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A life of science

Jack Schultz says he wants to make science more accessible to the masses
Monday, February 12, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:46 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

It’s almost noon at the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center on the MU campus, and Jack Schultz is standing in line at the Catalyst Cafe to buy a sandwich and some chips. While waiting to have his credit card swiped, he jokes with the cashier, telling her some soup had spilled into the card reader. The cashier looks up to see a playful grin spread across Schultz’s face. She is quickly put at ease and chats a little with Schultz before he sits down to eat.

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Jack Schultz, the newly appointed director of the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center at MU, stands in front of soybean plants in a greenhouse on the fifth floor of the center. Schultz says making science available to everyone increases the public’s understanding of science. (LIANA CECIL/Missourian)

There are few places where Schultz isn’t communicating and interacting with everything

around him. He’s always interested in meeting and talking to people, and first encounters have filled many of Schultz’s days since he officially became director of the center on Jan. 2.

“So far, the acclimation process has been a new person every hour for three weeks,” Schultz said. “I’ve met a lot of interesting people and have learned a lot about the university. As far as the center goes, the building is a real important part here, but the most important part is the people in it.”

One of Schultz’s main missions as the center’s director is to promote interdisciplinary science. Working together across different branches of biology and ecology is one of Schultz’s greatest strengths, said Tom Baker, a professor of entomology at Pennsylvania State University, where Schultz taught and researched for more than 20 years before coming to MU.

“I’ve never seen anybody as skilled as Jack is at packaging his results and the results of other scientific units,” said Baker, who first met Schultz in 1980. “I’ve seen his presentations to alumni, to Defense Department visitors and fellow researchers. He’s able to make his findings interesting and compelling to them all.”

Professors currently doing research in the center are also impressed with Schultz’s breadth of knowledge across diverse scientific disciplines.

“Jack has a concrete vision as to what ‘interdisciplinary’ means,” said Mark Hannink, a professor of biochemistry and the associate director for education and fellowships in the center. “That is the direction of life sciences research, both on this campus and at leading universities across the nation.”

Schultz’s ability to create connections everywhere he goes is just one of the reasons why faculty members at the center, which has filled about 90 percent of its laboratory capacity, are excited to have him on board.

“I think he has a good sense of the role that the center plays both on campus and in the state,” said Bruce McClure, a professor of biochemistry at MU and an associate scientific director at the center. “He sees it as both a physical center for excellence on campus and as an intellectual center that extends across campus.”

Schultz’s scientific vision was fostered by his parents. He grew up in Chicago, where he enjoyed annual trips to the park away from his suburb-like neighborhood. Frequent fishing trips to Minnesota and Canada helped him realize that he wanted to pursue a career in science. He decided to become a plant scientist during his final year of undergraduate work at the University of Chicago in 1969.

Schultz brings a highly publicized research record with him into the center. After obtaining his doctorate, Schultz went to Penn State, where he and his research partners developed experiments showing that plants communicate with each other by releasing volatile compounds when attacked by herbivores. The compounds alert the defense systems of other similar plants in the same area. Their findings showed that plants in the same area as the damaged organism incurred substantially less damage to their leaves than plants farther away from the damaged organism.

“That was the type of research that set the scientific world on fire,” Baker said.

Schultz has embraced his claim to fame. He was featured in People magazine and alluded to in a Johnny Carson monologue. He says that making science available to everyone increases understanding and enhances the esteem of science in the public mind.

“I was fairly sure most people were thinking about trees the way we were when Johnny Carson talked about them in a monologue,” Schultz said. “There was some baseball player caught for corking his bat, and Carson’s joke was the bat had told another bat what was going on. He said that if trees could talk now, why not bats too? I figured then that almost anybody has got the story now.”

Schultz says that he got a verbal beating from many fellow scientists when he posed for some pictures near trees in People magazine in the early 1980s. In their minds, he says, science should be published exclusively in scholarly journals and is not meant for the general public. Schultz disagrees.

“A lot of scientists aren’t necessarily good at communicating their findings to the public,” he said. “Sometimes, they’re even trained to avoid it. Because of that, I think they have a bias against people who do communicate their findings to everyone. But if it’s important science, we really have the obligation to spread the word.”

Part of spreading the word for Schultz is his desire to help journalists get better at reporting on science. At the same time, he wants this interaction to convince more scientists to try and articulate their discoveries to others. It is another interdisciplinary action that he hopes will make explaining complicated issues easier.

“I’ve never run into a person with a more total grasp of where things are heading in a multitude of fields,” Baker said. “He sees ahead, and that’s because he’s on top of a lot of literature. He’s on top of so many different things. All the details he knows about such disparate fields is just amazing.”

Baker said Schultz’s work ethic reaps dividends time and again. Baker recalls when Schultz taught an undergraduate entomology course that he put together a series of brand new lectures, even though there was material available that had been taught by others.

“Jack pays such attention to doing as high-quality a job as he can,” Baker said. “He doesn’t put up with people going through the motions, and he doesn’t settle for anything short of top-notch. He wants to get things right, but he does it diplomatically. When it comes down to it, he’s just a first-rate person.”

As committed to science as he is, Schultz enjoys a pretty full life away from the lab. He started playing guitar 50 years ago and has become an accomplished jazz musician. His guitar, which sits on a shelf in his office, is his main escape from the rigors of scientific research. The Columbia music scene excites him, he said, and he wants to continue his on-and-off professional music interests.

“It’s one of the things that continually keeps me young,” said Schultz, who turned 60 last month. “I’ve even gotten to play with Les Paul a couple of times, and that remains one of the highlights of my life.”

Baker, who played the keyboard with Schultz while at Penn State, said that musical talent and scientific expertise often go hand in hand.

“Jack’s musical talent — he’s truly an artist — adds to his abilities in research and vision,” Baker said. “The majority of the best scientists I’ve run into are musicians on the side, and good ones, too. There’s an identifiable connection between art and research. It seems that people who are both artistically and scientifically gifted are able to synthesize ideas the best.”

Two weeks ago, Schultz heard from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that he is in line to receive more grant money for an extension of his work on the applications of plant communication. While the specifics of the research he will do is not yet known, Schultz said that whatever work he is doing keeps him engaged with people and the physical world.

“I’m not the kind of person who is looking forward to retirement,” he said. “I want to interact with those around me for as long as I can. I’ll probably be lying in a hospital bed by the time I’ve stopped working.”


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