When I was 12 years old, I entered the seventh grade quite unremarkably. Short, scrawny, and high-voiced, I saw nothing too exciting about my future. Perhaps worse, those around me saw nothing either. It was during this time I met Mrs. Klingensmith, otherwise known as Rata. She was the first teacher I’d known who didn’t mind students using her first name. In fact, she encouraged it. Rata taught a one-quarter pre-biology course in which I was accidentally assigned.
“Thomas, you have a curious mind. I’ve never met a student who asks so many questions.” It was true: the son of two public school teachers, I was a curious kid and had few inhibitions in the classroom. I liked Rata. She was smart, confident, and had a love of science. It was infectious. She had older students in the ninth grade who were already conducting their own science research projects and competing in local fairs. Instead of going to the cafeteria for lunch, these students brought their brown bags to the science lab everyday. They discussed their latest research findings and the intricacies of Darwin’s theory of natural selection while wolfing down their salami and peanut butter sandwiches. The kids on student council might have called them total geeks. To me, they were the epitome of “cool” and I desperately wanted to be part of their lunch club. When Rata asked my class who might be interested in doing a science fair project the following year, I eagerly raised my hand.
These early childhood experiences sparked an adventure that continued well beyond the seventh grade. In high school, I studied pheromones and their influence on territorial and aggressive behaviors in harvester ants. I conducted this research in a park near my house in Colorado Springs. In 1985, this research brought me to the International Science and Engineering Fair and ultimately to the Westinghouse Science Talent Search. Largely because of science competitions, I was accepted to Stanford where I majored in human biology. The exposure to high-profile scientists was awe-inspiring. After graduation, I left science to take an internship in public television and landed my first job at National Public Radio as an editorial and research assistant for three years. My specific interests in science gave way to more general interests and passions for story-telling and documentary film.
Although making films appears to represent a departure from the world of science, in fact, the process of directing, producing and conducting outreach for documentaries reminds me of the scientific process. As documentarians, we pose questions, then gather huge amounts of data in the form of interviews, observational footage, and archival material. We then systematically organize that material and analyze or “test” it against our initial story concepts and questions. It is in this process that the truth of our film emerges and the stories that reflect and honor the material we captured.
While most of my fellow Westinghouse finalists have gone on to get advanced degrees in science or teaching positions at research universities, I don't feel guilty for taking a right turn (or perhaps a left turn). In fact, rather than measuring our country's success in math and science by the number (and size) of our pedigrees, I would suggest that making our entire population more technically and scientifically literate is a laudable goal. My background in science informs my life everyday, not only in my profession, but as an average citizen trying to make good choices.
Almost 20 years after my science fair experiences, I find myself bringing this biography full circle by taking on the WHIZ KIDS documentary project. Reaching into the lives of young scientists allowed me, in a sense, to reach into my own history as someone who used science to address life's big questions. As a young person, science gave me a voice and an identity. I want to use that experience to broadcast the voices of the next generation of scientists. From what I've witnessed in making this film, there is good reason to feel hopeful about the future.Tom Shepard is a documentary filmmaker living in San Francisco. You can learn more about the film WHIZ KIDS at www.whizkidsmovie.com