Friday, August 3, 2012

What will I be when I grow up?

At some level I have always been fascinated by living things.  All through my childhood I collected frog spawn and watched the tadpoles emerge in plastic buckets in my back yard.  Hedgehogs that wandered near our house were frequently detained and kept as pets.  I grew cactus plants in a shed my father built for the purpose and my brother kept, and continues to keep cage birds.  For me, the Natural History Museum in Dublin was essentially a place of pilgrimage.

I suppose that many children go through phases like this, but not all of them end up as professional biologists.  As a child, it never occurred to me that one could really get paid to collect caddisflies, skulls, and pressed flowers.  The only contact I had with scientists was through the Regional Veterinary Laboratory where we dutifully sent the little feathered carcasses of departed birds from my brother's aviary.

But it turns out that it is indeed possible to get paid and indeed have a career observing birds, sampling lizards, or collecting insects.  What makes it possible for a youngster to realize such a strange fantasy and make a living studying the amazing organisms that share the planet?  This question occurred to me recently when reading a blog written by a 10 year old.  Jake's bones was started by a Scottish school boy when he was seven. Jake photographs and documents skulls and bones he has collected.  He takes an amazingly sophisticated scientific approach to his collection and his blog.  One page includes advice for others interested in collecting skulls and skeletons and he has one prank page devoted to the "wild haggis".

On reflection, I can see what Jake has in common with a boy who grew up in Athlone in Ireland.  Both of us were encouraged by excited parents to pursue our interests.  Each of were given the support and space explore hobbies that less enlightened parents may have dismissed as weird.  And let's be frank and honest here, collecting pinned insects, or dealing with the stinky process of cleaning skulls, if not weird, is a tad unusual.  But what's so bad about being unusual?

So, my suggestion for parents everywhere is that you encourage your child's passion for the unusual or the ordinary.  Whatever holds her attention for longer than average is a potential avocation.  Your son writes poetry?  Cherish those poems; frame them on the fridge; submit them to a newspaper!  The hobby that may simply appear to be a time filler could be a life-long passion that becomes a career.  And what better career could one have than to get paid for something one chooses as a hobby.  I tell my students that they should regularly have a few moments in their job when they can smile and say "yes, I get paid for this".  Not every hobby becomes a career, but every hobby adds color to our lives and makes us more interesting and interested human beings.