Scientific mentors: celebrating John Hermanson on his retirement

As a professor, one is trying to excel in so many ways– as a scientist, a data analyst, an academic scholar, a team manager, a teacher, a mentor, and for many of us, a parent. Each role could be its own full-time job, but we are expected to be excellent at all of them at the same time. The challenge of this career makes me reflect with awe and gratitude for my mentors who did this job so well, with such hard work that was unappreciated by me at the time, and whose trail of footprints I try my best to follow and extend. Over the next few months (or more realistically years), I would like to write a series of (very) occasional posts about my scientific mentors and their positive impacts on me.

I wrote this first one to celebrate John Hermanson who just retired last month after 35 years at Cornell University. He was one of my two faculty research mentors when I was undergrad (the other was Irby Lovette, who was also wonderful). John was a professor in biomedical sciences and zoology, an expert on the muscles underlying bat flight, and avid fan of bats and bat research. John had been teaching anatomy to Cornell vet students since I was 4 years old, and he is surely one of the reasons that the Cornell Vet School is often considered the best in the country. 

I first met ‘Prof. Hermanson’ during my first year in college, when I was meeting with faculty because I wanted to join a research lab. I recall two things distinctly. First I remember being intimidated. I understood less than half of what he was saying about his research, even though it was obvious he was trying hard to make it sound as simple and non-technical as possible. I also remember being a little grossed out. If I remember correctly, one ‘success story’ involved a surgery redirecting a dog’s salivary duct into its eye to keep it from going blind. I recall just nodding and trying to not look grossed out as he told me this.

Second, I remember another meeting with his then-PhD student Dan Riskin, who started pulling jars of preserved specimens of bats (from around the world) off the shelves in the lab and then quizzing me on what they were. As a total bat freak for my entire childhood, it was like I had been preparing for this moment my whole life. (Recently something similar happened in one of my own lab meetings, when one of the new undergraduates in my lab was impressively able to identify many different species from photos. Being the ‘professor’ in that moment felt like I had come full circle!)

John’s research was asking questions about what makes bats such amazing athletes with such incredible endurance for sustained flight. The parts of his research that I understood at the time really blew my mind, but much of that was just his explanations of some basics of anatomy and muscle physiology. I was impressed by the compelling nature of the unanswered questions. 

Although John was an expert on bat flight, two of his PhD students, Bill Schutt and later Dan studied how vampire bats moved on the ground, including their explosive jumping and how they crawled. More than anyone else I’ve met, John really understood the anatomy and physiology of bats at all levels from the molecules to cells to the biomechanics of movement. His knowledge helped instill in me an appreciation for ‘within-individual’ organismal biology, beyond my primary interests in the ‘among-individual’ perspectives of ecology and social behavior.

Notably, John Hermanson was the first person that made me realize that I don’t have to believe what I read in a scientific paper. I remember we were discussing a paper and he said “I don’t really buy this.” I was a bit confused because, at the time as a first year undergraduate, I was still under the naïve impression that a peer-reviewed scientific paper was describing a new scientific “fact”. This moment with John was at the beginning of my journey of becoming increasingly skeptical and critical of arguments in papers (and eventually on to the cynical curmudgeon I am today that doesn’t believe almost anything I read anywhere…but that happened later and gradually, so I can’t really blame John).

I somehow inserted myself into John and Dan’s fieldwork in Trinidad, which was my first time doing fieldwork. I actually flew to Trinidad before they did, to try and find the vampire bats (and I just ended up getting lost in the rainforest, but that’s another story). The word “transformative” is probably over-used, but this really was a transformative experience in my life. Spending time in the field with just one faculty member and one PhD student is probably the best way for an undergraduate to be introduced to research in biology (I am deeply saddened by the pandemics impact on our ability to do fieldwork and train students). John and Dan taught me how to catch bats in mist nets, handle them, collect basic measurements, and perform experiments.

John and Dan taking a bat from a mist net
John and I setting up an experiment on walking vampire bats in Trinidad, 2003

I was their field assistant on experiments on bat terrestrial locomotion, and I was also doing my own independent research on trying to sequence DNA from vampire bat feces (mind you this was back in 2003 before anyone had used DNA to identify bat prey). These field trips were really fun and exciting. We got bats to walk on force plates and a treadmill to describe how they walked. We discovered that vampire bats have a running gait which is convergent with other running animals.

Dan and John’s study on running vampire bats was published in Nature, forever setting an unrealistic expectation in my mind for how easy it is to discover something exciting enough to publish in that journal. 

John was extraordinarily generous. Even though I had my own funding from a research scholarship, he always paid for everything for me–all my housing and food and everything we purchased in Trinidad. He spent a lot of time coaching through things. He was always patient and kind with me.

John was also one of the least neurotic people I have ever met. He didn’t seem to get worked up about anything. When Dan and I gave a talk at a meeting, we would practice it several times to ourselves and to each other until it was perfect. When John gave a talk, I don’t think he practiced at all, but he would just be so relaxed and have such interesting things to say and such a great sense of humor that it would be this great talk even if he didn’t get through all his slides. 

John really loved fieldwork. The atmosphere with John and Dan was always one of working hard but also joking around a lot. Everything was funny and fun. It made it easy to get through challenging parts. We worked really hard for long hours. Nobody ever told me to work hard. I just saw the work ethic that was a necessary requirement of getting things done during a summer field season. One of things I learned early on in research was that hard work was tiring but not stressful or difficult. It’s failing to get things done that is actually stressful and psychologically difficult. It is joyful to work hard and get things done.

John and I in Trinidad, 2004
In Belize, 2010

The last time I spent time with John, just this year, we were staying up late into the night trying to catch vampire bats in Belize (image below). I say ‘trying’ because it was raining and also the vampires had switched their roosts from previous years, so we waited all night catching nothing. But John was still enjoying himself. You could tell he just liked sitting quietly in the dark in the rainforest. This was the last year before his retirement, and he was here helping with a project led by other young researchers. It was his research vacation, and I think he was there purely for the joy.

Setting up a harp trap for vampire bats in Belize, 2021

There is another moment that had a big impact on me. When I was an undergraduate at my first scientific conference, we were sitting in the hotel room and John said to me: “I think you’ll be a professor someday, and you’ll have to decide whether you want to be at a bigger research university or a smaller college. I think you’ll want to be at a bigger research university…” He said this all so casually and nonchalantly, as if it was no big deal, just thinking out loud. But to me it sounded ridiculous. I only remember thinking, “It is interesting that after all this time you still don’t realize how incompetent I am. Perhaps I need to be more explicit about that.” (I still have that thought regularly). But John clearly believed I had potential and that had a big impact.

A final aspect of John that influenced how I perceived a life in science is that John was always a ‘family man’. One of his most admirable traits was just not caring too much about stuff that didn’t matter, and focusing on what did matter. His wife and his two sons James and Max were always in the mix. He talked about them all the time, and always in this way that you could tell how much he loves them and how important they are to his life. The dry-erase board outside his office had kid drawings of monsters all over them. Every time I’ve seen John at bat meetings, he updates me about his family and asks me about mine. He set this implicit norm that science is fun, but family matters most. I think this is something that Dan and I didn’t fully understand until we had kids of our own. When I do occasionally talk with John, there is always this ‘work-life-balance’ clarity of priorities in the conversation. After I gave a talk at Cornell, he wrote me saying: “Anyway, great talk.  People seemed pleased. Hope we catch up before long. How are you guys doing? How is family life?” In another email replying to me complaining about some frustration at work, he told me, “Keep your focus on family. They’ll remember your name longer than anyone at the university.” He is a mentor not just as a scientist but also in being the kind of dedicated father I would like to be.

John and his two kids in Trinidad, 2003

As I write this, many of us are thinking about families as we process the recent school shooting in Uvalde Texas. Recently, the son of one of John’s friends tragically died. John told me this because I worked for the bereaved father while I was an undergrad. I could tell it deeply affected John and he wrote to me about how that death and the deaths of several other young people his kids knew had taken a toll on him. One of the faculty members in my department recently lost their child this year. I cannot imagine, and I hope to never find out – what it is like to lose a child. But the thought solidifies in me the truth of John’s ‘family first’ perspective. In today’s world, it’s way too easy to get too engrossed and lost in abstract thoughts and faraway things–the latest bad news, frustrations in politics and work, the nonsense of social media. What really matters most in our experience of our brief life is the connections we build with others. 

Science too, as a practice, is made of people. We are a community trying to help each other learn about and make sense of the world. Much of what we teach in science goes against the personal intuitions and ideological biases that we accrue from the rest of our life and education. We have to train each generation with a set of practical and epistemological tools, including how to be analytical, rational, critical, and ethical. There is beauty in this mission to understand the world and its wonders, but also beauty in the relationships and mentorships you develop with other scientists– over days, weeks, years… decades? Wow, it has been two decades since I met Dan and John. I am sure I would not be where I am now if not for them.

Thanks so much John. I hope you enjoy your retirement and spend time with the things and people that you love!

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