all and general walking reference of all things ecological.

  16. I wanted to be a vet in high school, but my biology teacher told me I wasn’t cut out for science, and I believed her. I applied to programs in psychology, technical theater and journalism. I ended up in journalism, but it was clear after a year that I just wasn’t feeling it. I decided to give science another go, even if I stunk. Fast-forward to now: I’m in my third year of a PhD in insect ecology. Go figure.

  17. I wanted to be an archaeologist in elementary school, then an environmental journalist a la David Suzuki in high school. Nature of Things was one of my favourite programs.

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