May 17, 2008
I was Dr. Hirsch's last Ph.D. student. I still refer to him as "Dr. Hirsch" because he was a grandfatherly figure to me; he turned 70 while I was in graduate school.
When I told Dr. Linda Mealey, who was one of my professors at St. John's University (Collegeville, MN), that I was going to work with Dr. Hirsch at Illinois in graduate school she asked me if I was aware of his politics. I was not! But I planned to study fruit flies not politics!
Two weeks after my undergraduate commencement,in 1989, I moved to Champaign-Urbana. Because I was a couple of credits shy of actually earning my bachelor's degree I needed to take a summer course at the U of I. My acceptance into the graduate program was, of course, contingent upon having a bachelor's degree. I could have taken any course that was worth 3 credits, but I wanted to do something useful and decided to take "Calculus for the social scientist" in the Math department. Nevermind that I hadn't had algebra since high school! To make a long story short I earned a D in the course which SJU would not accept as transfer credit. It was a stressful time, to say the least. I was able to work something out with both the U of I and SJU that was acceptable. Little did I know then, that my acceptance into the Psychology program depended on Dr. Hirsch's vigorous behind the scenes support. I later learned that some in the Psychology Department were arguing against my admittance because of the D I earned in calculus. Dr. Hirsch responded by saying something to the effect of "He's exactly the kind of student I want to work with", because I had attempted and persevered in a difficult course even though I didn't quite succeed.
As Dr. Hirsch said in many of my annual reviews as a student, I was completely 'green' when I entered the program. Which really meant that Dr. Hirsch taught me virtually everything I know about being a good scientist. He was a stickler for empirical evidence. But he would readily change his position if you were able to show him the evidence for an alternative. He was curious, rigorous and open-minded. I was always amazed by his ability to recall methodological details of studies that were 20 years old. He was generous with credit and with opportunities. For me he is the prototypical scientist.
I look back fondly on a couple of phrases that he would often use. Whenever I asked him the due date for some paper or assignment he would always respond in his New York accent, "Yestahday". He also always had the phrase, "It's an empirical question", at the ready. And occasionally, he would affect a Russian accent to imitate Theodosius Dobzhansky saying that Drosophila melanogaster was "Ze Queen of species".
When I left UIUC in 1996 to take a post doc at the University of Michigan in human alcoholism genetics, Dr. Hirsch was supportive. Although I'm sure that he was disappointed that I was leaving Drosophila research, he never showed any sign of it. I wanted to continue working on geotaxis, but couldn't find faculty position to do so. When I left, Dr. Hirsch let me take two geotaxis mazes, which are currently sitting in my garage. I will cherish them as a tangible connection to Dr. Jerry Hirsch, one of the most important people in my life. I may even run some flies through them someday.
Scott F. Stoltenberg
Black Hills State University