I started with a simple question, “How did you wind up as a scientist? What early experiences led you to pursue that career?”
It turns out that was all it took to have mammalogist Larry Heaney’s face light up as he recollected a rather wonderful childhood and the life it led him to. What follows is his response, a one question interview.
When I was two and a half years old, my family moved from an urban area of Washington, D.C. out to what then was the far edge of the suburbs. A block away was an old farm with fields and forest, and at the bottom of the hill was a creek with fish and crayfish. I grew up running around in the woods as much as possible; I loved seeing the animals and plants, and spent a lot of time learning to identify them using field guides. My friends and I collected bugs, rocks, and a few fossils, and caught turtles and crawfish that we kept as pets. It was not something that I or my parents thought of as a future career; it was simply doing what I enjoyed most, and I found it to be wonderful.
When I was in sixth grade, my parents learned that there were Saturday morning classes for middle-school-aged kids taught at the Smithsonian. I took a class on archeology, and it was OK. I next signed up for a class on mammals; we spent our time behind the scenes in the research areas, learning to identify actual specimens of mammals from the world’s largest research collection of mammals. We learned to skin and stuff mice and shrews from our instructor, who was Curator of Mammals: guts and muscle, sawdust and cotton, field catalogs and taking notes. I loved it, bought some little mouse traps at the hardware store, and began catching mice and preparing specimens from my local woods that were cataloged into the research collection at the Smithsonian. At the end of the class, I asked if I could volunteer at the museum during the summer. My instructor became my supervisor, and at the age of 14, I was helping to curate the research collection at the Smithsonian Institution. It was crazy of him to allow it; I surely wasn’t qualified to do such work, but he took a leap of faith and gave me a chance. He was only the first to do this; a researcher working in the Division of Mammals gave me things to read and took me to help collect whales that washed up on the beach; a new curator took me under his wing and hired me to help collect data for one of his projects. It still was not something that I or my parents thought of as a future career; it was simply doing what I enjoyed most, and I found it to be wonderful.
From there it was a pretty straight-forward progression. When I went to college, I picked a school that had a very active natural history research museum on campus, and hung around until I was hired as a work-study student. I volunteered to help with field work done by faculty and grad students, and eventually was hired during the summers to do more. Grad school in evolutionary biology was an obvious choice, with the opportunity to develop my own research projects, with a great deal of encouragement from the faculty and friends.
I can’t point to a single individual who was the sole or primary influence on me; rather, it was a series of people who were remarkably generous with their time and trust. Some were officially teachers, but many were unofficial, and I learned from them all. When I screwed up, they made sure that I knew it, then gave me another chance. What I learned from them was to follow my interests, to take the initiative, and to recognize that I had the opportunity to learn things that no one had understood before. That, I think, has always been the single greatest driving force for me: to find or understand something that had been unknown before, and to make it known to others who share my interests. The natural world is an astounding place; learning to understand it is the greatest challenge I can imagine. Books are fine, but it is what you learn by yourself that really lights the fire of learning. Good teachers are those who nurture that fire. They are all my heroes.
Today Lawrence Heaney is Curator of Mammals at the Field Museum of Natural History and 2014 recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award from the American Society of Mammalogists. He spends much of his time working in the Philippines, where he has discovered new species of mammals. He’s written extensively on the things he finds to be wonderful, over 160 publications including Vanishing Treasures of the Philippine Rain Forest. Dr. Heaney is also heavily engaged in training the next generation of local mammalogists.
In Pavlov’s Last Testament, the great researcher said, “Remember that science demands from a man all his life. If you had two lives, that would not be enough for you. Be passionate in your work and in your searching.” Larry Heaney exemplifies that spirit and passion. The question is what can we learn as teachers from his story that will help us guide students in uncovering their own passion, for science or, for that matter, anything else? One of my takeaways is that giving your students opportunities to explore the natural world along with lots of real world hands on experiences, more than most children today currently have, will help them find those passions that will light the spark and shape the course of their entire lives. Then trust your students to pursue their curiosity.
What are your takeaways?
If you’d like to share scientists’ stories with your students, you can do so by taking them on a virtual visit to the Field Museum here.
Learn more about the Inquiry Science (STEM) Institute here. (New name coming soon!)