Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview, a fun feature for the last Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Got a little tickle in your throat? Nose running? We’re all familiar with the common cold, the ferocious flu, and all kinds of illnesses, but did you know that animals struggle with sick days, too? It’s true!
In Sick!: The Twists and Turns Behind Animal Germs, Heather Montgomery explores different stories of animals getting sick: what causes it, how they get better, and what we can learn from it. Let’s take a look!
AD: In each chapter you do a fantastic job of breaking down the scientific process into real steps taken by the scientists – discovery, hypothesis, research, testing, conclusions, and beyond. Why include all these stages?
HM: The research for this book opened my eyes to the fun and value of each stage of the scientific process. Most of us (myself included) have a favorite part, but—just like discoveries are made possible by a team of people—new understandings of our world are made possible thanks to the every stage of the process.
AD: I love this quote: “One scientific study doesn’t give us an answer—it gives us a piece of the puzzle.” Why is this an important concept for kids to understand?
HM: Because the human mind likes clarity, we can all fall into the trap of believing that one study, statistic, or statement is THE answer—especially if it supports what we already believe. But science isn’t about belief. It is about asking questions, collecting evidence, and probing deeper into the puzzles of our world.
AD: This paragraph was wonderful: “And the reason we now understand the power of camel anti- bodies? Not a bunch of experts doling out answers. Nope. It was students asking genuine questions. Students who pushed them- selves past the same old easy experiment. Students who embraced a challenge, then challenged our understanding of mammal antibodies.” What do you hope kids take away from this paragraph?
HM: Anyone can participate in science! As a child I remember thinking that all the fun science was done. That we had all the answers, that all the facts had been figured out, and that all the best discoveries had been made. Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth. All a discovery really needs is a solid question and a brave someone to follow where it leads.
AD: The story of Chausiku the chimp was fascinating – it made me realize how much we still don’t know about the world. Why might kids find this inspiring?
HM: Animals are awesome! And their “knowledge” of the world—whether that be innate, learned, or some other form our big brains can’t understand—is fascinating. What if we could sense the world as a chimp can? What if we could know what an ant knows? Kids don’t let preconceived ideas of what we can and can’t do stop them. And that is pretty awesome, too.
AD: The chapter about vultures was just one example of my whole understanding of bacteria being turned on its head! How do scientists keep their minds open to all the possible causalities and correlations? What can students learn from this?
HM: Right?! We have this idea (this bias) of what is “bad” and what is “good.” When a scientific discovery flips that idea over, it’s like flipping a rock and finding a whole world underneath it. And when that kind of discovery comes from the belly of a buzzard, you can’t help but dive in and explore!
AD: Symbiotic relationships with bacteria – this feels like a very new way to think about our bodies and the world around us. How long have scientists been exploring this concept?
HM: In the early 1900s, scientists were hypothesizing that mitochondria (the power houses in our cells) were of microbial origin. But where was the evidence? Sixty years later Lynn Margulis proposed that the cell is actually a community of microbes. It wasn’t combat, she said, but networking that allowed complex life to thrive. Her peers considered her a radical. It wasn’t until we developed more advanced genetic tools—and saw that the DNA in mitochondria is different than the DNA of the cell the mitochondria is in—that this concept of symbiosis within a cell took hold. And now we are seeing it everywhere!
AD: I know you touch on this in your author’s note, but what was your inspiration to write about animal germs?
HM: In 2020 when the world was in lockdown thanks to a “germ,” I needed some hope. One day I realized that every animal species still surviving on this planet had survived an epidemic. How? So I dug into databases, Zoom-interviewed cool scientists, and started drafting. I got so deep into the science that I churned out a book too complex for my audience. Three years later, after scrapping the second half of that draft (don’t worry, I squirreled it away to use later), it all came together as Sick!: The Twists and Turns Behind Animal Germs.
Heather Montgomery’s interest in nature led to a B.S. in Biology and an M.S. in Environmental Education. For years she developed curriculum and directed the McDowell Environmental Center. Later, she taught in the classroom, directed summer camps, and finally discovered writing! She’s published 18 books for young people and owes much of her publishing knowledge to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, particularly the Southern Breeze Region.