In hearing about Jiri Hulcr‘s childhood growing up during the revolution in the Czech Republic, I gained some insight into how he approaches science. He can be seen in the above picture (the only photo of him during his middle school years) wearing the blue cap; this photo was taken at a traditional pig killing. The person steaming and shaving the pig was the butcher, and every single piece of the pig is utilized. For Jiri, these pig killings (and subsequent butcherings) were essential lessons in animal anatomy and how to be a part of a team. His research interests started when he was very young, appropriately, with beetles around his home. He is now leading the citizen science project, Backyard Bark Beetles, a project to document the distribution of native and invasive bark beetles. Folks can collect bark beetles using everyday materials and then send them into his lab for identification. Read on to learn about how, with the support of his parents, he pursued his interests in entomology and taxidermy.
Lea: Let’s set the scene for middle school. Where were you? What was it like?
Jiri: I was in the Czech Republic. Middle school was a time of big changes – the country went from strict communist rule when I was 12 to a more open society. So everything was up in chaos for a while, but Czech people are pretty quiet and mellow they don’t really do anything spectacular. There were some public meetings, but for the most part it was fairly peaceful. So I could still be a nerdy kid in school and nothing major happened even though it was called The Revolution.
I was obsessed with bugs as far back as I can remember. My earliest memory of it was preschool. I was a tiny little thing and I was telling my cousin, I think, that what I was looking at on the ground was a “chafer beetle.” To this day I remember that I was lying. I didn’t actually know what I was looking at. Now I know it was a ground beetle, a carabid, just because I remember the image. At the time I knew only one beetle name, which was the chafer beetle – so I told her it was that. That’s the method that I’m using until today – when you say something with a straight face and confidence, people tend to believe you.
So, I learned both my love for beetles and my tendency to say something with confidence even though I don’t really know.
When I was a small kid we lived in the middle of nowhere; it was a tiny little village of 40 people in the middle of this agricultural savannah. Nothing except large fields of wheat and corn… but there were some forests, like strips of trees and some ponds. Back then there was no overpopulation. There were not many people and not many cars, so we could roam free as kids.
I felt like I was growing up as a jungle person – in direct contact with all the bugs and birds and mud and everything and it was amazing. Like water in springs, it was still there — now those springs are all dried up. The water was clean – we could drink that water and we could see crayfish in it and little fish and all that. All that’s gone now. When I go back there, it’s either all nettles or dried up agriculture, nothing else. I feel like I caught the last glimpses of really nice, lush nature – full of life – and it definitely made an impact.
I loved bugs for some inexplicable reason, and my dad actually made us a light trap. He would take this massive mercury vapor lamp from a regular streetlamp, I don’t know how he got that, but it was massive. He would set it up in our yard against a sheet and there would be these massive hawk moths and diving beetles and everything coming to it, and I was obsessed. At some point he also dug up a pond in the forest specifically so I could catch my diving beetles. He took a bulldozer and dug up a pond. The pond is still there and I spent many, many hours there. Even when I was a high school kid, I had my little motorcycle and I made a special attachment on the motorcycle for a net and cans so that I could put my diving beetles in them. Diving beetles were my love — and they still kind of are. They’re large water beetles – and they’re beautiful, by the way. When I retire I have a plan to market them – I need to figure out how to mass produce them because they’re such cool pets. They don’t require anything, they don’t eat anything, and if they do eat, it’s thrilling because there’s blood and everything because they eat fish.
I had my little motorcycle and I made a special attachment on the motorcycle for a net and cans so that I could put my diving beetles in them.
It was very early on when I knew I liked nature. I learned birds, mostly with my dad, and we knew all the birds around and most plants. I also worked later on in college in Papua New Guinea with parataxonomists, and these people know very little about the modern world, but they know a lot about their natural world. I felt like that because I knew all the shapes and colors and behaviors and everything, but I didn’t have names for those things. It was relatively easy when I was in college, and I took botany, ornithology and entomology – I simply slapped those Latin names on things I already knew well, and that was it. I didn’t really have a problem learning all that stuff because I already kept half of that stuff in my home in cages before or had collected them as road kill.
Do you have any memorable classroom moments from middle school?
What I remember vividly was the tendency of my teachers to dumb things down and not respond to complicated questions and not be inquisitive. They distinctly suppressed challenging students. If I suspected that there was something not quite right with what the teacher said, I was typically shut down. I thought that was what school was about. And if you don’t know any other system – if all you know is that teachers are the people that teach you from textbooks and they typically tell you to shut up if you have other questions – that’s just what education is, right, when you don’t know anything else. It wasn’t until later in college when I actually discovered that there was something like The Unknown that you can explore. There are questions that you can ask that people don’t know the answer to, but will be excited if you ask them. There are people genuinely interested in you if you have questions, rather than in middle school and high school — which, where I grew up in the Czech Republic, was full of teachers who were very disinterested in discussions. These were some of my most formative moments, sadly, in early education.
Now you’re a scientist, you ask all of these wonderful questions, you’re participating in citizen science, you’re bringing kids into your research experience… what changed? Was there something that happened where you said, This is not how science is supposed to be, I’m going to do something different?
I don’t know that there is every any special lucky Eureka! moment for that. I think all Eureka! moments are actually accumulations of prior knowledge and then suddenly establishing a connection. So it’s all development; it’s all slow realization of what needs to be done and what’s important. As far as I can see, the biggest threat to a science-based and empirically intelligent society is ignorance. And ignorance will prevail if we don’t force people to think and experience the environment around them. And force them, essentially, grab them by their necks when they are still young and formative and keep them outside. And tell them, “Hey, this is really cool.” Get them to stop thinking about mosquitoes and mud – because that’s going to become the norm – and they can stop thinking about that as the proxy for nature – and start thinking about more interesting patterns and interesting organisms and things like that. It’s quite challenging here in Florida where half of the year you really don’t want to go outside because something either stings you or bites you or strangles you in the woods or it’s really hot and unpleasant… but at the same time there is such an incredible diversity of everything. It’s like things are screaming at you from the forests whenever you step out of the car or from the A/C units. It’s incredible.
I think all Eureka! moments are actually accumulations of prior knowledge and then suddenly establishing a connection. So it’s all development; it’s all slow realization of what needs to be done and what’s important.
My challenge now is with my kids, actually. They are kind of like my experimental animals. I’m looking at what makes children tolerate the unpleasant parts of nature. And how can we overcome that so we can start seeing the cool parts of nature. I don’t quite know the results yet; the experiment is still ongoing because one of the experimental animals is two years old and one is six months old, so we are still at the very beginning [Jiri laughs this time, too.] On the big, almost metaphysical level, why I’m so interested in participating in citizen science and supportive if my students want to participate in that is really the fear of an uneducated society. The amazing benefits that we are reaping from the past 300 years of research can easily go away if people are dumb. That scares me. I’d like to make sure that education, science and research remains the driver of our society and also that people enjoy it. There is so much more enjoyment in understanding things rather than just believing in stuff. A little too philosophical, isn’t it.
You said your village had 40 people in it. Was your school in the same area or did you have to travel? How did you get to school?
The middle school was five kilometers away, which is like three miles away. If the bus didn’t go, we just walked. In the mornings we were able to pick the pears on the trees by the side of the road – it was a different world. I don’t see a single parent around me now who would send their kids on foot to school three miles away. It was important for many reasons; one is you stop complaining about little nuisances. If it’s hot, no problem, take your shirt off. If it’s cold, it’s cold, just keep walking. A little teeny bit of environmental hardship makes people more prepared for enjoying the real interesting stuff because then you can stop thinking about these little annoying things like cold and warm… You have to walk – there’s no bus – you can’t just wait for another one. That was important too, the fact that it was even difficult to get there. It was pretty fun in the winter because there was this hill out of our village – our little place was in the bottom of a hole, essentially, the road was up the hill. In the winter sometimes we would pour water on the road and the road would freeze over. The bus would slide into the ditch and not go – and it was awesome! It actually happened a couple of times… but I don’t know if that was public knowledge. My school environment was not a cuddly environment at all.
In the mornings we were able to pick the pears on the trees by the side of the road – it was a different world. I don’t see a single parent around me now who would send their kids on foot to school three miles away.
The first two years of my middle school was under a communist teacher who would rip off American flags if anyone had them on their shirts. The second two years of my middle school was completely confused because people didn’t really know what to do. We were supposed to start learning English and things like that, but there were no teachers. There was no guidance, nothing.
Biology was taught by someone who was educated to be a veterinary technician – you can imagine the biases. That was not fun. At that point I knew way more about animals around than our teacher. What I really wanted most to do was to hang out in that cabinet – the room behind the classroom – which had all the taxidermy animals and all the old pictures of insects and landscapes and plants. It was stuffy and dusty and things were being eaten by booklice, but they were there and it was amazing. And nobody, ever, brought anything to the classroom. It seemed to be a remnant from past ages when teachers were educated people who actually cared about their job. Then our society went downward and the intelligent people generally left or did not take teaching jobs. The teachers we had were not interested in making it experience based. The stuffed animals never made it out and I was very sad. I love stuffed animals, I still have a house full of them right now. My wife tolerates them.
Did you collect anything when you were young?
Yes – I had a big insect collection. I didn’t know how to stuff animals but I had an older gentleman acquaintance who stuffed a lot of animals for me. My insect collection was horrible – it was unlabeled and I didn’t know how to pin them. I didn’t know how to kill those insects – I would put them in a jar and pour rubbing alcohol on them and they would be walking in there for a week. Eventually they would die and I would stick one of my mom’s clothespins through them and put them in a box. That was my insect collection.
At some point my dad realized I was a hopeless case and was really interested in bugs. He started to support it and brought me to a large entomology meeting in Prague. There’s a really rich community of entomologists in the Czech Republic. There are large meetings every year in Prague where there are thousands of people obsessed with bugs, meeting and swapping them. A lot of those folks are kids and they get the experience that even serious adult people are interested in insects, which is a very important thing for a kid to see, I think. I got to see that and I got to befriend an amateur entomologist who had a big collection and he helped me see how things were pinned and mounted. He was an important person in my scientific development.
Jiri Hulcr is the resident Forest Entomologist at the University of Florida (and a Dunn lab alum) who has just recently launched Backyard Bark Beetles. He maintains his research website all about beetles: Ambrosia Symbiosis.