A Winding Journey Leading Me to You

By Dr. Deborah Rook


Introduction– Who I really am

My bio is on the website, but that is not who I am. Here’s the truth about me:

I was a STEM baby from the start. My mother was a physician (which she claims are actually artists not scientists), and studied chemistry and biology before she went that route. When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be a doctor just like her; I had a knack for math and science, and was never much of a reader. I had a toy microscope that came with slides of all sorts of things, and I vividly remember looking down into that microscope at a section of dragonfly wing and examining all the tiny veins that ran through. Absolutely fascinating.

I had a really tough time with Chemistry in high school. The experiments were so cool, but it was hard to wrap my head around the equations and how the elements fit together. My high school chemistry teacher told me that honors biology was probably going to be too hard for me, but I took it anyway- and boy am I glad I did! Biology opened a new world of science I had never experienced before; it is so completely awe-inspiring and was much clearer to me than Chemistry ever had been. I love the connections between and within animals and plants and how everything evolved together to make so much sense (and sometimes appearing to make absolutely no sense at all). I just couldn’t get enough. After that, I decided to major in biology in college.

It’s also important to note that science is not all that I am. Though it is a crucial part, I not only hang out and chat science all the time, but I have a personal life just like most other scientists. I am a mom, with a daughter just over a year old (and I am very excited to do science experiments with her in the kitchen!). I have close friends that include scientists, librarians, museum researchers, advertisers, accountants, salespeople, physical therapists, stay-at-home-moms, and all number of other types of people. I love to watch movies (really bad science movies tend make me crazy, though Jurassic Park is awesome), read science fiction and fantasy, work out when I can, cross stitch and knit, and even bake.

Materials and Methods– How I got here

Degrees can only tell you so much about a person’s STEM career, here’s my actual journey:

I went to Case Western Reserve University knowing that I would double major in biology and theatre and go to medical school after graduation. Seemed like a great idea to me at the time. Turns out, theatre wasn’t going to be who I was in the end, but I did join the musical theatre group on campus and participated in 6 shows with them. About halfway through my first semester, a group with one biology major, pre-meds (people who knew, like I did, that they were bound for medical school after college), and nursing majors were sitting around watching an old TV show called ER, about doctors and nurses working in a hospital emergency room and all the crazy things that happened both there and in their personal lives. Something really gross happened, that had a lot of blood and guts and all that, and two people in the room reacted by hiding our faces and going “eeeww”- me and the one non-medical-school-bound biology major. Turns out, I hate blood. A lot. And just seeing it on TV makes my stomach turn, so how was I possibly going to cut people open as a career? That is how I became a biology major, not bound for medical school, adrift in a sea of confusion about my future.

I kept taking biology classes and found something that I loved in my third introductory class- Evolution. It just spoke to me (see Discussion). I added a Evolutionary Biology major to my record and continued to take the classes that interested me, unsure if I would ever find my true calling, until I took a class on mammalian evolution and paleontology. I was hooked. For a class I was taking my senior year, I needed a research project to work through at the same time, so I contacted the professor after the class and asked if he had any research he needed assistance on.. I started to measure mammal teeth for him to investigate the types of diets ancient mammals had. So cool, right? I learned a lot about mammal teeth and how different foods wear down teeth (think about having something hard or gritty in your mouth, and what that might do to your teeth).

Because I had applied for graduate schools before I started my research, I applied all over the country to many schools with evolutionary biology master’s degree programs. I got really lucky that one of them had a mammal paleontologist– Ohio State. I joined his lab and worked on a funky little pack of mammals called taeniodonts whose fossils usually had teeth so worn that you couldn’t make out what the top of the tooth originally looked like. They lived right after the dinosaurs died out, possibly having evolved just before the extinction, and were some of the first mammals to evolve to large body size (can you imagine an entire world with just little mouse to cat sized mammals running around and nothing even large-dog sized?). I studied their phylogenetics, the science of animal family trees. I examined many teeth (which are what is most likely to fossilize in mammals) to determine which of the taeniodonts were most closely related and how they fit into the larger mammalian family tree. It was fascinating, and ended in my master’s thesis and three journal articles (links are on my bio page if you’re really, really interested).

Sometimes, life isn’t just about your education and your career. I think that’s an important point that some people don’t realize. The next step in my journey really was a life step and not a career step (or so I thought). At the end of college, I met a boy. We dated through our last year and went into graduate school not knowing what the future held for us. I was going to Ohio State and he was going to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was going for a 2 year program, he was going for at least 6. The plan became that after my master’s I would move to Madison until he finished and then I could pick the next place we would go (with a master’s degree I would be qualified to teach at colleges in the area, or get a job in environmental science). Instead, thanks to connections at OSU, I decided to apply to the graduate school in Geology (not Geoscience), and was accepted.

My PhD program was a really informative time in my life. I taught a class that I absolutely adored (Evolution and Extinction), worked many hours with the Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution on outreach initiatives, and received a teaching certificate. I also did research on the big-picture connections between the rock and fossil records in North America (basically, how missing rocks could be skewing our view of evolutionary history), and finally got to work on some mammal teeth towards the end. What I really learned, though, is that though the research piques my interest and I love doing it, my heart seemed to land with outreach and education. I defended my PhD in June 2014.

Results– What I do now

This is where my journey brings me to you, and the blog you are reading right now. Thanks to lifelong friendships and everlasting bonds of scientific love, I am working with Inner City Science on multiple initiatives. I will be a recurring contributor to this blog, as well as working on curriculum to expand the program into biology and earth sciences. I will also soon be teaching a lab at George Mason University in Virginia, making sure to keep up with my teaching.

Discussion– Passion for the subject

I love EVOLUTION, and here’s why:

Somewhere, at least 3.5 billion years ago, life emerged on this planet. It was tiny little single-celled organisms with no divisions between their interior parts. From that, every living thing you see today has come about because of evolution. To me, that’s completely insane, but I love to think about how small changes over long, long periods of time (or every so often big changes) can lead to so much diversity of life, so many things that we see in the fossil record that we do not see today, and so much change over the course of those billions and billions of years.

I study how things change over time. The history of this planet (and especially mammals) continues to hold my interest, especially since we learn new things every day. Every day a new fossil is found. Every day a new theory on how those fossils are linked together is formulated. Every day someone looks at the fossils in context with the rocks they are found in, the environment the organism was living in, or the area they were found, to come up with new and interesting ideas about how the animal lived, died, and came to be found in the dirt by a paleontologist.

And Evolution is what I am going to be focusing on as a recurring blog poster. If you love evolution as much as I do, or if you don’t yet, stay tuned for some awesome stories from the science I love best!

Further Research: A Teaser for my next blog…

How is a Chihuahua and a Great Dane the same species? What happened to dogs??

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