How to become a biologist
On a work in progress
3 March 2006
Yesterday’s Yugoslavian scientists spent their time drinking coffee, smoking and gossiping with colleagues in state-owned institutes that could not afford to buy test-tubes
Editor’s note: This piece was adapted from a posting on Science and Politics, a thought-provoking blog we encourage you to visit.
As long as I can remember I loved animals. I have no idea where that came from. My family was mostly involved with theater, art, language and literature. I think they thought I was going to become an actor. My grandfather was a famous architect and I certainly have talent for it – I can draw a floor-plan of an apartment or building from memory. My great-uncle is a chemical engineer. My great-aunt was a ballet choreographer of international reputation. Both of my parents got their degrees in languages.
But none of them were particularly in love with nature or animals. None of them felt really comfortable out in the wild. There was nobody in the family who could take me out camping in the woods and show me where to look for cool critters, to teach me the ways of nature and to nurture my "naturalistic intelligence" which is, to this day, woefully inadequate no matter how hard I try. I am still a city-slicker.
I grew up in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia & Montenegro), a grey city with three native species: pigeon, rat and cockroach. There was nothing there for me to observe. We lived in a small apartment on the 7th floor so pets were out of the question, although I did have a little turtle for a few months. His name was Aeschillus. I loved other people's pets and they mostly loved me back.
I also enjoyed summers in the country. The local boys taught me cool stuff about animals and I spent a lot of time in neighbors' barns observing the behaviors of farm animals (I got really good at imitating animal voices – I can fool a goat with my call). I started riding horses when I was about five, so there was one species I could hang around with for extended periods of time on a regular basis.
From very early on I knew that my career was going to have something to do with animals. But what can an animal-lover in Yugoslavia do for a living? Here are some ideas that I toyed with at one time or another.
Join a circus.
There are lots of circuses in Europe and one or another would pitch its tent in Belgrade several times a year. I always went. I had to go. I begged my parents to take me when I was little and I went with friends once I got old enough. I loved the circus. I read books about circus life. Recently my mother sent me some artwork that I made as a kid and it struck me that all of them depicted scenes from a circus.
When I was about 18 I seriously considered joining a circus. Dead seriously. Don't tell my mom. OK, you can tell my mom – obviously I did not join the circus then and it is too late now. As crazy as I am now, I am not that crazy. But back then, I was thinking I could get a start with liberty horses, then move on to elephants. Strange species also crossed my mind. I have seen zebras, giraffes and rhinos perform every now and then. They did not do great tricks, but being able to get one of those to enter the ring, take a couple of laps around the ring and leave without going berserk and killing a bunch of people is quite an accomplishment. Perhaps, I thought, if I was lucky, I could get to do the Great Cats one day!
I usually went to the circus with friends from the stables – all horse nuts. During the break we would sneak back to the barn and the menagerie and chat with stable boys or whoever was there. Still, I never gathered enough courage to actually inquire about apprenticeships. I was too young to leave my family, school, friends and horses behind. Now I'm glad I did not do it.
Work at the Zoo.
Some of my friends worked at the Belgrade Zoo for a couple of years. I went there to help them out occasionally (and they showed me how to get in for free). As a little kid I loved the zoo, but as I grew older, and especially once I got to go behind the scenes, I did not like it very much any more.
Belgrade Zoo is very old. It has too many animals and too little space. Poor animals are stuck in tiny cages and display all sorts of neurotic behaviors. Once the wars started in 1991 it got saddled with even more animals as small local zoos in Croatia and Bosnia had to evacuate. Those were mostly wolves, foxes, bears and boars – all unknown to each other, so they had to be kept in separate enclosures. What a mess!
The Director of the Zoo realized that the Zoo had to move to a bigger piece of land. He tried to get the powers-that-be in Belgrade to relocate the Zoo, to no avail. So instead, he decided to start a campaign to get the people en masse to the Zoo, to start liking it again, to start fighting for it. He did all sorts of publicity stunts. He spent what money he had on visitors' comforts, e.g., restaurants, pony rides for kids, etc. in order to draw in the crowds. He was successful, but this approach did nothing to make life for animals any better. Frankly, there was not much he could do about it with the limited space he had and he could not get rid of half the animals to make more room for everybody. Then, the 1999 bombing started and Zoo became a very low priority item on Belgrade's list. It probably still is.
Although I could have easily got a job there, I had too much of a bad taste in my mouth. I was not going to be happy there. Helpless to do anything for the animals, I would have been too frustrated. If Belgrade Zoo was half as good as Asheboro Zoo which was designed from the beginning to provide as natural habitats as possible, I might have ended up working there.
Join the pet industry.
There is no pet industry in Yugoslavia. People there are much more pragmatic about animals – they either do something useful or they are meat. Very few people had pets (compared to the US or the UK), especially small fancy stuff like parrots or hamsters.
Dog owners were a special type. They were either veterinarians or good friends of veterinarians. They mostly had expensive pure-breds, they took them to dog shows, prepared their own dog food and generally took pet ownership far too seriously. I think there were pet shops there, but I am not really sure. It certainly was not a profitable thing to do.
Dog breeding, on the other hand, could be profitable. A good friend of mine made his fortune as a dog breeder. Once he got rich, he sold all his dogs, built factories to make money and started building his dream – an amusement center of sorts, with a little zoo, a stable full of fine Arabian horses, sports fields for soccer, basketball, volleyball and tennis and a restaurant on the lake. Since his land did not have a lake he dug one up and built a restaurant on it. I worked for him – taking care of the health and training of his horses – for about a year, just before I left for the USA.
I never thought I could go anywhere with dog breeding. First, competition is tough. One needed quite a lot of starting capital to buy bitches with spectacular pedigrees, to pay for mating with Champions, to pay for all the veterinarian care and supplies and, importantly, to build a beautiful kennel and keep it immaculately clean. I did not think I could even start, much less make it.
Become a biologist.
Nope, not in Yugoslavia. As an animal lover I read every book about animals I could get my hands on, which, as I grew older, included more and more science. Thus, while I have read the complete Dr. Dolittle series (the old racist version) as a little kid, I later moved to people like Brehm and Lorenz. When I was about 13 I tried to read, in my still-beginner's English, Darwin's Origin of Species. It was too difficult for me at that time and I never managed to finish it, but I was impressed with what I could understand. And I read everything about science and nature in newspapers and magazines.
In school, I think Darwin was mentioned in fourth grade for the first time, then again almost every year. By the time I finished high school I had behind me eight years of biology, a year of bio lab, a year each of botany, zoology, microbiology, biochemistry, molecular biology and ecology. The good old days of science education’s dominance in Eastern Europe, now diluted by westernization, provided me with a good background. I could have gone on to study biology at the University, but why? What could a biologist do there? Nobody there was doing cool experiments like Darwin and Lorenz did. They pretty much spent their time drinking coffee, smoking and gossiping with colleagues in state-owned institutes that could not afford to buy test-tubes. There was no future there.
Work at the Racecourse.
Well, I spent most of my days there anyway, so I tried to actually worked there for a couple of years. I could have become Racing Secretary and Handicapper if I wanted to. But I was sick of politicking, money-grabbing, and the lowlife humanoid creatures inhabiting the place. My show-jumping friends were intelligent, educated and civilized people: doctors and engineers and commercial pilots. The people involved with trotters were mostly farmers. They were actually quite nice people and I was really good at suppressing my disdain for their conservatism and sexism and getting them to like me and accept me. I could have been fine working with them. But the people involved in racing were a mafia. Every jockey had a file in the local police station and knew how the jail looked from inside. I did not want to get knifed in a dark alley just because I made somebody's horse carry an extra kilogram of weight.
Why had nobody told me about some other alternatives? How about nature photography? Or a career in science journalism, or becoming a science policy advisor to the President? Writing, editing and/or illustrating science textbooks? Writing popular science books? Those all look interesting to me today, but they never occurred to me when I was younger. Today, I make a point of mentioning all of these choices whenever I talk about careers with students. And who knows, I may end up actually doing one of those things if I don't manage to get a decent job in academia.
So, what did I do?
Well, I read James Herriot and decided to become a veterinarian. Not a country vet like James – I knew that was a thing of the past – but an equine vet. There were very few good equine vets in the country at the time and I could make it a good career.
So I went to vet school at the Belgrade University. My knowledge of evolution proved really important during the entrance exams – almost half of the question during the oral portion had something to do with evolution! I took my time with classes but that was not unusual at the time – the average graduation time was 10 years (for a five-year school). It was tough. How tough was it? In its 100-year history, there was only one student who finished vet school with a grade point average of the equivalent of straight As. He taught the pathology lab, became a good friend of mine and found my second horse for me.
The school accepted about 300 new students every year, but allowed only 52 into the final fifth year. Why? Because the bus had 52 seats so that is how many students they could take around to farms and slaughterhouses for practical exercises (I heard later that they sold a centrifuge and used the money to buy a second bus).
In order to cut down the number of students from 300 to 52, they instituted one or two extremely difficult exams every year knowing that multiple failures would force many people to quit. In the first year the killer was biochemistry (though biology, chemistry and physics were not easy either), second was histology (with anatomy as a backup), and third was pharmacology (with pathology as a backup). It usually took people two years to finish each year of school. But those who survived were good – really good.
A few years into vet school I already had my "region" – a couple of towns and surrounding villages north of Belgrade where I took care of everybody's horses, made sure that all vaccinations and dewormings were done on time, did one spectacular treatment of a rare type of pneumonia that the local vet (not a horse expert) treated ineffectively for months, and started building trust with the locals. I also designed a fitness training program for an Arabian stallion who went on to win a big international show (and consequently brought his owner heaps of money in breeding fees).
I was already eyeing a great (and cheap) piece of land there. It was cheap because it was "tainted" as in "the guy bought it and built a house on it in order to have a get-away place with his concubine". I didn't care about the taint, but I loved the price. And I loved the way all the neighboring land was owned by some very old people whose progeny did not care about the land at all, so I could have expanded in the future by buying the surrounding parcels cheaply as they came on the market.
I was planning to build a vet clinic on that piece of land, plus a barn for my own horses, a few brood mares, perhaps some ponies for a riding school. I was even considering saving one of the local girls from patriarchy by asking her father for her hand, then introducing her to the beauties of gender equality. It could have been a good life.
So, what happened?
But then it became obvious that war was about to start. I sold my horse and saddle and bought a plane ticket to the USA with the money. I left Belgrade one week before the war broke out in June 1991. I found a job in a local horse barn and remained there for about two years until I got all the papers straightened out for a green card.
Then, I had to start thinking – what next? I inquired at the vet school if they would let me just finish the last year. Nope. I would have to start from scratch. Oh horror – anatomy and histology all over again? I did not like that idea. I also did not like what I heard from the veterinarians who came to the barn – it appears that the veterinary business in the US is a different animal altogether. A glut of vets makes for harsh competition. It is difficult and expensive to get started, and even more expensive to pay insurance in this litigation-happy society.
But, then I remembered where I was – in America. The best place in the world to do basic science. By far the best. We may complain about the cuts in funding for federal granting agencies, or difficulty in working on sensitive stuff like stem-cell research, or attempts by political hacks to shut down particular types of research (mostly of human sexuality) or to discredit particular scientists whose findings the current administration and their corporate cronies do not like. We may bemoan the right-wing assault on science, resurgence of ID Creationism and the horrendous state of science education prior to college. But still, compared to anywhere else in the world the US system is ideal. Not only the most money available for grants, but also the relative ease of getting a job in academia, relative ease in advancement and gaining tenure, top-notch laboratories and equipment, and fantastic people to start collaborations with, often within one's own department. Not to mention that it is easier to publish in a respectable journal if you are from the USA than if you are working in a developing country.
So, I remembered my old love of basic biology and evolution. I found it easy here to find books on the topic and swallowed them by the bushel. I applied to Biology/Zoology departments in the area (we were not able to move anywhere at the time) and got into NC State University. My vet-school background made it easy for me to get a teaching assistantship for various anatomy, histology, embryology and physiology classes.
But there was another reason why I wanted to do some physiology first. I was distressed by some evolutionary theorizing that sounded good on paper but completely ignored the way organisms actually work! I wanted to do better than that. I did my Masters in pure circadian physiology, then broadened my Ph. D. research to encompass molecular, cellular, developmental, behavioral, ecological and evolutionary elements. Early on in that endeavor I realized that my data could make sense only within a multi-level selection context, so I read everything on the subject (pro and con) and spent some time talking with people who gave the most thought to the question (Bob Brandon, David Sloan Wilson).
The 2004 election derailed my dissertation writing. I felt that defending the country and the world from the scourge of the anti-rational forces of the Right was more important than a year of my own personal career. If Kerry had won on November 2nd, I probably would have continued with my dissertation-writing on November 3rd. But since he lost, I needed a few more months to try to understand what happened and why.
But now, the kids need to eat, the wife needs to continue to love me, so I am back in the business of Ph.D. writing. And what next? I don't know. Let me defend the dissertation first; I'll think about the next step afterwards. Postdoc somewhere? Probably. I have a lot of ideas of what experiments I want to do next. And what about marrying my interests in science and politics in some kind of journalistic or advisory role? Perhaps farther into the future.
Just wait and see.