Twenty Years of the MCZ with James Hanken


Jennifer Berglund, James Hanken

Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. And I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with James Hanken, a herpetologist and Professor of Biology at Harvard University. For the last 20 years, he's been the director of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, but he stepped down at the end of June to focus on his other role as the Curator of Herpetology. Today, we're reflecting on his many accomplishments as director, as well as the ways in which his fascination with natural history guided from a young age and how it continues to do so today. Here he is. Jim Hanken Welcome to the show.


James Hanken 01:17

Hi, Jennifer, how are you?


Jennifer Berglund 01:19

Great. When did you first become interested in the natural world?


James Hanken 01:32

Well, it was certainly as a young boy, it was surprising to all those around me. I grew up in Queens, New York, in New York City and my entire family, I guess you would just say they're very urban. They had no experience or tremendous interest in the natural world. And certainly, with a couple of important exceptions I can mention didn't introduce me to the natural world. But as a young boy, I had pet turtles, I had pet hamsters, I had whatever little animals my mother would allow me to keep in my bedroom. But most importantly, my mother subscribed on my behalf to a series of books that were published by Life Magazine, called The Natural World. And in fact, I'm talking to you from my office on campus, and I'm looking up on my bookshelves and there they are, I've never let them go, you know, every three weeks, you would get another one of these books, hard bound, large format, about 100 pages or so. Let's see, one is called The Birds one is called North America. One is called The Plains one is called Evolution. One is called The Forest and other The Reptiles and so forth. And I could not wait for these books to show up every three weeks one would arrive in the mail. And I would just rip it open and read it not do anything else until I gotten through it. And it just confirmed that I had some serious interest in the natural world, even as a boy and that encouraged it. I think this was just a world that was alien to me, but tremendously attractive and very exotic.


Jennifer Berglund 03:05

Sounds like you may have been a bit of a dreamer when you were a kid dreaming about other worlds.


James Hanken 03:10

And yes, of course, I dreamt of going to all these exotic places. I also dreamt of being an all star baseball player and you know, all of my all my sports (like the best of us) all of my sports accomplishments gradually disappeared, as you know, reality set in that I wasn't big enough or fast enough or strong enough. But there was my interest in the natural world. I could still do that. So I guess I just kept doing that.


Jennifer Berglund 03:35

When did you decide to become a zoologist?


James Hanken 03:39

I for a long time, I guess this would have been in high school or maybe a little younger. You know, when people would ask me Well, what do you want to be when you grow up? And for a while, I would say I want to be an animal psychologist, which betrayed more my ignorance. You know, there is no such thing as an animal psychologist. On a technical side. On the scientific side, we'd say well, that's an ethologist. Somebody who studies animal behavior, which is, in thinking back, that's what I was talking about, but


Jennifer Berglund 04:06

On the other side of that, you might call it like a dog whisperer.


James Hanken 04:09

Yeah, I guess I, don't, I don't think that's what I was interested in. I wanted to study animals and what they do and this kind of thing. So no, I was, thank you for you're trying to bail me out here. But it was pretty ignorant on my part, and of course, this would, this would instill deep panic sense of panic. And my parents, they couldn't imagine what this is gonna be an hour I got to be able to support myself eventually. It was when I finally went to college. I started in upstate New York at the State University of New York at Binghamton. I declared myself as a biology major. And again, I was still drawn to animals. I didn't like it in Binghamton at that university very much. And I made a wonderful decision which was to transfer as a junior to University of California at Berkeley. Which really transformed my life in many ways. And soon after getting in Berkeley, I became affiliated informally with a university based museum, very much like the one that we have here the Museum of Comparative Zoology. At Berkeley, it's called the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. And they really encouraged students to get involved in their programs and in various ways. And I started taking courses in zoology, I had declared myself a zoology major. And, you know, I just indulged, took as many courses as in this area as I could. And it just was pretty clear that I was going to go on in zoology.


Jennifer Berglund 05:40

You eventually got into nature photography did that begin during this period.


James Hanken 05:45

My, guess it was my sister and older sister and her husband gave me the Nikkormat, this was an early model of Nikon 35 millimeter film based photography, it's a spectacular camera. They gave me a Nikkormat when I was a, I don't know, 12 years old, or 13 years old. And I took it to summer camp, and I took all kinds of pictures. And I still have many of them. And when I look at those pictures, I say, holy cow, I was really good, these were quite accomplished really expert images, and what I've managed to capture action, and so forth. So I had an interest in photography. But the nature photography side of things really didn't kick in until I don't even know if it would be fair to say, as an undergraduate but certainly when I was a graduate student. Again, this is in the day before digital photography, I started doing some exotic field work for my graduate studies, exotic meaning, doing field trips to collect amphibians for my dissertation and assisting other people. I was mostly in Mexico and Central America at that point. I also went to Australia and a few other places within the United States, and all other biologists who do fieldwork, you bring along your camera. And I started taking pictures, and many of them were quite good with all modesty aside. And occasionally, there'd be some photo contest, and I figured, well, I'll send in a few pictures. And I started winning these contests. And I had a, as an undergraduate or beginning graduate student, I had a photo on the cover of Natural History Magazine. And then I decided to contact a natural history photography agency in New York City. And I met with them and they agreed to take me on and I listed photos with them, and they would start selling them, they'd send me my payment, they would get a commission. And every time I'd get a check for 200 bucks, I buy two or three lenses for $200. So it was definitely a money losing strategy,( the curse of the photographer) right. But you know, I gradually accumulate more specialized equipment and lenses and so forth. And I take more pictures, and I was, you know, doing a lot. And also, as a graduate student, graduate school can be a pretty intense endeavor, it certainly was for me, and at Berkeley, I stayed on for graduate school. I mean, it was wonderful, but it was intense. And on Saturdays, I would take off, if you will, Saturday afternoon, and inventory my photographs and label them and send them a package to the agent. And it was one part of the week, you know, I wasn't relying on selling photos to eat. So it was not that much pressure, and it was a kind of a release, a way to relax, aside from my graduate studies, and I just continued to do it. And I guess I was pretty good at it. I'd sell photos in various magazines, calendars, books, and so forth. And that was of course coincided there was a tremendous amount of interest in biodiversity growing then. And so there was a market for this stuff. In graduate school, I was both a nature photographer and a graduate student.


Jennifer Berglund 08:53

I love this aspect of your life, because it's just something I never knew about you.


James Hanken 08:58

Look, the sad part is I do a little bit of photography still. But if photography these days is so accessible, you can take spectacular photos with your iPhone or things. And on the scientific side, it's so accessible, the world is awash in excellent photographs. And also the sad part is as I've gotten busier on the administrative side and with my professorial duties, I just have less time to indulge myself in photography, I still sell, I'll sell a picture so but I don't I no longer send new images to the agents.


Jennifer Berglund 09:32

Well, I don't think there's any replacement for a good eye. And the best photographers these days, I think are photographers who really developed their skills in the time of film photography, because you had to be much more conservative with your shots, right?


James Hanken 09:46

Oh, and you also had to worry about light, you could manipulate things. I mean, you can do that today. But it was part and parcel of being a good photographer was using filters or choosing your particular lenses and lighting and so forth. And also, I think it's related to the fact that my professionally speaking as a scientist, I am by training and formally a morphologist. I have interest in form and structure. And I just get aesthetic pleasure from looking at animal shapes and sizes, not just externally, but I study the skeletons and looking at bones and so forth. So I know that that's related, you say have a good eye, I think I'm sensitive to visual form, whether it's looking at a specimen or taking a photograph and framing it, and so forth. And they're probably very likely related.


Jennifer Berglund 10:37

There was actually a time when you were finishing up grad school where you were considering going into nature photography, full time making that a career for yourself, but you ultimately sidestepped it. So tell me about that. Like what happened and why did you ultimately decide to go into academia?


James Hanken 10:54

You're exactly right. Well, I was very much on the fence with respect to what I should do next. As I was approaching the end of graduate school, I had a great lack of confidence in my abilities. And I could not see myself being a professor, I envisioned all the responsibilities that an academic professor would have beginning assistant professor and so forth. And I looked at myself, and I said, there's no way you can do that. So first off, I didn't apply for any jobs, any academic jobs as I was approaching the undergraduate school, and I applied for postdoctoral fellowships, again, in my discipline, but I only applied for two. And I said, Well, if I get either of these, I'll then decide if I want to continue. But if I don't get either, then I will just go to nature photography, but I was really torn. I was really really torn. I wasn't even sure if I should apply for the postdoctoral fellowships or not. I just go and become, you know, it sounded very exotic and romantic to being a dashing nature photographer flying all across the world and this kind of stuff. Well, as it turned out, I got both fellowships I was offered both fellowships. Okay, what to do? So I declined one, I took the other, which was at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia a great place to be, and that's what I did, I went there. But okay, that only supported me for in the two and a half years. And it's still you have to say, well, what's next? Well, the job market academic job market at that day was extraordinarily tight, really, really hard. There were business schools. In those days, who were they were offering MBAs for science PhDs who could not land a job, retooling them as MBAs and so forth. And in fact, I even got the application for one of those programs. I figured, well, okay, maybe I'll do this. But then there was nature photography, and I was still doing that. And I went into, I passed through New York City at some point in this interval. And I went in and talked to the agent, I was listed with probably the top natural history photography agency in the world at that point. (Amazing). Really, they really knew the discipline. It's called Bruce Coleman. I don't know if they're still even around at this point. Well, they must be right, because they slept my pictures. And I went in, I knew one of the agents there. And I just mentioned, I said, Look, I need some, not career advice, but I guess I'd appreciate your assessment. You know, I've finished my doctorate I'm a postdoc, I'm trying to decide what next and I'm applying for academic jobs or will. But also, I'm thinking of becoming a nature photographer full time, what do you think? And I don't think he sat back and laughed. But he told me that most of the people who list photos with this agency are amateurs, or hobbyists. It's a very small number of people who manage to turn nature photography into a satisfactory or sufficient career to pay the bills. And basically, I came away from that meeting realized, well, I thought academia was really competitive and tough to crack. But it sounds like nature photography is no better. And I was also fearful that as I mentioned to you a few minutes ago, for me, nature, photography was a form of relaxation, and a hobby. And I suddenly thought, gee, if I had to rely on doing this, for a certain amount of income, it became a profession, it might take the joy out, at least partly, and I decided, well, maybe I won't do that. But in the end, it came down to as my within three or four months of finishing my postdoctoral fellowship in Canada, and my visa was about to end the only thing for certain I knew I had to leave at the end of June to come back to the United States because my visa would expire. A job opened up at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was contacted invited to apply I applied within a few weeks, they invited me for an interview or interviewed week later, they offered me the job and I said, Yes. So, you know,


Jennifer Berglund 14:51

Worked out, decision made.


James Hanken 14:52

That's just you know, that fortunately, that came along and they hired me and I took it if they hadn't hired me and I had no other opportunity than I would have come back to the States and probably started doing nature photography for a living, but I just decided this was the safer course, if you will.


Jennifer Berglund 15:15

You were at UC boulder for 16 years. So quite a while before you came to the MCZ. What brought you to the MCZ?


James Hanken 15:26

Well, to answer that, I have to just explain what an important institution the Museum of Comparative Zoology is in the discipline of zoology. I mean, it's like Mecca. It's hallowed ground for professional zoologists in terms of the impact that people from the MCZ have had on the science of zoology and evolutionary biology since its founding in 1859, by Louis Agassiz. Now, Louis Agassiz is a notorious figure in many respects, and not a very sympathetic figure in many respects. One of the greatest ironies is that he founded the MCZ, he was a fierce opponent of Charles Darwin, and in part founded the MCZ and certainly attempted to amass enormous, huge collections of animals, as a means of disproving this troublesome theory that this guy, Charles Darwin, was (that is interesting) pondering about descent with modification and natural selection. And it's turned into overtime a world center for the study of evolutionary biology. And I'm sure Agassiz is spinning in his grave over this. But there have been, you know, a lot of very important professionals, scientists have been trained at MCZ over the 160 years, a lot of the really eminent scientists have been curators here and directors in the MCZ, it's just very much a storied institution. So, you know, rare is the person, there are some, who are given an opportunity to join the MCZ and don't take it. I mean, there may be in many instances or when it happens, there may be very good reasons for doing so. There weren't sufficiently compelling reasons. In my case, man, I loved living in Boulder. I'll tell you I didn't move to Boston because of the weather compared to Boulder or the scenery. But I just was tremendously honored. And you know, felt I had to say yes, also I was, as I mentioned earlier, I trained as a graduate student in a university based zoology museum, this is a Berkeley. And at Boulder, we had a museum, but it wasn't all that active, really wasn't a major player. And the idea of returning to being embedded in a natural history museum at a university was very attracted for me. So I said, Yes.


Jennifer Berglund 17:44

And what was the MCZ, like when you first arrived?


James Hanken 17:47

MCZ quite honestly was in a low ebb in that it was understaffed, even at the faculty curator level due to various instances of retirement. And at least one person who tragically died in the saddle, so to speak, he had a heart attack as a faculty curator and passed away. And so it was recognized at the time the place needed to be rejuvenated, and, in fact, I was one of four new people who were brought in within a year or two of each other all at the senior tenured level. I mean, this was a massive hiring initiative to rejuvenate the place and bring in fresh blood. And so there were not many graduate students, and so forth. And it really needed an injection of activity. And fortunately, the administration here, agreed, and were willing to do something to make that happen. Again, I was one of four people, and there were other hires associated. But also the facilities were, and this had been appreciated for a long time, the facilities were both substandard, and outdated, and insufficient. I mean, the collections were falling on top of one another, we were just bursting at the seams here. And we really needed some new facilities, the science of natural history is, collection based research, changing dynamically, and has over the last 40 or 50 years, laboratory based work is much more common genetic work molecular biology, and you need sophisticated laboratories for this kind of work, digital imaging, computer based stuff. So the facilities that MCZ, in the building, originally, the oldest part of the building was built in 1859. And other wings were added subsequently, but with the exception of one wing that was added in the 1960s. That's called the Museum of Comparative Zoology Laboratories. There really hadn't been any new growth in the, or renovations of the space to any considerable extent. So it was in pretty sad shape and in need of great modification. But tremendous potential, you know, that's what you always look for, is not necessarily what things are like, but what could they be if you had the resources to make it happen? And there was tremendous potential here.


Jennifer Berglund 20:00

So when did you come on as director?


James Hanken 20:03

I think there was a general recognition at the time that the director who was in place when I was hired had been the director for almost 20 years.


Jennifer Berglund 20:11

And this is Jim McCarthy.


James Hanken 20:13

This is Jim McCarthy, who was a renowned climate scientist, and oceanographer wonderful man very helpful to me. Recently deceased, recently deceased. Not, well, a little more than a year ago. When I was hired, I was hired as a curator and a faculty member. But I think the end of my first year, Jim had announced that he was indeed going to step down, and I was contacted regarding my interest in succeeding him. And I said, Yes. And then that decision, I think, was made pretty quickly. But again, I'm piecing together the dates here. I had then I call it my apprenticeship to Jim. It was announced, but that I would succeed him but not for another year. So he continued on for one more year. And, you know, he would drag me along to meetings and show me what was happening. And this was very considerate of him. Because the MCC for a university based museum, it's huge, and it's very complicated, very wealthy institution, very complex finances, and you need a long time to come up to speed on how to deal with things.


Jennifer Berglund 21:18

Yeah. I mean, how many, just thinking of the enormity of the collection, how many specimens do we have total?


James Hanken 21:24

We don't have it counted down to individual ones, we commonly say it has over 21 million. (That's, that's incredible.) So it's the largest university zoology-based museum by far. So it was a years my apprenticeship to come up to speed enough to have him step down and me not tear down the place. But it still took several years after that before I really felt that I understood the place and how to run it, and so forth. In fact, I've only been that this partly explains why there have been so few directors, I'm only the ninth director since 1859.


Jennifer Berglund 22:00

Wow, really?


James Hanken 22:01

I've been at for 20 years and I'm barely hit the median. I'm getting out early.


Jennifer Berglund 22:15

What are you most proud of accomplishing over your 20 years?


James Hanken 22:19

I would say there's two things that are of fundamental importance to a university based institutions such as ours. The first is hiring extremely talented and capable and innovative curators. Now in the MCZ, as is the case in, I think, these days most university based zoology museums, all of our curators are tenure track faculty. So you're hiring someone who will be part of an academic department, teach courses, undergraduate courses, graduate courses, will mentor graduate students will operate a research lab will apply for grants, do all of that stuff, which is the standard requirements of a faculty member in science at any institution. But on top of that, they are curators of a particular department in the museum. So I'm, in addition to being director, I'm the curator in herpetology, amphibians, reptiles, we have a curator of birds, curator of mammals, and so forth. We are on a university campus. And part of our mission is to push the boundaries of knowledge and make new discoveries. And the best way, most effective way to accomplish that is to hire really capable, really talented faculty curators. And we've hired many since I joined it's not my doing solely I can help prepare the ground and try to steer things in a certain way promote a particular search to get permission to do it. But a lot of people have a say in the ultimate outcome. So I don't want to suggest that I deserve the total credit. But as director you can help to make these searches happen and bring them to a successful outcome. And we've hired some spectacular people. I think of the last six people we've hired, three are in the National Academy of Sciences, US National Academy of Sciences, they've received many awards, we've also been able to diversify the ranks of the faculty curators. So these are all very important. And I'm glad that I was able to participate in that. And I consider that one of my achievements. The other thing, given what I said earlier about the substandard facilities that were in place when I came here, we've been able to do substantial renovation of the collection spaces in particular, but also offices, research laboratories, we've created a shared digital imaging facility, there was nothing like that before. We created a genomic frozen tissue collection facility. There was nothing like that before. And then you know, we have, Harvard in the time I was director put up this huge building right next door to the MCZ. It's called the Northwest building. It's for sciences and engineering in general, but I was able to get my finger in there. And we got 50,000 square feet in the building for collections. So we have this spectacular state-of-the-art collections facility where we've been able to put many of our specimens, and they're now wonderfully housed, and safely housed and climate controlled, and so forth. So, you know, those are the two things. If you get creative people, and give them the physical environment and support that they need to do their work, then you just stand back and get out of their way. And that's what I've tried to do.


Jennifer Berglund 25:40

You're stepping down as the director of the MCZ, (yes, in 36 hours, the end of June.) Wow, that's, that's crazy. (But who's counting?) First off, what are you going to do now that you're not I mean, I know you're gonna keep teaching.


James Hanken 25:56

I'm not retiring. I'm giving up my directorship after 20 years voluntarily, I'll point out, and I will go back to being a plain old faculty member, and a curator, I'll remain curator in the museum. So I'm not going anywhere.


Jennifer Berglund 26:10

What are your hopes for the future for the MCZ?


James Hanken 26:14

The MCZ is in a good place right now. But I want to remind everyone that we can't afford to rest on our laurels. Science is changing constantly. Biodiversity science is changing constantly. The natural history community world is changing constantly. And we have to continue to work hard. Now we're in a good place. But there are still things that I know of right now that we need to work on or should work on, to continue to improve. And look, we have I won't put it like competitors. Just there are a lot of other wonderful natural history museums. Both university based and government sponsored. And we're all part of the large community. And we're all trying to strive to improve and adopt new technologies and new procedures. So we have to constantly do this. We can't just say, okay, we're be satisfied with where we are, because we'll be left behind.


Jennifer Berglund 27:12

You mentioned other institutions and I have to bring up that your wife, is, she's the curator of? (She's the curator of birds) of birds at the Smithsonian.


James Hanken 27:22

At the US National Museum. Yes. The National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC Smithsonian Institution. Yes. So she's on the other side, she's at a competing institution, although I'm sure they would say they're just such a giant place, they may not consider us competition. Yes, she's a curator, a very talented and accomplished scientist in her own right.


Jennifer Berglund 27:41

And I have to bring up this is such a tangent, but it's just so cool that I have to talk about it. So you spent the pandemic in her, house is in Virginia, obviously, with by the Smithsonian. And so of course, you spent the pandemic down there. And you had some interesting housemates, shall I say?


James Hanken 28:01

We, let's see, the pandemic began in March of 2020. At least it began insofar as that's when Harvard campus closed in the middle of March. And I hightailed it down to Virginia figured she's got a nice house nicer than mine up here. And she's a good cook, and so forth. She has a detached garage, at the other side of the backyard from the house. It's a dilapidated garage, it's falling apart. And I had noticed that it was so dilapidated, that's just some holes appearing in the roof of the garage. And then one day I look at what's that there are two black vultures sitting on the roof of her garage. We documented it to the day. We went there and looked at them and so forth. Well, they were not just making a casual stop, they had seen the holes in the roof. They are known to nest in abandoned buildings. And that's just what they did. They actually set up shop in our garage in the attic of our detached garage. And they raised a family, they produced hatchlings. And the following summer, I decided to toss out a piece of chicken, raw chicken into the backyard. And well, you can imagine they thought this was just dandy. And the next day, I looked out of our kitchen window, and there they were perched on the railing right outside the kitchen door, looking in saying, you know, got chicken and we started feeding them every day and we just basically adopted the two adults and their two offspring and the adults chased off the offspring a few months ago, as they typically do. But we've had them and we still to this day have them around. They come and go as they please but they just about every day they come by for a meal and we feed them.


Jennifer Berglund 29:44

And that must have been particularly fun and interesting considering your wife is


James Hanken 29:48

Yes, I mean, how lucky I you know, I have to imagine that, we have nice neighbors and they're all in on biodiversity, but I'm not sure that any of them would have tolerated black vultures living on their property. And yeah, it's just fortuitous that these birds happen to choose the home of the curator of birds, they knew they're not, she's not gonna force them to leave.


Jennifer Berglund 30:09

Were are you taking photos of them?


James Hanken 30:10

Oh, we took thousands of photos, I put a camera video camera inside the attic, we could record them in there. And in fact, you know, this was happening during the pandemic, of course, and the pandemic brought tragedy of untold size in many ways, including last fall It was during the presidential election. And it was things were going crazy with respect to the election, the world was just upside down. And it was very comforting actually to have nature at our doorstep and doing normal things. And in fact, right around that time, the Wall Street Journal, solicited from their readers stories of how you've coped during the pandemic. I sent in a story and they published it. They sent out a photographer, you asked about photographs, they sent a professional photographer out to the house one day, and oh, he had a great old time, he was funny, he said, he thanked us so much, because normally, he's up on Capitol Hill, taking you know, photos, some lying Congress person or something. And he just thought this was a wonderful break from doing that.


Jennifer Berglund 31:15

It sounds like it's gonna be nice for you to kind of step down and just sort of focus on being a curator for a while.


James Hanken 31:20

Yeah, it's very odd. It's nice. And I'm already having withdrawal symptoms. I don't have any regrets or complaints. But it follows up what I just said a moment ago that so much of what I have been doing for the last 20 years, has been responding to demands and business that had to be done. And much of that I'm not going to have to deal with anymore. And so I will be able to structure my day. And my week and my month, much more according to what I think I should be doing. And that may seem silly. But it actually in terms of the adjusting your attitude about when you get up in the morning, what are you going to be doing? It has taken me a little bit of caught me off guard that I hadn't thought I'd feel this. It's such a strange concept. But I'm sure I'll be able to adjust.


Jennifer Berglund 32:07

I'm sure you will. And pick up nature photography again.


James Hanken 32:11

Yes. Just last Friday, I received word I got a National Science Foundation grant. So that will start sometime this fall. So I have a lot of writing projects that I'd like to return to. So there's plenty of things that will occupy my time and I'll be able to give it the time.


Jennifer Berglund 32:27

Well, I can't wait to see what you do.


James Hanken 32:30

Thank you very much. I'll keep you posted.


Jennifer Berglund 32:37

Jim Hanken. thank you so much for being here. This has been really fun.


James Hanken 32:40

My pleasure, Jennifer, I enjoy talking to you very much.


Jennifer Berglund 32:51

Today's HMSC Connects podcast was edited by Amanda Fish and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to the Museum of Comparative Zoology and to James Hanken for his wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks.