I grew up in Potrock Hollow, West Virginia, population 13. I could walk for 20 miles out my front door and still be in the woods.
Like all adolescent kids, I became interested in rockets and explosives. I actually made most of the major explosives that are possible to makenitroglycerin, TNT and others. From there I became interested in where energy comes from. That propelled me into chemistry, physics and mathematics.
None of the people around me were really educated. But it was like growing up on the set of Lassie. I was surrounded by a loving, supportive community of people. My mother and father encouraged me to pursue my heart's desires. I don't recall them having any real interest in biological sciences. My father's interest was history and politics. He loved the 'Martin Gardner Puzzlers' in Scientific American. Solving those puzzles was a much-enjoyed monthly activity in our house.
Living on a farm, you're confronted immediately with the realities of biology, physics and chemistry. We raised chickens. My grandfather taught me to plow with a horse. I got tremendous pleasure out of being able to fix the equipment, climbing onto the McCormick hay baler, which used really interesting physical principles to bale hay and move it along. I could crawl into it and understand it. You've got to be innovative, look and see what wires need to be bent.
Since we lived in an isolated place, I was more oriented to my parents and family. As a result, I looked to them for guidance. My father and brother were definitely inspirations. My father didn't know much about chemistry, but he built me a whole chemistry lab in the basementa 25-foot bench with the full setup for synthetic and organic chemistry.
My brother, who was eight years older than me, was taking college chemistry while I was in junior high. From his textbooks I learned how to make explosives. I made rockets and told my friends when and where I was setting them off. It was my claim to fame, attracting lots of kids. I was fortunate that I never got blown up or had an accident. I knew the rockets' capacities and I was careful.
I think I knew more about chemistry than my high-school chemistry teacher. Still, my high-school teachers offered a lot of support and encouragement. My ninth-grade math teacher, Miss Watson, was a constant source of math puzzlers and some serious math problems (most of which I couldn't do, but the feeling I got from the few I mastered was so sweet, I was addicted). She told me that I had an obligation to be a scientistit was something I had a talent for and the world needed scientists. I felt a bit of responsibility."
Photo: Barbara Ries
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
December 2001, pages 26-29.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute