Call of the Sting
Dr. Justin O. Schmidt graduated from Penn State in 1969 with a bachelor of science degree in chemistry. In this alum interview, Schmidt tells us what kickstarted his pursuit of chemistry at Penn State and how that evolved into a career devoted to his love of insects and their effects on humanity by studying chemical ecology and the stings/venoms of wasps, ants, and bees. From developing the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to over 200 publications and to being quoted in the 2015 Marvel Studios film Ant-Man, Schmidt has had many unique accomplishments. We got to delve more into the journey of his successes as a world-renown entomologist.
Kathryn: Deciding on a college and an area of study is a challenge for many young people, especially for those completely unsure of what to pursue after graduating high school. What exactly drew you to Penn State and was chemistry your first choice of focus?
Justin: I knew that Penn State was a good university and strong in almost any field. I loved chemistry while in junior high and, especially, after taking it in high school. I also knew Penn State had one of the top five chemistry departments in the nation and was considerably more affordable than any of the three private universities that were also on the top of the list. That made it a no-brainer!
Kathryn: You’ve cited Evan Pugh Professor and current Eberly Chair in Chemistry, Stephen Benkovic, as one of your undergraduate inspirations.
Justin: I was fortunate to have an enlightened advisor, Dr. Maurice Shama, who allowed me to plan my chemistry program if I did well and did not miss any of the required courses. In my second year I took Dr. Benkovic’s advanced organic chemistry class, mainly for graduate students, and I immediately fell in love with the subject matter. I was impressed by how brilliant he was, both as a teacher and as a researcher. Although he was a recent addition to the faculty at the time, his depth of knowledge seemed unlimited.
Kathryn: You received your bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Penn State. How did your interest in chemistry transition to getting a Ph.D. in entomology?
Justin: I had always loved biology and physics but was especially fascinated with chemistry. Then while in graduate school I realized that I could have the best of both worlds by becoming a chemical ecologist. At that time, just three years after the first insect pheromone had been identified, few chemists were active in the discipline. Murray Blum in the Entomology Department at Georgia was one of them and he also had a master’s degree in chemistry, so we naturally could speak the same language and enjoy the same type of research.
Kathryn: Were there any challenging aspects of that transition?
Justin: Yes, I had only two university courses in biology; one was in genetics and the other an advanced entomology seminar course. As a result, when I started on my Ph.D. in entomology, I knew only common names of insects and soon learned that biologists use mainly scientific names. I had to quickly catch up on the new terminology and learn how to use a microscope, which was challenging at first.
Kathryn: How did you decide to focus your doctoral and post-doctoral research on stinging insects specifically?
Justin: When I started my doctoral research, the curious thing was I had this great ability in chemistry but most of the available research topics required little to no chemistry. Instead of wasting all my training, I discovered the stings of southern harvester ants hurt for a long time and produced unusual local skin reactions. Nothing further was known about their stings or the chemistry of their venom. So, I thought: “Aha! Here is a topic that I can jump into and use my chemical background to solve some mysteries.” In 1978, we published the findings in Science, and I never looked back after that.
Kathryn: You currently have appointments with the Southwestern Biological Institute and University of Arizona. What is it like working alongside students equally excited about your area of research?
Justin: I am privileged to work with students, faculty, and collaborators from around the world who share our love for chemistry, entomology, and a variety of life sciences that focus on venom chemistry, pharmacology, and potential for medical breakthroughs. It has also provided opportunities to meet with scientists from around the globe including countries like Cuba and Iran. These experiences teach us that deep down inside we are all human beings and the same.
Kathryn: What is the Schmidt Sting Pain Index and how did that come about? You’ve become known as the “King of Sting” or the man who allows himself to be stung for science.
Justin: Strangely, I did not start out thinking of being stung or developing a Sting Pain Index. That was the last thing in my mind; rather, I was trying to answer the question of how insect societies evolved within ants, bees, and wasps. To answer that question, I originally thought the toxic nature of venoms would enable the small insects to defend themselves against large predators. While pursuing that angle I realized that “ouch, these things hurt” and the pain could also be important in deterring large predators. We had no way to measure pain quantitatively, so I developed a sting pain scale to measure and compare the painfulness of the many different stinging insects.
Kathryn: Was there ever a moment where fear nearly stopped your investigation of sting pain levels?
Justin: Not really. My greatest fears were of catching some horrible tropical disease, being mugged in the field, or getting struck by lightning while out in the barren expanses of desert environments. I never really worried about the stings themselves, given that insects inject so little venom that it presents little risk to life or limb (unless allergic, which I am not).
Kathryn: Do you have a favorite stinging insect?
Justin: I find all stinging insects to be favorites. Each species has its pluses and minuses. Some examples: harvester ants have fascinating venom chemistry, but they hurt a lot; velvet ants are beautiful, but they are hard to find; and fire ants have amazing chemistry and are easy to find, but they are miserable to work with.
Kathryn: Despite your own personal interest in stinging insects, are there reasons why it is important that people know and understand the scale of these stings as well as their potential medical impact?
Justin: A practical reason to understand the pain scale is to be aware of those insects that hurt the most and should be avoided. The pain scale also helps to eliminate fear of many solitary bees and wasps, such as mud dauber wasps, cicada killer wasps, leaf-cutter bees, and carpenter bees. All these species are beneficial as well as being beautiful and harmless. We need to appreciate and admire – rather than to be fearful of – stinging insects. Just like birding, we call it insecting. We are only just now beginning to explore the medical potentials of venoms, including potentially helping to develop pharmaceuticals that can replace opiates and other harsh medications that are used for treatment of chronic pain.
Kathryn: What is the feeling you experienced when you were first told you had been quoted in the Marvel film Ant-Man? That must have been a surreal moment.
Justin: Surprise and amazement! I would have never guessed that anyone in Hollywood could have the slightest interest in what I was doing. It was truly surrealistic!
Kathryn: From being quoted in the media, interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel, being awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Physiology and Entomology, to publishing a non-fiction book titled “The Sting of the Wild,” you have had many successes beyond your teaching and research affiliations with various universities and scientific institutes. What advice could you give current undergraduate and graduate students unsure of what to do post-studies?
Justin: Be curious, be passionate about what you love to do, and work hard. Do not dwell on “finding your passion.” Just have fun exploring life and science, and your passion will find you.
Kathryn: And lastly...Can you recall your best memory during your time as a student here at Penn State?
Justin: I have so many fond memories from Penn State that I hardly know where to begin. As strange as it may sound, I cherished my time in the dorms! I also enjoyed the many clubs and activities ranging from the Outing Club and the Model United Nations to the “Free University” courses available at night that were taught by other students. They cost nothing and had no grades. And, of course, the few times I could correct my chemistry instructors for mistakes on exams, thereby getting satisfaction and more credit!
You can watch Dr. Schmidt give a bug demo on Jimmy Kimmel Live! here.