I had the wonderful opportunity to

[virtually] meet Joan Herbers this past week and talk about her life as a middle school student and pick her brain about her winding career path. Read on to learn how this preeminent social insect ecologist maintained her individualism while growing up with 12 brothers and sisters, gained a strong appreciation for educators and mentors, and how, at six-years-old, she taught math to nuns.

Lea: Just to set the scene for middle school let’s think about where you were and what things were like for you.

Joan: I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and I went to Catholic school there at St. Gabriel the Archangel. I’ll talk about fourth grade because that was a real watershed year for me. First thing is: I was completely annoyed that my older brother, Paul, who is 11 months older than me, was able to skip fourth grade and I was not. When I complained bitterly to my mother about this she said, “Joan, you’re a year younger.” She kept me back for the right reasons – the social reasons – but I was completely annoyed about this. So, there I was, slogging away in fourth grade and my older brother, Paul, was able to skip to fifth grade [she rolls her eyes], and I was really mad. But that’s neither here nor there.

Fourth grade was also an important year because that’s also when the music program revved into high gear. They started a band and hired a nun to teach strings. We all came home very excited about this and mom and dad asked us, “What instrument do you want to play?” and I said, “I want to play the trombone!” My mother said, “Too bad, your brother already picked that – you have to play something else. How about the violin?” And I said, “Oh, mom, how about the trombone?” She came back, “Sorry, Paul’s already picked the trombone,” – the same brother that skipped the fourth grade – “You play the violin.” I said, “O.K…..” [rolling her eyes] But I’m so glad that she pushed me in that direction because I still play violin to this day; I play in string quartets on the weekends. So, sometimes moms do know best! [laughs]

Let me go back a little bit to first and second grade when my brother Paul and I were sharing the same schoolroom. A new math was being introduced to the curriculum and this was back in the late 1950s – I don’t even know what “new math” was back then. We were both really good in math and so the nuns who were in charge of our school asked Paul and me to be the guinea pigs to go down to the other school to teach the other nuns about “new math.” I remember Paul and me going to these rooms full of nuns who were math teachers in the local school system and going through various math and arithmetic drills to demonstrate how to do “new math.”

[T]he nuns who were in charge of our school asked Paul and me to be the guinea pigs to go down to the other school to teach the other nuns about “new math.”

What was that like being the student leader and teaching the nuns about math as six and seven-year-olds?

It felt completely cool because we were singled out and my brother Paul and I have had a healthy competition our whole lives. Being able to be in the same arena as my older brother was really cool. I was a bit of a tomboy, so being considered at the same level as my brother who was eleven months older than me was pretty cool, too.

What was your biggest worry when you were in middle school?

I don’t remember worrying about a lot of the things that you hear that girls worry about. I’ve never had a self-confidence problem. I think that’s because of the family in which I grew up. I’m one of a very large family – I’m the third oldest of 13 children. So that gave me a leadership role inside the family. The fact that my brother and I had this healthy competition going along meant that I always felt pretty sure about where I was, because if I was as good as Paul, I must be pretty good altogether. And my parents somehow, I don’t know how they did it, but they channeled all the competition among all 13 of us into academic competition. We always wanted to get better grades than the other kids. I remember this particularly when we took the Iowa Tests of Educational Development, a standardized test that was very popular in the 1950s and 60s. Every school kid in our system took it. We always compared our grades on the Iowa tests. Most of the time we were all in the 98th and 99th percentile, which was pretty cool. Academics was really important to me – getting good grades was really important. Practicing the violin? Not so much. I didn’t like to practice, but I liked to play. I played in a little local string orchestra, and I played the piano as well. At home we were always playing music – duets and so on.

The locus of my self-esteem was my family. It was not my friends, it was not a community, it was my family.

I’m one of a very large family – I’m the third oldest of 13 children. So that gave me a leadership role inside the family.
You spoke about how important your family influence is on you – what did your parents want you to be when you grew up and what did they do?

First of all, it was assumed that we would go to college. That was not an option – going to college was what we were going to do. They didn’t care very much about what we studied. My mom was a nurse before she had all those kids and she had graduated from a college nursing program. My dad was self-employed. He had his undergraduate degree in accounting and was a certified public accountant and went to law school for a little bit and never finished, but he didn’t like accounting very much. He had an opportunity to buy a business and that’s what he did – he was a self-employed businessman. We grew up hearing about business and the health sciences, but they didn’t really channel us in any particular direction. As a result amongst the 13 of us I think three majored in languages, I was the only one to major in biology, we had somebody who studied nutrition, business, it was all over the map.

Do you remember any specifics about what type of support they provided for you – maybe things that they said to you – that made you feel comfortable and confident to pursue what you wanted?

When I was in sixth or seventh grade I got really interested in a particular math problem – I cannot tell you what that math problem was – but I remember that my mom sat down and worked with me on that math problem. We came up with an algorithm to solve that math problem. I thought it was great that we came up with a solution together. My mom was good at math and my dad was good at the languages and history. That was the only time I remember my mom actively helping us with our schoolwork other than checking our arithmetic.

But my dad – if we had a school project that we needed to do – he would go to the library, he would get whatever resources we needed to do the project. When I was in ninth grade we had to do a project and I decided I wanted to do it on Australia. My father wrote to the embassy and got all kinds of information about Australia for me. He didn’t read the stuff; he just gave it to me and provided those resources. That was a very typical event. My dad – whenever we came home from school on the first day he wanted to look at the reading list for our courses to see what we were reading that semester; he did for our college and high school courses. There was that kind of encouragement all the way through – that what we were studying in school was really important and lifelong learning was implied although never really spoken about.

There was that kind of encouragement all the way through – that what we were studying in school was really important and lifelong learning was implied although never really spoken about.
Did you then discuss what you were going over in class at the dinner table? I’m imagining a giant dinner table.

A lot. [nods head] A lot. A lot. A lot. We talked about books, we talked about history… and to this day when my siblings get together we talk about all that kind of stuff. Our respective spouses just kind of watch us do this [laughs]. I have a brother who is a Civil War buff, and my own husband is really into World War I – they’ll talk about all that stuff. The sisters like to talk about fiction that we enjoy. Politics and religion are usually off the table because there are strong differences in opinion, but on just about any other topic we have intellectual discussions as a family, which pleases us all a great deal.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

In middle school we had very little science. I don’t remember a single thing about any science class except learning about clouds. We didn’t have any other science whatsoever in grade school – so I can’t say that science was every anything that I cared about. I did my professional work on ants and I hated bugs as a kid, so I wasn’t one of those kids that collected bugs and studied them – that was not for me. But math was it – I really loved math. I liked the language arts, I loved English, loved writing… so I would say that of all those subjects, from the very early days, studying math was what drew me into studying science as an adult the most.

What was it about math that really “got you?”

It was problem solving – and that’s what science is: problem solving. I remember my dad is an inveterate book buyer. He would find used bookstores that were going out of business and basically buy out the whole stock. We had just an enormous amount of books around the house. One of the books he bought was a very early tutorial book on computer programming about algorithms. I just found that fascinating; that you could think about algorithms as a way to study complex problems. I thought that was the coolest thing on this Earth. I continued taking math and the math I didn’t really like in high school was geometry – for some reason geometry was really hard for me. Algebra? No problem. Trigonometry? No problem. Pre-calculus? No problem. But geometry threw me for a loop. In college I minored in math and in graduate school I continued taking math courses. Math is a pretty persistent thread.

I just found that fascinating: that you could think about algorithms as a way to study complex problems.
Were you in any clubs, have any hobbies or join any extra-curricular activities?

We talked about music already, which was very important, and continues to be important in my family – when we get together, we play music. I was terrible at sports, but I still played sports. I was a softball player – I was the third string catcher – I was absolutely terrible at it, but I liked it. With my family we played wiffle ball in the backyard, that kind of stuff. I read, read, read, read, read, read, read ALL. THE. TIME. My sister, Mary Ruth, and I (she was two years younger) – we were notorious for hogging the bathroom with a book. So we would go in there and read a book and nobody else could get in the bathroom. We were really bad about this. As a family we played an awful lot of board games. Monopoly, Risk, Clue, Sorry… and a lot of card games… playing those games reinforced a lot of the academically focused stuff that we did. We weren’t allowed to watch much TV, although my brothers became addicted to Gilligan’s Island [laughs]! I thought that was a stupid show, but anyways.

My mom made us go outside. In the summer months there were just too many kids – she would take a loaf of bread, make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches out of the whole loaf, give us a two gallon jug of Kool-Aid and say, “Get out of the house and don’t come back until at least 4:00.” So off we’d go to the park, which was only two blocks away, and we just did stuff. I don’t know what we did all day long.

That was my childhood. Being part of the group was important. Being independent and individualistic was also important. Those were some of the forces that shaped me.

How did you express your individuality in your family when you were that age?
[without hesitation]Well… I was pretty snotty. [laughs] I still, to this day, like to show off – I will admit that. Normal one-upmanship was part of the dynamic in our family. Among the 13 children we all studied music, but some of us were really into it more than others. I am one of only three that continue to play seriously as an adult. That subset within the family that really wanted to play music seriously was part of my identity as well.

Did you ever think that you would become a scientist? What did you think that scientists did all day?

In middle school I never thought about being a scientist. I thought I would be a nun, I thought I would be a teacher, I thought maybe a nurse like my mom… but that was not something I worried a whole lot about. It was not something that people around us stressed. You grew up and you did stuff. I took my first biology class during my sophomore year in high school. I had a wonderful teacher, you probably hear this over and over again, how a single teacher can really affect the way that young minds develop. Sister Alfonse was her name, and she taught us biology and she taught us really, really well. That’s when I started thinking more seriously about becoming a biologist and by the time I was a senior in high school I knew that’s what I wanted to study in college. So I did that and never saw a reason to deviate from that pathway.

I had a wonderful teacher, you probably hear this over and over again, how a single teacher can really affect the way that young minds develop.
If you could give your middle school self, or your younger self, some advice what would you tell yourself?

Listen to other people more. I have always been pretty headstrong and confident – that’s a two-edged sword. Listen to other people’s ideas; other people might have an equally valid point of view – that was hard for me as a kid. I continue to deal with that as an adult.

There are other ways to move through the world than the one that you have chosen.

What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?

I think that I’ve been able to travel as much as I have. When I was growing up we camped for family vacations. We went as far away as Colorado. If you can imagine a station wagon with 12 kids crammed in there hauling a trailer full of camping gear… I mean my parents were nuts to do this. The idea of international travel was beyond me.  It’s been such a gift as an adult to be able to go all around the world. Next week I’m heading to Australia for a conference. I think that would have really surprised me as a kid – how much scientists get to travel and how much fun it is to travel.

If you can imagine a station wagon with 12 kids crammed in there hauling a trailer full of camping gear… I mean my parents were nuts to do this.
I see that you’re in your office – are there any mementos that you keep in your office from your childhood?
[looks around] No! I have plenty from my kids, but not from my childhood.

When did you go to your first concert? What band or artist was playing?

My first concert would have been in grade school because there was a program with the St. Louis Symphony. We got on a bus and went to a suburban high school and heard the St. Louis Symphony play. I thought that was great – I don’t know what they played – but I thought it was great. My first rock concert – I was in college. I saw Tina Turner! [laughs] She’s doing the same act now. She’s amazing.

You talked about how much you liked to read – what were some of your favorite books?

My favorite book as a kid was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I adored that book – I think because I identified with the protagonist, Maggie. I’ve read it about a bazillion times. I have virtually everything Madeleine L’Engle wrote and she wrote a lot of really good books, but A Wrinkle in Time is absolutely at the top. The other thing I really liked at that age was fairy tales. The Andrew Lang Fairy Book series of about 15 books in which Andrew Lang compiled fairy tales from around the world – and they’re still in print. I read every single one over and over again, I don’t know why. I didn’t like Little House on the Prairie… I read a few Nancy Drew books, that’s about it.

Did you collect anything?

No. I still don’t. We didn’t have room in our house for collections of anything – it was something that was actively discouraged by my mother. [I did, however, notice a healthy collection of conference name badges hanging on a hook just over her shoulder, as a reminder of all the places she’s traveled and people she’s met and impacted, no doubt.]

Changing pace a little bit, have you ever had a professional crisis and thought about throwing in the towel to do something other than science?

Oh, sure. Let me share two stories with you on that score. The first was when I met my husband when I was in graduate school. He was a postdoc at Northwestern University. He was not happy in his postdoc so he went to the University of California, Irvine and a year later I got a postdoc at Stanford. We weren’t married at the time, so we commuted back and forth. We were in love and wanted to live together. We both hit the job market and I was the only one to get a job – it was at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont, which is a beautiful place. Tom was offered a soft money position as a research assistant professor (meaning his job security depended on grant funding, and was not really a permanent position). So there we went thinking that we would try to figure out our lives there or leave when the right situation came up. So for the next three years we were thinking about long-term plans – can we get two jobs in the same place? Getting more and more discouraged about this, and I was ready to quit and go back to business school and get an MBA so I could work anywhere while he pursued the science thing. Fortunately for us, the last idea we had was to go to the University of Vermont and take my full-time position and split it into two half-time positions with the other half to go to Tom, and that’s what they ended up doing. We came up with a creative mechanism, and they bought into it, so we were then half-time, tenure-track for the next 11 years. We got tenured and promoted all the way to full professor. And then it was time for us to move on. That was the first vignette. The fact that Tom and I really wanted to stay together, but were really struggling to make that happen was when I first seriously thought about leaving science.

The second career crisis I had was not of my making, in my opinion. I was recruited here to The Ohio State to become the Dean of the College of Biological Sciences and six years ago the higher-ups decided to merge five colleges into one, and they fired me… well, they asked me to resign. So now I’m a faculty member at The Ohio State University. I wouldn’t say it put me into crisis, but made me seriously think about: Why did this hurt so much? What am I not going to be able to do that I really wanted to be able to do? Are there alternative pathways for me to continue to be productive and happy with my situation? So that was the second real serious professional crisis.

In what ways have you moved beyond that?

At about the same time that happened we received our grant from NSF through the ADVANCE Program (Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers) — a program within the National Science Foundation to promote gender equity in the STEM disciplines for faculty. As a dean I had helped write the grant with a large team and I was the principal investigator. That grant was funded right before I got fired and that gave me the new identity I needed. I decided to stop doing biological research, no longer work on ants, and turn my attention to issues of gender equity — which I’ve been doing for six years now, having a lot of fun and a lot of validation! As a senior woman in science I feel like I can do some things that I couldn’t do 30 years ago.

Who were some of your adult role models, and did you try to emulate them?

Sister Alfonse – my high school biology teacher – I certainly tried to emulate her. In college I had really important interactions as well with two faculty members. One who gave me the opportunity to do research and the other who really encouraged me. Those experiences all along the way are really important.

When I was minoring in math, at one point my statistics teacher called me into his office and said, “Why are you here?” I said, “Huh?” and he said, “It’s very unusual for biology students to take math at this level.” I said, “Well, I just really like it!” He said, “O.K., then!” So I didn’t realize it was that unusual, but I was having a lot of fun. Just hearing that it was unusual was important.

When I got to graduate school, I had a lot of the same impostor syndrome issues that other women had and still continue to have. At one point my major advisor, who was a very important influence and was very supportive, looked at me and said, “Joan – if you were a man, you’d be as arrogant as hell.” And I thought, What is he talking about? Now I know what he meant; the way women internalize things and the way men internalize things are really different. He was basically telling me that I was much better than I thought I was.

As a third year graduate student we got a new department chair. Her name was Nina Schwartz – she was phenomenally important to me. She was one of the founding mothers of the Association for Women in Science. She took it as a personal mission to work with all the female graduate students who were interested in learning about issues about women in science and she met with us every week. This was the department chair – she ran a lab, she ran a big department – but she met with women graduate students every week. And she published a book of memoirs and she wrote about that time. She says the thing she’s most proud of from that period is that every single one of us stayed and got our PhD’s. Because every single one of us was a dropout risk and she knew that, so that was tremendously important to me as well.

Because every single one of us was a dropout risk and she knew that, so that was tremendously important to me as well.
After having that influence and support while you were in graduate school, what types of support do you provide now to women in science?

It’s a different world now, of course, because half of our undergraduates in biology are women and just about half of our graduate students are women, too. So the problem of isolation is no longer there, but the psychological and social effects of having been reared in our society are still there. So things like the imposter syndrome and internalizing your failures and externalizing your successes – that’s all still there because that’s part of our societal upbringing. I’m happy to work with young women on those issues, and that’s a lot of what our local chapter for the Association for Women in Science does, but I find it much more gratifying to work with the faculty themselves to help them understand what these issues mean in their classrooms, in their laboratories, in their departments. Because if I can help the faculty who hold the culture challenge the culture, then we all win. In order to level the playing field, you need to do both those things. You need to challenge the prevailing culture, change the system, as well as enable individuals to succeed in what they want to do. I’ve done a lot of enabling of individuals throughout most of my career, and now I’m working on the systemic change that we need to have in order to get where we want to go.

You need to challenge the prevailing culture, change the system, as well as enable individuals to succeed in what they want to do.
How much have your successful discoveries were due to chance?
[laughs] As Edison says, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Um… [she looks out her window] There is chance involved in every career, we all accept that, and know that, but at the same time you also have to make your own luck, a lot of times.

When I was a first year faculty member I had to come up with a research program that was going to get me tenure. The whole summer after my first year as a faculty member I decided I was going to spend it out in the woods just looking at ants and a research program was going to appear to me somehow, because that had kind of happened in miniature before. So I went out in the woods and I was looking at ants… I was very interested in looking at ants that lived in sticks and acorns and little tiny things.

I was cracking open a stick and I had a big kitty litter pan that I would put the content of the nests into and I could watch them all run around and collect them. I remember vividly the day when I opened a stick, cracked out the ants and looked in the pan and there were two queen ants running around in the pan from the same nest. I thought, Wow, that’s not supposed to happen – there’s only supposed to be one queen in an ant nest. I thought maybe something had happened. Twenty minutes later I opened up another stick and there were three queens in the pan. That’s when I had my aha moment, I thought  Oh my gosh, this isn’t supposed to happen, but it’s happened twice in one morning. I wonder if there’s a research problem here.

I continued to focus on that one genus of ants, it was a little genus called Leptothorax. Sure enough, all summer long, I was finding ant nests with many, many queens in them. I thought, O.K. this is it. I want to know why. I’m interested in this – and nobody has done this yet. I went back and read the literature and sure enough – this phenomenon had been described but nobody had asked “Why?” So that was it, I thought, This is what I’m going to work on, and if I can solve it – it’s going to get me tenure. And sure enough! It took me 15 years to get the answer to Why?”but along the way I made lots of other discoveries. That was an example of when I was trusting to chance to present something to me and it did.

I realized about 20 years ago – when I was a full professor and I was a department chair and I was publishing and getting grants and all that good stuff — that there was something that I hadn’t done yet that I’d really like to do. And that was to be an editor of a journal. I had done plenty of reviewing of manuscripts in grad school, but nobody had ever asked me to be on an editorial board and I thought, I wonder why nobody has asked me to be on an editorial board? That’s not right – I’m doing all this reviewing, I should be on the editorial board! So that’s when I decided that if I wanted that, I’ve got to do something about that. I wrote to a couple of the top journals in my field saying, “Here I am, here’s my C.V. (an academic resume), I’d love to join your editorial board if you have an opening.” And two of them didn’t reply and the third one did and so I got on that editorial board, and I’ve since been on a couple of others. So that was not a chance event, it was very deliberate. This was something that I wanted to do and nobody has asked me to do it yet, so I needed to figure out how to make it happen. So that was a self-directed, very non-chance-y, development in my career.

So chance, yes, chance is there. I have been lucky in some ways – I have made my own luck in other ways.

 So that’s when I decided: that if I wanted that, I’ve got to do something about that.
How often did somebody tell you that you were wrong? Are there any particular memories that stick out?

Oh, boy. Yeah – sure! And have I been stubborn and stuck to it? Of course! We all have war stories to tell. I’ll just tell you one war story; it’s not really about being wrong, but it is about going after something I really wanted in the face of fairly substantial opposition. This was as a freshman in college: my calculus class. It was taught by a misogynistic, Teutonic old white guy named Dr. Schrout. He was the typical “loved the guys, ignored the women” kind of math teacher. He made the point of being very stern about deadlines and exams [she says in her best stodgy Dr. Schrout impression] and exam dates and all that kind of stuff. One day in class he said,

“Don’t ask me to take the exam at another time. Don’t tell me your sob story. I’ll only let you out of taking an exam if it’s an excuse I haven’t heard before.” And he said, “The last time I heard an excuse I hadn’t heard before it was for somebody who wanted to go to the last public hanging in the state of Indiana.” And we all just laughed. Well, the second semester of calculus with him, my mother had her thirteenth child and I wanted to go home to see this baby. Virginia was just born and we had an exam scheduled on that Friday.

So I went into Dr. Schrout’s office and I said, “Doc Schrout, I know you don’t like to make exceptions, but I’d really appreciate it if I could take this exam on Thursday morning.”

And he went “HRMPH! What’s your reason, young woman?!”

And I said, “Well, my mother just had her thirteenth child and I want to go home.”

And his face was really funny and he said, “Hrmgh! HRMGH! Be in my office on nine o’clock on Thursday.” So he’d never heard that excuse before! [laughs] That was in 1971.

I can’t say that I’ve had people say, “You can’t do that.” Or “You shouldn’t try to do that.” But I’ve sort of gotten that message in other ways. I’ve certainly been told that I’m “Too smart for my looks.” Ugh, please.

Did you ever feel that you were somehow different from other children?

Probably and I think I reveled in that because my local environment in my family outweighed anything else. So, yeah, I was smart – I liked being smart.

Did you ever get into trouble when you were in school?
[cutting me off] All the time! [laughs] Talking… for being a bit of a smart aleck… I did my work and I did it well and I got away with a lot of stuff that I probably shouldn’t have.

What is a discovery that you have made that your middle school self would find interesting?

That mathematics is not just mathematics; that it underpins all of science. Learning math was the door to learning really cool biology. That is not something that many middle school students would understand.

Learning math was the door to learning really cool biology.
If you could have any super power what would it be, what would you do with it and why would you want it?

I would want peace in the Middle East. That’s a flip answer, but issues of social justice are really important to me, and I see that getting worse in today’s society instead of better. I guess the superpower I would like would be to travel back in time and take somebody with me who needs to know what it was like… back in the 1960’s or a hundred years ago when women didn’t have the vote, whatever it might be.


Dr. Joan Herbers is a professor at The Ohio State University. Her primary appointment is the Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology with a secondary appointment in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies. She’s been happily married to a biologist for 31 years and they have two children together – which reinforces that you can have a personal life and be a scientist, too. She considers being a mom a large part of her identity. Her daughter, Emily, is 30 and is on a dig in Greece right now and her son, David, is 27 and is a writer in the Communications department of an Ohio university. She is very proud of them – while they are different than their parents, they’re both happy, engaged and doing wonderful things. In her free time she plays chamber music two to four times a week, reads a lot, and doesn’t do sports.