Anthony Joern

From a “Focus on Ecologists” maintained by the ESA Education Office about 2009-2011.

Full Name Anthony Joern
Degree PhD
Job Position Professor of Biology
Organization Kansas State University
Department Division of Biology
Professional Affiliation Academic
Research Discipline Community Ecology
Research Habitat Grassland
Research Organism Terrestrial invertebrates
Describe what you do and briefly describe the activities that your job encompasses As a Professor of Biology, I perform the normal multi-tasking activities associated with research, teaching and other service typical of such a position; I have no special insights on how to make the schedules and activities mesh efficiently. Both teaching and research are enjoyable and important to me. My summer is entirely focused on field-based research on herbivory at population and community levels. During the academic year, I teach and keep up on all of the research momentum established during the summer. Much of my time is spent interacting with graduate students and undergraduates working in my lab.
What do you love most about your job? Like most of my colleagues, I really like my job because it involves life-long learning about interesting, challenging ideas I find exciting. Academic biologists have tremendous freedom to think about and work on any topic that is interesting, and most teaching activities are learning experiences as well. Each day leads to new ideas so that menial tasks and drudgery which are also part of my job are not what I take home with me or guide my plans for the future.
For each degree you’ve obtained, list the degree, field, and institution. B.S., The University of Wisconsin-Madison. 1970 (Zoology)
Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin. 1977 (Zoology/ Population Biology Insect Ecology)
Briefly describe your job path. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1977 with a lottery draft number of 6. A new army reserve unit opened up in Madison (how convenient!) and I joined. The next year of my life was determined by the army as I waited for basic training to begin, went to basic training, and then did odd jobs and waited until I could go to graduate school. My professional track was pretty straightforward from that time on. After receiving my PhD, I went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a post-doc with Royce Ballinger for a year and then started a tenure track job at UNL the next year. To provide perspective these days, my “start-up package” was an Wilde M5 dissecting scope which I still use. I was Director of UNL’s Cedar Point Biological Station in western Nebraska for part of this period, a demanding but invaluable experience affecting both my teaching and research. After 27 years at UNL, I moved to the Division of Biology at Kansas State University, in part because of the fantastic opportunities at Konza Prairie which is located 20 minutes from my office.
What challenges did you need to overcome? N/A
What’s one thing you hope to do in the future? I have many research goals to fulfill, including efforts to link interactions between small insect herbivore grazers (mostly grasshoppers) and large mammalian ungulate grazers at Konza Prairie in a food and interaction web context. I also hope to works some in Africa on the effects of large grazers on insect herbivores (especially grasshoppers). Personally, I am trying to learn to throw decent pots, a much bigger challenge.
How do you describe your job when you meet people at a party? I do not do this very well, but I try and explain my research on grasshoppers and why it is interesting and important. When teaching comes up, I stress the need to teach critical thinking and emphasize the point that educated students are trained problem solvers, and that these skills translate into any aspect of life.
What is your family background and what did they think of your career choice? My family lived mostly in small towns in the upper Midwest, and we moved about every 2 years until I reached high school. My father was a small-town grocer with his father, and then a USDA meat inspector (the reason for all of the moves) and worked pretty long hours. He was an insatiable reader (mostly popular accounts of history) when he had time. My mother spent two years as a piano major before the depression cut this short. She was very interested in learning and the importance of education, so this was the attitude at home; none of us learned to play the piano, which we all now regret. My parents were always very supportive of what we all did, and they were very supportive of my final career choices, even if they didn’t fully understand what I did or why I liked insects (especially grasshoppers) so much.
Who or what inspired you to become a scientist (or other profession)? I always wanted to be a scientist from grade school on and I don’t remember what inspired me. I had many excellent teachers at all levels beginning with kindergarten in a small town where we learned to read early. I did much reading from that point. I also spent a lot of time outside “in nature” collecting insects, did a lot of camping and canoeing, and I had great high school science teachers as reinforcement. It all came together when I started graduate school ecology at the University of Texas at Austin. I never learned so much in so short a time as I did in my first year as a grad student, where I quickly found out how little I knew. Dan Otte, Eric Pianka and Larry Lawlor were tremendous role models then and now, and they pretty much let me go whatever directions I wanted. However, I liked most non-science subjects as well, so I guess I was just lucky because I still really like what I do.
Who currently inspires you? I have been reading a lot of history and philosophy of biology lately, and I am very inspired by many ecologists and evolutionary biologists who provide so many early insights, but whose contributions are somewhat or entirely ignored.
What is the most valuable advice a mentor gave you or that you would offer to someone who’d like to do the same job as you? Students interested in ecology or environmental studies should get involved in research projects as soon as they can, and get out and see nature first hand as often as possible. Combined, these activities foster critical thinking, creativity and a sense of wonder. Keep trying different types of projects until you are hooked. I also urge students to get hands-on knowledge of organisms and natural history (the …ologies), and get basic and broad backgrounds in other science disciplines (… chemistry, math, computer programming, geography, geology, engineering, meterology, anthropology …) as interests direct. I also suggest you travel outside of the United States as much as you can early on. You will see and experience much that will have great influence on your future. Most important, make sure you like what you do.
What would you like people to remember about your life as a scientist (or other profession)? I hope that I motivated students to be creative, critical thinkers. I also hope that some of my basic work on grasshopper biology and ecology influences society’s attitudes and planning of insect control (e.g., limiting extensive chemical spray programs in western US rangelands). My view is that rangelands are best approached as renewable systems and we should work within that framework to develop appropriate strategies to manage them – including how to deal with grasshoppers.

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