Richard Lawrence Hoffman
Director of Research & Collections
Curator, Recent Invertebrates
Virginia Museum of Natural History
Studies, University of Virginia
Entomology, Cornell University
Zoology, Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University
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
"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."
fields of biology do you work in?
When did you know you wanted to become a Biologist?
Probably in the 8-9 year old range, if not
What was your college experience like?
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.
Did you incorporate work experiences while you were an undergrad?
One summer at Virginia Fisheries Laboratory
between junior and senior years, but no T.A. or other academic-related
How did you get your first job?
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).
What's the most rewarding thing about being a Biologist?
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
Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you've
worked on has positively impacted the world?
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.
Do you spend a fair amount of time traveling?
No. Previously (1960-2000) I made 18 research
visits to Europe, also to Brazil, Costa Rica, Jamaica, etc.
Do you have a mentor? Or did you in your college years?
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.
Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
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.
Do you find you are able to balance work with social/family life while
working in your current job?
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.
If you had to do it all over again, would you still become a Biologist?
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.
Did you think that school prepared you for the way the work gets done in
the real world?
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
Where do you see jobs for Biologists in the future? What should students
be doing to prepare themselves to take on those roles?
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.
What other advice do you have for precollege students?
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