Herpetologist Highlight

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Herpetologist Highlight

Name: Fredric Janzen

Age: 56

Website / Twitter Handle / Instagram: www.public.iastate.edu/fjanzen

Where do you work? Iowa State University

Position: Professor

How did you get there? I guess it depends on where you want to start and how quickly you get bored with the story! But, basically, I grew up in Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin, spending a lot of time outdoors in the woods, fields, swamps, and ballfields. Then I went to college, where I changed my major multiple times before settling on biology. In scrambling to complete a degree in the remaining ~2 years, I took a class that utterly changed my career perspective. It was in the Sonoran Desert during that field course that I had the following epiphany: you mean, you can get paid to do this? So – skipping a bunch of details and events – off I went to Colorado State for M.S. studies in Zoology, Chicago for a Ph.D. in Evolution and Ecology, and UC-Davis for a postdoc in Population Biology, before landing at ISU in 1994 as an Assistant Professor of Zoology & Genetics. I’ve been here ever since!

Was there any particular hardship that you had to overcome to work in your position? I suspect we all think we’ve experienced hardships…from our individual perspectives. So I don’t know if what I might consider a hardship is even in the same ballpark as the genuine hardships that befall those in our field who, say, aren’t straight, white, and male. But here goes anyway. First, I was born without a large fraction of my hearing, which continues to provide me with significant challenges to this day in a variety of ways (I often can’t hear questioners in darkened rooms, I can’t hear rattlesnakes, etc.). And now I’m experiencing age-related hearing loss on top of it! Anyway, I’ve become highly proficient at lip reading. Second, as the first in my family to attend college (much less graduate school!), I definitely experienced some humiliating moments in learning the ropes that others already understood. Who knew, for example, that lab was a component of a science class that met separately from the lecture (it wasn’t that way in high school)? I went multiple weeks into that term before the professor held me back after lecture and asked why I wasn’t attending lab each week as well. Yes, perhaps I was just an idiot… J More importantly, though, what I experienced in my college years was an unparalleled mentoring effort from multiple professors (not just in the sciences) to shepherd me in the right direction. Although I was apparently clueless, they saw something in me worth promoting and unselfishly gave of themselves to ensure I did not veer too far.


What advice do you give to someone interested in your profession? What advice might you have for someone from an underrepresented group who is interested in entering your field? In my experience, you don’t have to be brilliant to succeed in herpetology or other scientific endeavors (not saying it’s a bad thing, just not a necessity). Instead, I think passion, perseverance, and hard work will get you pretty much anywhere. Times will get tough and things will be challenging. Those who, even in those circumstances, can find the joy in what they do, refuse to give up, and continue to give maximum effort will succeed. I see those factors as commonalities in me and all the successful students and postdocs who’ve come through my lab. As for individuals from underrepresented groups, I won’t pretend to know what you’ve experienced so far and what you might experience in the future based on that. But I can say with some certainty that you’ve got more allies than ever before. Seek out those allies – the Herpetologists’ League has plenty, for example – and work together with passion, perseverance, and continued effort and I’m certain you will achieve your professional goals. Indeed, many of us are thrilled to pay it forward, so don’t be shy about contacting us.

What’s your favorite herp? Hands down horned lizards (Phrynosoma)!

Why are you an HL member? I’d prefer to answer in the more general sense than just HL. I belong to a dozen or so professional scientific societies. I won’t enumerate them here, but they center on herpetology, ecology, and evolution. My reasoning in becoming a member is primarily because these societies provide unparalleled opportunities to interact with established experts in these fields and to meet the next generations who will change the way we currently think about various scientific issues. I genuinely draw inspiration from both ends of this experience spectrum! Beyond that, scientific societies are essential advocates at local, state, national, and international levels on behalf of our profession. They provide a public face for us as a group, they explain to various stakeholders our general mission, they serve as infrastructure for scientific inquiry and rational decision-making, and so on. To that end, I’d like to make a pitch here for us to make a more concerted effort to publish in, review for, and serve on behalf of our scientific societies. We all have limited time and financial resources, so please consider allocating more of your finite resources to the societies and journals who give back to us rather than to “for-profit” publishers and related entities. Send your next manuscript to Herpetologica rather than, say, to PLoS One. Accept your next review request from Herpetologica rather than, say, from BMC Ecology. Choose to serve as a volunteer or officer for HL rather than as an associate editor for, say, Evolutionary Ecology. We surely won’t reach perfection here, but we will be more substantially supporting those scientific entities who have a positive stake in our vibrancy, stability, and future rather than just permitting others to reach into our “time and money” pockets for profit.

Is there anything else you would like to add? I think everyone’s read enough from me at this point!

Is there a good caption for your attached photograph? Excavating a freshly-constructed painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) nest at Turtle Camp (i.e., Thomson, IL) along the shore of the Mississippi River (with undergraduate intern Abigail Jergenson).

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