TREE Interview #8: Dr. Fred Janzen

This is TREE's 2012 group. Fred Janzen is standing on the right side of the picture.

This is TREE’s 2012 group. Dr. Fred Janzen is standing on the right side of the picture.


Welcome to the eighth of the TREE interviews! Click HERE to read more about the TREE program and its relevance to my book, RIVER’S EDGE.

Today I (Erin) am interviewing Dr. Fred Janzen, a professor in Iowa State University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology.


E:  Fred, you started Turtle Camp in 1988 when you were a graduate student. Can you tell us a little more about the thought process behind this decision and how exactly you made it happen?

F.   1988 was the end of my first year as a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. I had not intended to initiate a long-term study at that point.  I was simply looking for a site where I could find turtle eggs for experimental studies in the lab. Some acquaintances in the Chicago Herpetological Society directed me to check out the area near the Thomson Causeway, so a buddy of mine (Gary Paukstis) and I decided to do just that. On arriving at the Thomson Causeway in the evening of an early June day, we were struck by the large number of painted turtles that we saw nesting. Gary suggested that I leave some of the nests in the ground to study their biology under natural conditions. That research initiative turned out to be so interesting that I have continued it (and many related studies!) annually thereafter.

E:  How did Turtle Camp change when Jeramie Strickland came along in 2006 with his ideas for starting a research program for high school students from urban areas? What was your part in starting the program?

F.   The arrival of Jeramie (along with Shannon Thol and Lori Neuman-Lee) was a major positive turning point in our Turtle Camp outreach activities. Up until then, I had included the occasional high school student in our research endeavors, but had always been keen on trying to do more with K-12 students. Those three, with their incredibly positive combination of talents and personalities, really provided the energy to take the big leap to initiate, implement, and continue the TREE program ever since. I would like to think that I had an important part to play in starting TREE, though perhaps my role was mainly to get out of their way!

E:  Do you have an estimate of how many total students have been involved in Turtle Camp in one way or another since 1988? Starting out, did you ever imagine it would turn out this way?

F:   I would estimate that easily over 100 (maybe closer to 150) unique students have participated in Turtle Camp activities. Beyond the numbers, though, what also makes me happy is how many of them found meaning in their experiences at Turtle Camp and how many return in subsequent years. I am similarly thrilled to see how many have excelled in their lives scholastically and professionally thereafter (not that I’m claiming Turtle Camp deserves all the credit!). Regardless, from the perspective of the 1980s, I could not have envisioned how well Turtle Camp has thrived over the years. If I’d had such insight then, I would have invested in something other tent camping year after year; I’m getting a bit “creaky” anymore to sleep on the ground for long stretches!

E:  I’ll be donating 10% of the April sales of River’s Edge to the TREE program. Any thoughts on what the donations will most likely be used for? Are there other ways people can help support TREE?

F:   I am thrilled and honored at your generosity in support of Turtle Camp, Erin. And I would be grateful for the support of others who see the value in our efforts. As I explain below, one snag in continuing TREE is legal concern about our sleeping arrangements. Thus, for example, a retiree who no longer has need for their recreational vehicle could conceivably donate it to Turtle Camp and TREE (presumably through Iowa State University). Such a donation could provide Turtle Camp with the necessary secure sleeping arrangements (including increased security for our scientific gear) and the donor with a nice tax write-off. Of course, we would also be happy to have other sorts of contributions on any scale to support TREE, including identifying talented students and directing them to us. If anyone likes the possibilities presented here or has alternative ideas for supporting our efforts, please feel free to contact me by e-mail (Note from Erin: to avoid spambots, I’m spelling out his email address: fjanzen(AT)iastate(DOT)edu).

E:  Is there anything else you would like people to know about TREE?

F:   TREE is a fantastic program and its success on so many levels is driven by the enthusiasm of its founders, the mentors, and of course the participants. I am sad to say that TREE will not occur in 2013 because of new legal issues (that we have yet to navigate successfully) regarding working with students under the age of 18. Among others, one concern of the lawyers is that such underage individuals need to be provided with secure sleeping quarters, which is pretty tough to do when we’re camping in tents on a publicly-accessible island! I am hopeful, however, for TREE to re-initiate in 2014, at least partially supported by your donation and those of others for this proven-successful, nationally-recognized program.


Fred, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, and for helping me arrange all the interviews this past week. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about TREE and its origins. Thank you for being a role model in the field of biology and all you do to mentor young scientists!

Readers, 10% of RIVER’S EDGE sales through May 5th will be donated to the TREE program . . . and after reading this interview, you know exactly how that money can help re-initiate the program. Or you can contact Dr. Janzen if you would like to donate to the program directly. Please help support future turtle research and young biologists! 


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