Just a Number: Stories about age and science

This week, we’re presenting two stories about age, and what it means to feel either too old or too young to become a scientist.

Part 1: Miserable at her corporate job, Michelle McCrackin begins to dream of a career in wildlife biology.

Michelle McCrackin is a research scientist at Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Center. Her research focuses on human-enhanced eutrophication, a process that reduces water clarity and causes dead zones and large algal blooms in lakes and coastal waters. She moved to Sweden from the US for the opportunity to join a new team that works to bridge the gap between scientists and decision makers in the Baltic Sea region. Michelle is actively involved with science communication though public seminars, web-articles, policy briefs, blogs, and face-to-face meetings with politicians and civil servants. Her Swedish skills are limited to reading menus and navigating public transportation; her attempts to speak Swedish usually leave people looking confused. 

Part 2: Volcanologist Ben Kennedy’s attempts to be taken seriously as a scientist are undermined by his youthful appearance.

Ben Kennedy is an associate professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Canterbury. His work involves physical volcanology and fieldwork, geoscience education, experimental volcanology, interpreting volcano monitoring data, measurements of volcanic rock properties, and calderas and magma plumbing. Basically, Ben loves rocks and working out why volcanoes erupt in various different ways. He travels to various volcanoes all around the world to collect rocks, then takes the rocks back to the University of Canterbury and does various experiments to learn more about the eruptions in which they originated.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Michelle McCrackin

It happened spontaneously.  I was sobbing uncontrollably in the women’s bathroom.  When I figured out that someone might hear me, I grabbed a wad of toilet paper and I ran to a conference room.  I had had this kind of meltdown before, but it was always at home, a safe place in front of my husband.  The fact that this happened at the office made it even worse. 

Like what’s wrong with me?  I should be happy with my situation.  I had gone to a top business school, I was climbing the corporate ladder in a high-tech company, managing a team of financial analysts and a big budget, like hundreds of millions of dollars.  But the reality was I felt like a failure.  I hated this hyper-competitive work environment, I hated feeling like this cog in a corporate machine and I was just miserable all the time. 

I couldn’t let anybody see my meltdown.  The conference room had a small window in the door and I sat with my back to it and I pretended to fiddle with the speakerphone that was on the center of the table.  So if someone had looked in, they just would assume that I was on a conference call. 

So I stayed long enough to regain my composure and then put back on my finance manager face and I walked down this long, great-carpeted corridor back to my gray cubicle that was nestled amongst all the other hundreds of gray cubicles on the floor. 

Now, at about the same time, my husband and I had taken a trip to the Grand Canyon.  While we were hiking, we came across a wildlife biologist and she was using special equipment to monitor condors that had been raised in captivity and then re-released into the wild.  Condors are a type of vulture that are critically in danger.  We were among a group of people that were standing around her and she was explaining what she was doing in the birds and the equipment. 

It’s obvious she loved her job.  She was with the US Forest Service so she had this uniform on, a brown shirt and this hat.  As I looked at her, it occurred to me like, “Oh, my God, she looks like Ranger Rick.” 

Ranger Rick is the raccoon mascot of the National Wildlife Federation.  As a child, I loved animals and I would wait every month for Ranger Rick’s Nature Magazine to come in the mail.  It was a glossy magazine full of pictures of animals and it talked about their habitat and the environment and I loved it. 

Michelle McCrackin shares her story at our show in partnership with ASLO in June 2018. Photo by Linus Wong.

Michelle McCrackin shares her story at our show in partnership with ASLO in June 2018. Photo by Linus Wong.

On top of that, I had all these field guides that I would just go through all the time.  I was ready to identify beavers and elk and all these great mammals that lived in North America.  Or I could identify them by sight or by footprint.  I was really into footprints.  The kind of reality I didn’t recognize at the time was my family lived in suburban Detroit, Michigan so the wildlife was basically squirrels. 

But seeing the wildlife biologist, I realized like, “Oh, my God, I could have been her.” 

As a child, I was so full of curiosity about the world around me.  When did I become this corporate zombie?  The fact that I'd had this spontaneous meltdown at work made me realize that I think I’m losing control and I probably need to talk to a professional about this. 

So I start seeing a therapist that my employer paid for and I did a lot of soul searching and I came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t well suited for my current work environment, so I started looking for a new job. 

I put a few applications out there but I secretly hoped they wouldn’t call me.  My heart just was not in it.  And I couldn’t get this wildlife biologist out of my mind.  I felt drawn or compelled to… I really want to do something with the environment, like take this path I didn’t take before. 

And because I invested so much in my career in finance, I thought, “Oh, my God.  I’m having a midlife crisis.”  An early one, premature, of course, but it’s a midlife crisis.  So I tried to put these thoughts aside.

But they kept coming back so I went through this period of time where I was seriously like, “Should I stay?  Should I go?  What should I do?”  I finally decided I would take the plunge.  I would just leave the corporate life. 

I made up my mind I would go back to school at nearby Arizona State University.  It was nearby where we were living and I would enroll in their Conservation Biology Program. 

Now, when I told my colleagues and my employer, there was no drama.  People might have thought I was crazy but nobody said so.  And the news made one of my analysts, Steve, really happy because Steve would be promoted into my job.  So I'd been replaced before I'd even left.  I wasn’t surprised by this because rule number one of the corporate world is we’re all replaceable. 

I was excited about the decision to go back to Arizona State, but at the same time, for someone who had always had a five-year career plan, I was kind of terrified because I had absolutely no idea where this would take me. 

At the time I decided to go back to school, I hadn’t had any formal science education in about 20 years, like back in the days before the internet.  So I thought, well, I have some catching up to do.  I enrolled in freshman level biology and chemistry classes and that’s when an academic adviser told me that I am a nontraditional student, which I learned later meant I’m old. 

So when I interact with the traditional students, I realized they were young enough to be my children and they didn’t really know what to make of me.  They would call me “ma’am,” which is actually quite polite and respectful, but my immediate response was I’m not ma’am-old.  That’s for grandmothers.  I wanted to correct them but, in the end, I just tried to be cool.  Laugh it off. 

So I kind of found myself in this no man’s land where on the one hand it was difficult to maintain relationships from my previous life, my corporate life, because what we have in common was the work and when that was gone we just drifted apart.  But on the other hand, there was just too much of a generation gap to make friends with the traditional students. 

I expected to leave this no man’s land once I started taking the conservation biology classes.  I though I'll find people mature that are like the wildlife biologist.  They're passionate about their work. 

Actually, that was the case.  The professors and the graduate teaching assistants, you could tell when they talk about their work with endangered species they loved what they did and that was inspiring. 

During these classes I was learning a lot and it was interesting, but I wasn’t feeling this sense of curiosity and wonder or the enthusiasm that I was expecting.  Of course then the crazy thought started going in my head and it’s like, “Oh, my God, it was a midlife crisis after all.”  I've abandoned my career for these Ranger Rick memories. 

Photo by Linus Wong.

Photo by Linus Wong.

I tried to tamp down those feelings because at this point I’m kind of committed.  I was like, “Okay, I'll just focus on being a good nontraditional student.” 

So I threw myself into my studies and preparing for an exam and one of the classes I was taking that time was an ecology class.  I pulled out my notes from lectures a few weeks ago as I was getting ready for this exam and the professor had given a talk about elemental cycles.  This is how the key elements of life, like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus moved between land and the atmosphere and oceans.  He had handed out this box and arrow diagrams that basically showed these flows. 

As I was looking at what I had written, I realized that I had written numbers next to the arrows.  And the arrows would be like this is how much nitrogen goes from the soil to the atmosphere and from the atmosphere to the soil.  But the notation that I'd used, I realized, and the way I had written the notes it’s kind of like how I had written it for a budget.  It’s kind of like cash inflows and cash outflows.  Huh, that hadn’t really dawned on me during the lecture.  I just listened and took notes. 

Then I remembered that during the lecture he'd actually used the word ‘budget’ when he talked about these elemental cycles.  My reaction was like, “Oh, my God, that is so cool.  I want to know more.”  Scientists use budgets to understand the elemental cycles and these budgets are kind of like what I did in my previous life, so great. 

So I steered off the path of conservation biology and into the laboratory of an ecologist professor who studied nitrogen in streams and rivers.  I was getting paid minimum wage to assist one of her graduate students, Tammy with her lab and field work. 

Now, at that point, I'd worked for years indoors, under artificial light in small cubicles.  In the days before business casual, I wore worsted wool suits and I had the cotton starched shirts with a floppy bow around my neck.  Now, here I was outside working with my hands. 

After a particularly intense encounter with a flash flood, I complained to Tammy, “I have never been this dirty in my entire life.”  I was serious and I expected sympathy.  And she laughed at me.  I think I eventually laughed too then I proceeded to pick twigs and pebbles out of my bra.  How far I had come from the corporate world. 

Today, I make nitrogen and phosphorus budgets trying to understand, related to human activities, how much stays on land, how much enters coastal waters where it can cause problems and I try to explain these budgets to policy makers and why they should care about them.  I think what this tells me is that I've always been an accountant at heart it’s just I had to find the right units, and that was elements instead of dollars.  Thank you.


Part 2: Ben Kennedy

You may find this hard to believe but, in the past, my volcano scientist colleagues haven't always taken me very seriously.  Part of this is the way I look.  I’m actually 42.  Now, that’s awesome, but when I was 25 and trying to be taken seriously in the science world this is more problematic. 

I can remember going to a conference and I'd just given my first talk.  I was all smartly dressed and it was one of these kind of stuffy geophysics conferences.  I'd been talking about bubbles and magma, feeling pretty insecure.  I went back and sat down in the audience and two old guys, two old professors were sitting in front of me and they didn’t know I just sat down behind them. 

One of them turned to the other one and was like, “Can you believe that kid?  He looks about twelve.” 

I was just like, “Ah.”  I kind of felt myself all flushed and I had to do a sneaky exit and go sit in a corner.  God, I wanted to grow up.  I felt like Tom Hanks in that movie.  I just want to be taken seriously. 

But it’s never really suited me trying to take myself too seriously.  I had a lot of trouble also getting a PhD position.  It took me more than a year to get hired and I always kind of wondered why.  Later, when I found out they had this reference letter from my British supervisor and this letter had a whole section in the middle that started off, “Ben has a tendency to behave immaturely.”  Then it kind of went on into various details that I won’t share with you now.

Eventually, I did find a supervisor who was willing to take the risk on someone who was maybe a bit immature and liked to have fun with science.  I think, for that reason, I really wanted to thank that old, stuffy, British supervisor that gave me that reference that time that really hurt me but it meant that I ended up with a guy who valued the fun in science and that set me on the path to New Zealand. 

So I arrive in New Zealand and I’m still pretty immature, not really taking life too seriously.  But then the earthquake sequence happened.  I’m from Christchurch and I live out in Sumner and the earthquake sequence happened and that coincided with the birth of my first son.  So these two very big things I had to very suddenly grow up. 

I can remember one of those moments where I’m like, “Now, I've got to grow up.”  It was a couple of days after the earthquake and I was hunkered down in my house and we were out in Sumner.  We got hit by the earthquakes out there when there was a knock on the door.  My wife is very, very pregnant and due at this point. 

There was a knock on the door and there's a guy from Red Cross and he's just going door-to-door.  “I've got some information for you,” and his information was that the road out Sumner was now closed.  It was impassable because of the risk of rock fall.  This is the only road out of Sumner and we had a birthing plan and all this and now we’re trapped in Sumner.  You can kind of see my face go…

Then he kind of goes, “But I heard that your wife is due so I brought you this,” and he had this bag with him.  He gave me the bag, I opened the bag and looked in the bag and I’m like, “Oh, shit.”  It’s a home birthing kit.  Like giant pincers and scissors that cut flesh.  This fear went over me but I remember turning around thinking, “Maybe I could YouTube this.  I could probably do this.” 

But then I went back in the house and realized, oh, no.  We haven't got any water or power let alone internet, so I’m not going to be able to YouTube this.  I quickly hid the bag and went to my wife and, “Oh, so everything is okay.”  I rapidly grew up.  And the road soon opened and my son was very conveniently born the day we got our power and water back. 

Ben Kennedy shares his story at Meow in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Gerry Le Roux..

Ben Kennedy shares his story at Meow in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Gerry Le Roux..

But I started taking life more seriously even in my work too.  It started to pay off in my work.  I started getting projects working with GNS, doing serious volcano science research and I would even fill in health and safety forms without giggling or making rude comments or whatever. 

I had one trip.  I was going off to Hawaii to take part in various serious piece of TV called Lava Chasers.  So we went out to Hawaii with the Discovery Channel and I filled in all the health and safety forms.  I might get burnt alive by 1200 degree lava and I'll mitigate this hazard by wearing this massive, ridiculous suit.

Went out and did and the show.  I took the whole thing very seriously.  It was a very serious experiment about bubbles and getting out of lava flows.  Then I went back home and I watched this show afterwards, which is embarrassing enough, but the really embarrassing part was I was deadly serious doing most of the show and it kind of wasn’t me. 

The guy I was there with who was this awesome, old Hawaiian guy who lives out by the lava and he flat out refused to wear the massive silver suit.  He was dressed in normal clothes but he had his own protective thermal proof stuff on underneath.  When the Discovery Channel interviewed him, I still remember like they interviewed me and I was like, “Oh, yes, this is very dangerous.  We’re doing very serious work.” 

And they interviewed him and he's like, “Even though I’m old and fat I, can still outrun that lava flow.” 

I was like, “I want to be that guy.  I don't want to be the serious guy.” 

But this side to my life so I started to realize maybe I need to be a little… not take myself so seriously.  I went back to teaching in the department and have fun with my students. 

So in 2012 there was a series of earthquakes on Mount Tongariro and I was kind of joking with my class, “Oh, this happens a lot.  It’s probably just rainwater moving through the volcano.  It’s nothing to worry about.” 

And, as is often the case, I was massively wrong and the volcano went boom and I had to backpedal with my class.  But also I got involved in the science surrounding this.  Most of the important science went to the serious people but I managed to carve off a little bit related to the rocks that come flying out of the volcano, the ballistics. 

A lot of rocks had come out of the volcano.  They smashed all along the Tongariro Crossing.  Some had gone through the roof of the hut.  It had gone through the roof, the top bunk, the bottom bunk, out the bottom of the hut so it’s pretty full-on.  Luckily, we could still laugh about it because it happened in the middle of the night and there was no one in the hut and no one on the Crossing so there was no one killed. 

So I was part of this big research effort.  Then one day I’m sitting in my office.  I've also got a giant cannon, I forgot to mention.  I have a giant cannon that I can fire rocks with.  I have various other cannons.  I also have a machine that can melt rocks to make magma.  So we've been using some of these machines and mapping where the ballistics had landed.  Then one day the phone goes and it’s Harry Keys from the Department of Conservation.  He's the chief scientist in the park and he's been there for a very long time. 

And he's experienced.  He's seen all these volcanic eruptions.  He's got a beard.  He's got a uniform.  He's kind of a proper… the way a volcanologist should look.  And then there's me. 

So he phones me up and he's like, “Ben, I'd like your advice on something.” 

I was like, “Wow, this is so awesome.  Harry Keys is asking me for advice.” 

“There's some science I can actually use…” and kind of talks around the phone about it.  Then basically, by the end of the conversation, I realized the question he's asking me is, “Ben, can we make volcano-proof toilets?” 

I was like, “That’s an awesome question.”  So I’m made to answer this question but, obviously, it’s very serious. 

“After crunching the numbers a bit there, Harry, I’m going to work out what to do.” 

Let’s just say we used the cannon and we used our mapping work and we actually, together working with Harry, we decided that it actually probably wasn’t a good idea to put the toilets right in the high-risk area where the rocks could come in.  We decided to put them in a safer area. 

So if anyone is walking the Tongariro Crossing and they kind of get halfway and you're dying for a pee, and you're like, “Why the hell isn’t there a toilet here?”  You can blame me.  We decided to put them somewhere else. 

But this experience made me start to really love science for the sake of really fun but important application to science.  I've prevented maybe a German tourist while sitting on the toilet being interrupted but a large rock flying through the roof.  We made a real difference here. 

Ben Kennedy shows off his silly hat. Photo by Gerry Le Roux.

Ben Kennedy shows off his silly hat. Photo by Gerry Le Roux.

So I’m starting to have more fun with science and my kids are growing up.  One of my students made me a very silly hat.  This is my silly hat.  I love wearing this hat.  Immediately, my fully grown, 18-year-old students thought this was awesome and paid more attention to me, which is great. 

My kids loved it.  I started doing outreach with schools wearing this silly hat.  I had this big sand volcano and I had a balloon inside it and I could pump up the sand volcano and it would kind of inflate and deflate.  I had this Lego man and I would get the kids to tell stories with the Lego man, the Lego scientist.  The Lego guys, the scientist would always be a hero.  That was my one rule of the story. 

So I was having a lot of fun with this and then they rebuilt Canterbury University.  It had a big, fancy, new science building and they're having a big grand opening for the new science building, the Rutherford Building.  They were going to bring school teachers in for the opening so they wanted some fun things so I was going to do my little volcano demonstration. 

The grand opening was quite a fancy affair.  I arrived there wearing my silly hat and my shorts and my t-shirt.  I kind of looked around.  Everyone else is in suits with beards.  It turns out Jacinda Ardern was there, the prime minister to open this. 

So I’m sitting there in the front looking rather silly and she gives this classically wonderful speech about this building is going to be the center where child adults can discover the joys of science.  I was just like, “Yeah, right on.  Sounds like she's talking to me here.” 

Then suddenly she actually was talking to me.  She pointed right at me and she went, “You, the first-year student with the silly hat.  Do you want to come on stage and help me open the building?”

First of all, I was kind of like, “Yeah, that is me.”  My boss was there and they realized it was me and there was a bit of confusion but I just kind of bolted up on stage and I got to share the firework pressing button with the prime minister and we opened the building.  It was a great moment of pride for me.  I’m there with my silly hat and my shorts with the prime minister, who just mistook me for an 18-year-old, and we’re opening this building for more child adults to experience fun science and make real groundbreaking discoveries like volcano-proof toilets.