In Science, There's Never a Final Answer

David Lentz uses a hand lens to get a close look at the fruit of a beech tree. The size shape and color of fruits and flowers help botanists distinguish one plant from another. (Image credit: Lisa Ventre, University of Cincinnati Photographic Services)

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Name: David Lentz Age: 56 Institution: University of Cincinnati Field of Study: Paleoethnobotany

What inspired you to choose this field of study? During my undergrad years, I studied biology, but I really didn't have a firm career focus. After I graduated, a college roommate and I went on a year-long trek through what turned out to be Europe, Africa and Central Asia. We visited a lot of archaeological sites and talked with several archaeologists in the field and I thought, "Man, this is something I would like to get into."

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? A brilliant ethnobotanist and mentor, Dr. Vorsila Bohrer, said, "You need to learn more botany." So I focused more on the botanical side of paleoethnobotany: plant systematics, electron microscopy, cellular biology, anatomy and biostatistics for my doctoral work — or what they called "biometry" then. This turned out to be very good advice.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? My first studies of botany came with a leaf collection of all the plants in the neighborhood. I labeled them and pressed them inside a notebook. I added to the collection as I came across unknown trees.

What is your favorite thing about being a scientist or researcher? Every question you try to answer seems to open up a panoply of new questions. There's never a final answer. That's a great thing about being at a university, too. There are students to help you explore these new questions.

What is the most important characteristic a person must demonstrate in order to be an effective scientist? To be a successful researcher you need to start with an interesting question, finish up the analysis and make sure the results get published. I know a lot of brilliant scholars who never stick with a project and don't find a way to see it through to completion.

What are the societal benefits of your research? The sciences are experiencing a significant rate of drop-out and transfer. It seems there are fewer college students who want to be scientists. I think that getting students more hands-on research opportunities will go a long way toward getting them excited about the natural world and about becoming scientists.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? People like Dolores Piperno and Deborah Pearsall, prominent paleoethnobotanists who always push the envelope. Payson Sheets, a great archaeologist who continuously comes up with new ways to interpret paleoethnobotanical data is a delight to work with. Robert Bye, who has a tremendous knowledge of the plants and people of Mexico and the history of Mexico, is a phenomenal person, too.

What about your field or being a scientist do you think would surprise people the most? How much fun it is. The field work is terrific: collecting and talking with people and finding out how they use the various plants. Of course, there’s a good degree of drudgery, sifting through crumbs of charcoal. But you get through that and then get to interpret the information, which is intriguing.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? My laptop — no, on second thought, that's all backed up at home. Instead, I'd rescue my ancient sunflower seeds that are on loan from various sites. They are invaluable records of the crop plants of the past.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? Mostly classical: Beethoven, Bach was great — very celestial, Mozart of course. Chopin — I love his piano pieces. I guess I just like the earlier things all around!

This researcher is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering.