Caterpillars, Puzzles, and How Research is Similar to Marriage- with Dr. Nijhout!

On Thursday, May 27th, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. H Frederik Nijhout to ask some questions about his career and research. During the interview, we talked a little bit about his academic background, goals in research, and fun anecdotes. I am aware that this is a very long entry, but please stick around until the end for what I believe is really important advice for anyone looking into doing research as a career!

** I will be paraphrasing his answers due to the fact that I am a slow typer and was not able to record his answers verbatim.

Q: To start off, what schools did you attend for your bachelors, masters, and PhD degrees? 

Dr. Nijhout went to the University of Notre Dame for his undergraduate studies. He then went to Harvard for both his Masters and PhD degrees. Thereafter, he pursued 2 postdocs via the University of Washington and the National Institute of Health.

Q: What did you major in? 

“Biology all the way.”

Q: What was your thesis project for your PhD? (simplified) 

His project tackled questions regarding the control of metamorphosis in insects such as “How are the hormones for this process controlled?” and “How does an animal know when it is time to secrete the hormones to metamorphose?”

Q: What were your goals when you first started research? How does it compare to your goals now? 

In part, Dr. Nijhout is still working on the general question he worked on during his PhD, fine tuning it with other questions that come up along the way. He found that time isn’t a factor into when an insect secretes the necessary hormones for metamorphosis. The defining factor is what researchers call the “critical size” or the certain size the insect needs to reach before entering the changing process. The questions his lab is pursuing now are along the lines of: How do animals grow to their species-specific size? How do they know how large they need to grow and when to stop?

Q: What classes do you teach? 

Entomology (general insect biology course), contains labs and field trips to collect insects and take photos. Capstone seminar for seniors: Physiological Genetics of Disease (unrelated to insects), tracks down the pathway of specific diseases and their mutations.

Q: How has your teaching experience been like so far? 

Dr. Nijhout enjoys teaching and has never seen it as a burden. He really likes being able to convey his knowledge to his students and has found that he always learns something new through this profession.

Q: What is your favorite part of your career? 

He enjoys solving puzzles and working out the mechanisms of what was unknown or not as understood before.

Q: What is your least favorite part of your career? 

We both laughed at this question because he has already told me how he does not like writing applications for grants and trying to find funding for his projects.

Q: Why did you choose to concentrate your research on butterflies and moths instead of any other insect (i.e. beetles, rollie pollies, dragonflies)? 

The main reason is because of his PhD lab, but caterpillars are also easy to rear, are inexpensive, and are large enough for such things as dissections.

Q: What is your favorite thing/ fact about caterpillars? 

Dr. Nijhout needed a second to think about this question, which I found quite funny because of how often he handles them. He ended up telling me that in general, people think the butterfly is the insect researchers know more of, but they spend much more time handling the caterpillars. It’s not the butterfly but rather the caterpillar that has to measure its own size and know when to metamorphose.

Q: Most embarrassing moment in a lab? 

He couldn’t think of anything particularly embarrassing, so he instead told me about an instance where he dropped a large bottle of alcohol on the floor. The lab began to get a little drunk off the vapors- not very fun at all. That plus the high flammability made the situation really dangerous, so they had to call in the emergency cleanup crew.

Q: Favorite memory in a lab? 

One of his grad students figured out how caterpillars know their own size- a question he had been working on for 20-30 years. He was very proud of her that day.

Q: Have you ever been scared in the field? 

No, but one time he was in Kenya collecting animals in an elephant preserve off the coast just south of Mombasa. His group spotted a mother elephant and her calf crossing the field, so they were told to get back in the car to leave the area. When they started to drive, the mother circled around and bellowed to scare them away. It was a thrilling experience!

Q: What is a piece of advice you would give to anyone looking into research as a career? 

Dr. Nijhout and I have had this conversation prior to the interview, and I believe it is a very important thing for anyone to keep in mind. Go into research because it’s the best thing you can imagine yourself doing. Do it because it is inevitable, because you really want it. The decision to pursue research as a career is similar to the decision to get married: you do it because it feels good and right. It is completely emotional.

This was probably my favorite Q&A out of the entire interview. I believe there is a lot to learn from working in a lab and toward your dream job. I am very excited to continue working with Dr. Nijhout and becoming more knowledgable about this field!

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