George Uetz, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, has been teaching Bearcats for 43 years. He has a plethora of honors and positions under his belt — he’s worked with the Animal Behavior Program with the National Science Foundation (NSF), is the executive editor of the scholarly journal “Animal Behaviour” and much more. Uetz earned his fame trying to decipher patterns among sexual communication, female preference and other aspects of social behavior in spiders.
Uetz reflects back onto his upbringing and the events have led up to his extensive career with spider social behavior. His significant career in research is not shy of sacrifices and obstacles. Uetz expresses his initial fascination with animals and insects, as well as his upbringing in Philadelphia, that founded his motivation to ultimately become one of the most cited arachnologists in the science.
The News Record: Do you ever get reflective about how long it’s taken to get here?
George Uetz: When you get to my age you get reflective a lot. We’ve had a couple of times we’ve been on TV with BBC, NOVA nature programs. You see this minute or thirty seconds on this animal or that behavior, and now I know that that minute or those thirty seconds took like four days! One of the experiences that I had that I thought was very informative was that research on animal behavior is portrayed on TV specials as “nature” whereas the rest of scientific research is portrayed as “science.” You don’t think that means anything, but I realized certainly within the administrative hierarchy of the NSF, it diminishes the value of the science. It’s an enormous amount of work; so is molecular biology, it’s just different.
TNR: How would you describe the impacts of your research in science?
GU: I’d like to think one of my career achievements is that I was one of the first to go into the arachnid world, the arachnology world and bring modern scientific approaches to the study of spiders. Up until then it was all systematics: this species, that species, a list of species from here, a list of species from there. But a couple of us felt that “Hey these are really interesting animals; we want to study their ecology in a quantitative way with statistics.” My whole career has been about adding to that database of knowledge.
TNR: You’re famous for your work with the subject animal of spiders and their behavior. Do you know you have 10,000 citations?
GU: Really? Well thank you, that’s interesting to know. For me it’s been these seminal events, like walking into zoology lab on the first day of college and seeing all of those invertebrates. I signed up for invertebrate zoology and was completely gobsmacked by that. And then the professor said, “We’ve got this visiting guy teaching a course on arthropods, you should take that.” Turns out that the guy, Dr. Alan Brady, was the first PhD. arachnologist to graduate from Harvard under Herb Levi, the Father of Arachnology in North America. I was interested in the insects, I didn’t like spiders — I was scared of them. I learned a lot about spiders and I really thought that they were fascinating so I would read everything I could get my hands on about spiders.
TNR: Do you think you put that because animal behavior is a thankless role? Or did you put it because people romanticize animals?
GU: You’re right. There’s a book strangely titled “Sexual Selections” by Marlene Zuk. Knowing Marlene Zuk, I bought her book and knowing her sense of humor I thought it’d be a funny book. It’s not a funny book at all. It’s about how men and women perceive science and are interested in things and how their work is perceived. I had one student who left my lab in a huff saying, “Well, I came here to study animal behavior and I want to work with real animals.” These are real animals. I snapped back and said, “You know the reason all those people in Montana are tracking grizzly bears is so they know how many to shoot!” A lot of wildlife biology is based on keeping track on animal populations.
TNR: If this isn’t about romanticizing animals or prestige, what is it about for you?
GU: There’s a couple of threads of motivation in my life. One of them is a line from a movie. Have you ever seen the movie “Rocky” with Sylvester Stallone? It is a classic. So, Rocky Balboa, he’s a leg breaker for the mob and he doesn’t really like being a leg breaker. He’s a tough guy, he’s an athlete, he’s a boxer. Throughout the movie, I didn’t really think I’d identify with it. But that’s where I come from. And the one line that comes from that movie that I always remember is, and I’ll try to do my best Sylvester Stallone…
“I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t just another bum from the neighborhood.”
And it’s something about coming from behind. I took one of my students to the east coast to look at horseshoe crabs and we stopped by my house to visit my mom and she sent us on an errand down the street to get something. And then my student — who did not come from a familiar background — had said, “I’m shocked to see this. I have a whole new appreciation.”
TNR: What do you think is fascinating about spiders?
GU: Spiders are subject to natural and sexual selection simultaneously. So, they become quite fascinating in terms of their ability to communicate with each other, which is my subject matter. I used to go to this ice cream stand, it was called “The Ocean Drive-in,” but it was a custard stand. I would go over there without getting ice cream, they had these lights over there, and I would collect the insects coming from the lights. I got interested in animals and nature because we got to spend summer on the Jersey Shore. My long-standing joke about myself is that I spent school with sharks and the jets, and I spent the summer with the beach boys. And I finally settled with the beach boys.
TNR: I know it’s taken lots of years and lots of work to get where you are. Have there been any hard sacrifices for this career?
GU: Yes. One I think that stands out is that I’ve been away from home at some very crucial times. And there’s a sacrifice for my wife too — she has to take care of everything while I’m gone. I don’t have any children, it’s not the reason I don’t have children, but it certainly is a factor. But those are the kind of sacrifices you make.
TNR: How do you reflect on those sacrifices? How do you move on?
GU: I just do. You have to forgive yourself. And my wide, she is very forgiving. Those are the things you remember. Nothing really terrible has happened [but] there’s been some big scares. I just rely on the lines from songs — “You gotta suffer if you wanna sing the blues.” I think the sacrifice for me is going to be retirement. It’s just life, life goes on. Sometimes things happen along the way, I just can’t imagine what I’d do if I wasn’t a professor doing research.