December 31 marks the end of an era for insect pathologist Lee Solter. She will be retiring from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS), an organization she has dedicated more than 30 years of service to as a research scientist. Lee has also ably served as interim director of the INHS for the past two years.
"Lee stepped up to the interim director’s role at INHS at very difficult time (no budget!!!)," said Mark Ryan, executive director of the Prairie Research Institute, which oversees INHS as well as the state Water Survey, Archaeological Survey, Geological Survey, and Sustainable Technology Center. "Her leadership and advocacy for the survey have been exemplary. Her professionalism and integrity are of the highest order. I will very much miss working with her. My congratulations to her on an outstanding career and best wishes for the future."
In this interview, Lee recounts her early beginnings in science, highlights of her career at INHS, her reflections on the field of science, and her plans for retirement.
How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
Probably 3 or 4 years old. We lived on a farm in Virginia and my mother, an elementary school teacher and latent biologist, loved to turn over rocks in the creek. She taught me to look for and catch salamanders and crayfish, and allowed me to have turtles and lizards in boxes on the porch. My mom would also catch snakes and put them in gallon jars so that I would learn to identify the venomous ones and then she let them go.
When I was 5, my mom helped me to start an insect collection, making very clear that I could collect only one of each species. She was also a latent conservationist!
My father taught me to identify native trees in winter when I was 6 or 7.
I was also a “Fern”—allowed to keep the runt pigs if I took responsibility for feeding them. Although my pigs never befriended a spider, they did let me ride them when they were big enough!
What inspired you to become an insect pathologist?
I had worked on hymenopteran parasites of Joshua tree moths in the California desert before transferring to Montclair State University in New Jersey to work on a Masters in science education. While there, the dean talked me into changing my degree program to M.S. in Biology—he needed more biology TAs. I worked on facultative bacterial pathogens in carrion beetles for a thesis project.
On arriving at the U of I, I found a job as a lab technical scientist with Dr. Joe Maddox here at the Illinois Natural History Survey. One look through the microscope at microsporidia infecting caterpillars and I was hooked.
When did you start working for the Illinois Natural History Survey? What type of work did you do?
When my husband came to the U of I to do a veterinary residency and Ph.D. program, I left a resume at INHS. I was contacted by Luanne Burnett, the lab manager for Dr. Phil Ross, and did part time work for them assessing water samples for several months.
In January of 1988, David Onstad (then with NRES) and Joe Maddox contacted me for an interview to work in Joe’s insect pathology lab… and that’s where it all began!
Joe and I worked together for 9 years before his retirement from INHS. As his technician and then graduate student, I was always treated as a colleague and friend and was the beneficiary of his enthusiasm for insect pathology and INHS. He was completely unselfish with his time and effort to teach the skills of insect pathology.
What’s your favorite work-related memory?
“Back in the day,” Joe and I would celebrate an excellent research result or finding a new microsporidian species with a 30-ml diet cup—a perfect shot—of Slivovitz… Nasty stuff, but a silly and fun way to celebrate fun science!
Looking back on your career, what research are you most proud of?
My favorite research was a series of field projects conducted in Central and Eastern Europe. I spent a month per year in Bulgaria (1996, 1997), Slovakia (1998–2004) and Austria (2005, 2006); I was truly “homesick” the first year I didn’t return.
Colleagues from Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, and sometimes Czech Republic and Hungary, converged annually to work together. We looked at the host specificity and transmission of several microsporidian pathogens of the gypsy moth—work we could not do in the U.S. because the pathogen did not occur in invasive U.S. gypsy moth populations. These scientists have become long-time friends, staying in touch, continuing to work together, and visiting each other whenever possible. The last paper co-authored with them was published this year, 2017.
What's been the best part of your job at INHS?
I truly feel fortunate that the stars aligned to give me a career here at INHS. Now, that’s scientific, isn’t it?! I have enjoyed the autonomy to choose those projects that most interested me and the opportunity to do research that may benefit society.
I have loved being associated with some of the hardest working, most enthusiastic and skilled scientists anywhere.
What did you learn while serving as INHS’s interim director?
First, and most important, I was able to get to know many INHS and other PRI staff members whom I didn’t know well or at all when I was focused on my own work in an isolated lab. It has been exciting to be more tuned to the different research programs that are going on here and to hear about plans for the future. I believe I have a much better understanding of the amount and scale of the regional and global contributions that INHS scientists and administrative staff make to the scientific enterprise.
After working in science for over 30+ years, what do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
I wish that people didn’t think that science is mysterious and that only trained scientists can understand scientific methods and results. I am concerned that elementary and high schools have generally reduced the level of science teaching, increasing the alienation of people from the knowledge of how the world works. INHS scientists have done a good job of bringing science to the public, but we are one small institute in a world that desperately needs scientific knowledge.
What advice would you give to future scientists?
Stay enthusiastic about scientific exploration of all types and communicate that enthusiasm to the public.
Scientists increasingly will need to be part of the conversation and share their knowledge to counteract the echo chamber belief systems that pervade modern communication. Our stories are exciting and can capture the imagination of the public, but we must communicate them!
What will you miss most about INHS?
I hope not too much! I am considering becoming a “volunteer postdoc” at INHS.
So, retirement. Do you have big plans?
Phil and I plan to do some traveling, both internationally and in the United States. We’ll spend January and February 2018 in Tasmania where we hope to hike, fish and get our heads wrapped around the idea of being retired. We have lists of projects to undertake at our 90-year-old house in town and bit of land and cabin at the Salt Fork River.