Dr. Jack Schultz is a Professor in Plant Sciences and Director of the Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri. He received his PhD in Zoology from the University of Washington and completed postdoctoral research at Dartmouth College. He was then hired at Dartmouth as a Research Assistant Professor. Jack’s next career move brought him to Penn State University where he remained for 25 years, rising to the rank of Distinguished Professor of Entomology before joining the faculty at the University of Missouri. Jack’s research has been featured by the New York Times, People Magazine, and Time Magazine. Jack is here with us today to tell us all about his journey through life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science
Jack loves learning, so it’s not always easy to pull himself away from the science. However, for most of his life, he has been an avid guitarist and really enjoyed playing music professionally and for fun. These days Jack also enjoys photography and landscape gardening.
The Scientific Side
Scientifically speaking, Jack is interested in understanding why insects and other animals don’t consume all of the plants in the world. Current hypotheses propose that other things may be eating insects faster than the insects can eat all the plants and/or the plants are able to fight back. In his research, Jack has examined chemical defenses of plants and also chemical signaling in plants that can be detected by the predators that eat the insects that eat plants.
A Dose of Motivation
“It is what it is.”
What Got You Hooked on Science?
Jack’s parents were both avid outdoors people and he used to go on annual fishing trips with the family. His mom was a bird watcher and enthusiastic natural historian, so she encouraged Jack and his brother to explore nature and be curious about the natural world. Though he started college planning to go to medical school, he struggled in college, and struggled to decide what he should do for a career. An introduction to an influential professor helped Jack chart his path to an outstanding career in science.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges
The lab had been awarded funding from the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) to investigate volatile organic compounds in plants. However, their project was deprioritized and lost funding three weeks before Christmas. Jack was distraught because there were six international postdocs in the lab depending on the grant to fund their positions. Through some skillful negotiation, Jack was able to secure the postdoc positions despite the budge cut and no one had to leave the lab.
A Shining Success!
One of the big successes in Jack’s career was his work on chemical signalling in plants that was picked up by the popular media as “talking plants”. Though there was some overexaggeration in reports from the press, it was an excellent opportunity to communicate his science and have the public really engaged in his work. It also led to opportunities to teach a course on communicating science and a grant that he has received to help train and prepare scientists to communicate their work.
The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates
Most Treasured Travel
Jack thoroughly enjoyed a trip he took to Argentina. Stepping off the plane in Buenos Aires was a little bizzarre because he saw what looked like a North American Robin, but it was a completely unrelated species of bird. These striking examples of convergent evolution were everywhere and there were many examples of similar-looking animals to what is common in North America despite very different evolutionary histories.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories
They used to joke that you had to be a pretty good musician to join Jack’s lab because he was a talented musician and the lab formed some excellent bands over the years. Their bands would play at departmental parties, conferences, and other occasions.
Advice For Us All
No matter what path you take, if you look closely enough, there are plenty of interesting things to see.
Jack’s research is in chemical and molecular ecology. He studies how plants detect, identify, and respond to insect attack. This work has been supported continuously by the NSF for over 30 years, with additional support from the USDA, the US Forest Service, and the US Department of Defense. Schultz and colleagues provided one of the first demonstrations that plant chemical defenses can interfere with natural enemies (viruses). Today, genetically-modified plants and commercial biological pesticides are formulated to account for this interference. He was co-discoverer of volatile “communication” by plants, now known to be a central component of plant responses to the environment. With DARPA and NSF support Schultz has continued to investigate potential applications of plant volatile “reports” in precision agriculture, security, and food quality assessment. This research integrates chemistry, physiology, molecular biology, ecology and behavior of plants, insects, viruses, and bacteria. Jack founded the Center for Chemical Ecology at Penn State. In 2007 he became Director of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri, where he leads and develops interdisciplinary research programs with 35 investigators from 12 departments in 6 colleges.
Jack enjoys playing guitar, photography, and ecotravel when not doing research or herding cats.
This episode was originally published on April 22, 2015.