Meet Entomologist and Professor Jon Gelhaus

March 27, 2014 —  

Jon Gelhaus, PhD, by Riley Nelson

Photo credit: Riley Nelson

Jon K. Gelhaus, PhD
Professor, Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Sciences
Curator, The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University

Hometown: Sacramento, California
Degree: PhD in entomology, University of Kansas
Research interests: Diversity, evolution and natural history of aquatic insects, particularly the crane flies

Q: What first attracted you to environmental science, and specifically entomology?
A: My first love was insects (and nature in general) as a boy of 4 or 5. My awareness of the importance of the environment and that of insects in this world came later.

Q: What do you consider to be your biggest achievement thus far in your career?
A: I feel my work developing the Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey project since 2003 is my biggest achievement. This project, supported by the National Science Foundation and the Academy, has surveyed over 400 aquatic sites in Mongolia, discovered numerous new species of insects, characterized the country’s aquatic insect communities, and trained U.S. and Mongolian students and scientists how to use this data to assess water quality. My colleagues, students and volunteers on the project have made it the success it is.

Q: What's your favorite book?
A: Charles P. Alexander, “The Crane Flies of New York, Part 1 and 2,” 1919-1920. Alexander, who described more than 10,000 species of crane flies in his lifetime, summarized what was known about crane flies in this two volume set of over 1,000 pages (his dissertation!) and it is still something I refer to often. My major professor, George Byers, gave me my copy, and it was his major professor’s copy, who had received it personally inscribed and signed by Alexander. I feel like I’m part of a scientific lineage every time I use this copy of the book.

Q: What's your favorite food or restaurant?
A: Mexican. Our family favorite is La Esperanza in Lindenwold, NJ, but I can remember memorable meals in Mexico City, Philadelphia and New Mexico. A meal in a Mexican restaurant run by an Indian national in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia was an interesting cross-cultural experience.

Q: What's your favorite place you’ve traveled for research?
A: So many! Entomology has been a wonderful passport to the world. Mongolia always holds a special place—I have spent many months traveling there and doing research; it is a spectacular place with warm generous people. The mountains of the Sierra Nevada near where I grew up in California are deep within me always. My first experience in the tropics and its spectacular wildlife was in the Peruvian Andes and that was a highlight in my life. But also the subtle beauty of the New Jersey Pine Barrens near my home, and the Kansas prairies where I used to live, are both places I have spent many wonderful hours exploring for my research.

Q: What's one thing you couldn't live without?
A: Professionally, it would be my Rose Entomology aerial insect net.

Q: Who is your idol, or who most inspires you?
A: Several “idols” or mentors stand out professionally: George Byers and Charles Michener, both retired University of Kansas entomology professors, and Howard Boyd, entomologist and Pine Barrens champion. These three entomologists have continued in their late 80s and 90s to discover new things and be excited about in entomology everyday (Boyd died in December 2012 at age 97). And they have all been extremely productive in their research lives, something from which I take guidance and inspiration.

Q: What was the most memorable class you took as an undergrad?
A: Principles of Systematic Entomology, taught by the formidable and passionate wasp expert Richard “Dick” Bohart at the University of California at Davis. It set me on the path to focus in graduate school on systematic biology, understanding and documenting this marvelous diversity of life that lives around us, including species' origins and evolutionary relationships.

Q: Which current event/issue do you think students should know more about?
A: Man’s impact on the world’s environment is tremendous, particularly in terms of the maintenance of biodiversity. We are losing species and altering communities before we have had a chance to study and characterize them, let alone know their functional roles and useful (to us) characteristics.

Q: What course will you be teaching next?
A: Practical Identification of Plants and Animals. This course focuses on the importance of accurate identifications of organisms, that these identifications equal data, and that the data is used in a wide variety of basic and applied science research. I am lucky to have help from many of my new colleagues in the department in covering the breadth of plants and animals.

Q: What’s one thing every student who plans on taking one of your classes should know about you?
A: I am approachable; don’t be afraid to ask questions.

See Jon Gelhaus, PhD, in action: CoAS Dean’s Seminar: “Developing Entomological Science While Chasing Aquatic Bugs,” Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 3:30 – 5 p.m., Disque 109.