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Biology Overview

Richard Lawrence Hoffman

Director of Research & Collections
Curator, Recent Invertebrates
Virginia Museum of Natural History
Martinsville, VA


Undergraduate Studies, University of Virginia
M.A., Entomology, Cornell University
Ph.D, Zoology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
Richard Lawrence Hoffman administers an agency division and supervises six curators.  He is also involved in the development of and research in a reference collection of Virginia arthropods and mollusks, and research on taxonomy and the distribution of Diplopoda globally.
"Young athletes devote most of their lives to achieving Olympic-grade skills. There is no reason why the same principle cannot be applied to intellectual goals. Try to be the best in your area."

What fields of biology do you work in?
Hoffman: Systematic Biology.

Q: When did you know you wanted to become a Biologist?
Hoffman: Probably in the 8-9 year old range, if not earlier.

Q: What was your college experience like?
Hoffman: Exceptionally irregular owing to bad study habits, Deans's List one quarter, academic probation the next. Unable to pass freshman math courses. Specialization in arthropod taxonomy largely self-taught; many published papers by senior year. 

Q: Did you incorporate work experiences while you were an undergrad?
Hoffman: One summer at Virginia Fisheries Laboratory between junior and senior years, but no T.A. or other academic-related work.

Q: How did you get your first job?
Hoffman: Applied at an ammunition factory just starting up with the Korean War, they were hiring everybody including college graduates, and at the time I had no other prospects aside from being drafted. First academic position was invitational, asked to apply by a friend who was department head at a time when college faculties were being rapidly enlarged (early 1960s).

Q: What's the most rewarding thing about being a Biologist?
Hoffman: In context of my specialty, the opportunity for endless, almost daily, new discoveries during inventories of the Virginia biota. As specialist in taxonomy of Diplopoda, the excitement and vast satisfaction to assemble large quantities of highly diverse information much of it new into a meaningful synthesis of a poorly-known group of organisms, in short, the joy of bringing order out of chaos. 

Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you've worked on has positively impacted the world?
Hoffman: Well, in a small way: infestation by a small alien species of milliped had rendered potato cultivation in the Cape Verde islands virtually impossible. In a search for biological control agents in the milliped's original homeland, pest control people were looking in the wrong African country because of a misidentification. When I got some material finally, I spotted exactly what the animal was and knew that it came from Angola and not Sierra Leon as previously guessed. I provided this information to the crop people and told them where to look for the pest's origin (and possibly controlling organisms). I do not know yet what effect this has had on the Cape Verdean potato situation. It is analogous to knowing what species of bacterium is causing an infection in order to select the best antibiotic. 

Q: Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
Hoffman: No. Previously (1960-2000) I made 18 research visits to Europe, also to Brazil, Costa Rica, Jamaica, etc.

Q: Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
Hoffman: Yes, my life was changed in my junior year by exposure to an outstanding young taxonomist who put my feet on the right path and by example became a lifelong role model in both academics and personal life style.

Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Hoffman: By choice and necessity I do much better solo. So much of my research yields data that can only be interpreted subjectively/intuitively, compromises with colleagues are rarely satisfactory. In fact, I deplore the modern tendency and glorification of team work, which seems to be a politically-correct way of dumbing down the gifted individual in favor of the pack. ALL of the basic knowledge in any science was won by people working alone.

Q: Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while working in your current job?
Hoffman: Yes. Right now, and for the past 30 years, my professional work has BEEN my life. When younger, I maintained a normal academic career, socialized with colleagues and friends, raised a family of three healthy and well-adjusted children, and conducted my research at night after the family went to bed.

Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Biologist?
Hoffman: Given the course of my professional life, I cannot imagine doing anything else. I only wish that I had more time left to complete the dozens of projects now on the drawing board, and hundreds more that I'd dearly love to make a start on. I pity anyone who doesn't feel the same way, and have no respect for those who work only 8 to 5 (or much less) and look forward to Friday.

Q: Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in the real world?
Hoffman: No. But that was in the 1945-55 era, and the real world that came later was a lot different. I was largely trained (or inspired) to be a generalist with the skills to know where and how to look for information regardless of career choice or specialization. I fear that modern education may be producing technicians rather than humanists.

Q: Where do you see jobs for Biologists in the future? What should students be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
Hoffman: I have in 50 years seen emphasis shifting from basic knowledge to applied knowledge, and "holistic" biology (formerly "natural history") phased out of college curricula in favor of highly specialized, narrow subjects. Students with a love for living things as total entities and not assemblages of molecular systems, should face having to pursue such interests as personal hobbies, and just bite the bullet to load up on math and chemistry courses.

Q: What other advice do you have for precollege students?
Hoffman: Young athletes devote most of their lives to achieving Olympic-grade skills. There is no reason why the same principle cannot be applied to intellectual goals. Try to be the best in your area.

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