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In their own words: Into the wild with Jack Schultz

Friday, October 5, 2007 | 2:02 p.m. CDT; updated 9:25 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Jack Schultz, director of the Bond Life Sciences Center, has been around the world as a researcher, but he’s also passionate about music.

I am naturally curious. Because I grew up in Chicago and only got out into the lakes and woods and streams about once a year, I was particularly curious about nature. And here I am — a professor — who follows curiosity as a way of making a living.

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(Folding his hands behind his head, Jack Schultz reclines as the Friday afternoon light floods his first floor office. His path has wound around the world, from Chicago to the Caribbean, Washington to South America, Pennsylvania to Missouri, dancing between music and science. Those childhood fishing vacations pointed him to where he is now: director of the Bond Life Sciences Center at MU.)

We’d pack up for a weeklong or two-week vacation on Friday night, drive all night, get to a fishing kind of place on the Minnesota-Canada border the next morning. We were renting cabins, boats, dropping fishing gear into the water and losing motors, spending the time in between chasing frogs, swimming and picking leeches off. As a young boy, I liked chasing frogs and poking around in the weeds. The curiosity is a family trait. When we caught fish, I had to clean them. But in our family it wasn’t just a matter of getting the guts out of the fish; it was really interesting to see what the fish was eating, what kind of insects, that kind of thing.

I got into music very young. Wanted to play the guitar the first time I heard Les Paul and Mary Ford on the radio. I sat with my ear glued to the one big speaker in the living room. Started begging to play the guitar about the time I was in kindergarten, but we couldn’t find one small enough, so I had to wait until I was in the third grade.

I started playing for weddings and stuff like that by the time I was in seventh grade. I was in this fabulous band called “The Five Notes.” Four eighth-graders and one seventh-grader — that was us. There used to be a series of guitar student conventions, competitions. At the conventions, the major guitar manufacturers would have hotel suites set up to display their new guitar models and each of them had professional guitar players as their representatives. So I actually got to sit down and play with Les Paul in the Gibson Guitar exhibit; just sat there and jammed with him for a couple of hours. And then I’d go down the hall and play with Chet Atkins. I was kind of a hit in that setting ‘cause I looked so little and innocent and so forth. They used to call me “Little Jackie Schultz.” It leads you to believe you can do great stuff.

(In the late sixties, Schultz set out for the University of Chicago, originally as a pre-med major. Chemistry and math classes weren’t going as well as the music scene. Schultz was playing rock n’ roll every Friday and Saturday night. “No dates; just gigs,” he laughs. Schultz wound up in a graduate class his senior year that took him to the Caribbean.)

In my senior year, I ran into a professor offering a course that sounded very interesting. We spent several weeks floating around from island to island in the Caribbean, snorkeling and watching birds, identifying plants and stuff. Coming from my suburban background, I had no idea you could make a living doing that. All the stuff I was doing — chasing frogs when we were on fishing trips — these guys were making a living doing that. I decided I was going to be an ecology professor. I went off to the University of Washington for graduate school. That was sort of fortuitous because those were intense Vietnam years, and I would have been drafted. I narrowly missed being drafted by drawing a high number in the lottery that year.

I took a job as the studio musician at a studio in Seattle. I took about half of my first year of graduate school off to just do music. Then graduate school came screaming back with the opportunity to do my thesis research in South America. It was a battle of great scientists whispering in one ear and great musicians whispering in the other. Music was going pretty well, but I sold all my guitars and went to Argentina for three years to do my thesis work.

(Schultz continued to juggle music and science as he moved westward. But after Argentina, he didn’t play seriously again for about 10 years. He went to do post-doctorate work at Dartmouth College and put together a local band. His research in plant communication established him in the scientific world.)

The question of interest for me was, how come insects don’t eat all the plants all the time? I like to say that plants are really just very slow animals. But people fail to appreciate that; most people think of plants as furniture. We discovered that when insects would chew tree leaves, the tree leaves would change their chemistry to make them less good of food for the caterpillars, for example. We were one of the first groups to show that plants do that — that they respond actively to being eaten by insects.

(Before Columbia, Schultz spent two decades in an old, renovated farmhouse on 120 acres in State College, Pa. It was at Penn State where his wife, Heidi Appel, joined his research.)

One thing we’re trying to get off the ground here is ... a way of finding pests that you can’t yet see in an agricultural field. For example, a big threat to the soybean industry is the introduction of soybean rust. It’s in Arkansas, it’s not yet in Missouri. Right now, the prescription is if you find any in your 100 acres, you’re supposed to spray the whole 100 acres. That costs a bundle, and you’re dumping all that pesticide. We’d really like to develop a nose for a tractor that smells the plants as it goes along. The front end of the tractor smells the problem, the back end of the tractor sprays it right on the spot and you don’t have to treat the whole field. We’re kind of anxious to get that going.

(Schultz’s research has been covered by the New York Times, People Magazine and Time. Even the National Enquirer drew up a cartoon of trees on telephones. But his best memories remain in the smaller moments of life, and his years of success have given him the wisdom to appreciate that.)

I have very fond memories of playing rock n’ roll guitar on an old beat-up acoustic guitar in a forest in Costa Rica. We’d get people dancing. One night we had all the women researchers at this field station lined up doing a Supremes routine: a little Motown in the jungle.

I kind of wish that we could all pay a little more attention to avoid categories and pay attention to the question of how do these skills and interests come together in a unique way. I had all the same problems deciding if I wanted to do research or teach, because I loved them both.

I’m here because I think that the best things happen in the cracks, in the intersections between things. Thinking across boundaries, avoiding categories and asking, “What can we do that’s new here instead of how do we fit into the old?”


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