2005 LEADERSHIP AWARDS: David Shetlar

Features - Business Management

The industry's 'Bug Doc' is a happy-go-lucky insect lover who lives anything but a bug-sized life.

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February 23, 2006

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David Shetlar. Photo: Tom Dubanowich

Looking at the turf, even closely, most people just see slick blades of vivid green standing at attention, all points reaching for the sun. Get a magnifying glass out, and one might even catch glimpses of torn turf edges or ants carrying a tasty discarded bread crumb to their mound.

But ask David Shetlar what he sees when he looks at one square foot of turf and like an episode of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” your vision is abruptly zoomed forward into what he calls a microscopic subtropical biorainforest. “The normal event that happens on most turf everyday – the dew event – is like that which happens in a rainforest,” explains Shetlar, eagerly. “It’s a mutation of water that contains sugars and proteins. If you look at it from a microscopic level, there are thousands of insects, arthropods, hundreds of thousands of bacteria and fungi inhabiting turf. They are not big things like tigers and cheetahs, but they are comparable, just at a microscopic scale. I see sod webworms and white grubs as the equivalent of grazing animals on the Savannah. There’s more biodiversity going on in turf than most people give it credit for.”

ABOUT DAVID SHETLAR 

    COMPANY: The Ohio State University
    LOCATION:Columbus, Ohio
    CAREER HIGHLITGHTS:

  • Received his bachelor’s and master’s of science degrees in zoology from the University of Oklahoma in 1969 and 1970, respectively; received a Ph.D. in entomology from The Pennsylvania State University in 1976
  • Job history: 1971 – instructor, Department of Zoology, University of Oklahoma; 1971-1983 – graduate assistant, assistant professor, Department of Entomology, The Pennsylvania State University; 1983-1984 – owner, P.E.S.T. Co.; 1984-1990 – research scientist, ChemLawn Services Corp.; 1990-present – association professor, Department of Entomology, The Ohio State University
  • Started a reciprocal International Turfgrass Internship Program for foreign exchange students at The Ohio State University
  • Took part in more than 20 refereed publications, more than 100 reviewed journal articles, 14 book chapters, 3 books, more than 45 trade journal articles, more than 30 extension fact sheets and bulletins, more than 25 scientific presentations at professional society meetings, more than 75 workshop presentations, more than 100 presentations at trade society meetings, more than 75 radio and television presentations, more than 400 extension presentations
  • Some research accomplishments: Developed microplot evaluation systems to test chemical and biorational controls for efficacy against turfgrass insects; developed and evaluate entomopathogenic nematodes for control of turfgrass caterpillars, billbugs, white grubs and mole crickets; development and testing of degree-day predictive models for turfgrass insects, especially bluegrass bill bug and sod webworms

And just like that – Shetlar, assistant professor of landscape entomology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, showcases his tireless dedication to passing bits of knowledge on to willing recipients. Shetlar’s goal – to make science something even the least interested can enjoy. “Teaching – that’s Dave’s real ace,” shares Harry Niemczyk, professor emeritus, OARDC/The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. “He’s a consummate teacher, very patient. He’s enthusiastic about what he does and he presents information in an enthusiastic and challenging way.”

Those who know Shetlar today may think he’s been this outgoing all of his life – after all, it’s not uncommon to invite him to a party only to find him snooping around the backyard shrubs after cocktails are served, seeking out a fresh pest specimen or unique insect photo opportunity, or chatting up a fearless group of pint-sized guests about a bug he found on a nearby tree branch. In fact, Shetlar describes his youthful self as extremely shy. “I was part of the briefcase nerd pack in high school – the math and science crowd,” he says.

But careful nurturing from some professors, as well as his artistic wife, brought out the best in Shetlar, instilling in him their most venerable teaching traits.

THE LOVE BUG. Shetlar was born in Columbus, Ohio, six months before his father, Marvin, finished his Ph.D. in chemistry at The Ohio State University and took a job at an Oklahoma-based medical school, where he conducted biomedical research and taught biochemistry courses in human physiology.

Growing up in Oklahoma, Shetlar was encouraged by his microbiologist mom, Clara, to pursue an interest in the creepy-crawlies. “I blame my mother and her incredible tolerance for letting me have jars and containers of stinking and rotting critters in my room,” he says, laughing.

The family also enjoyed the outdoors together, regularly going camping and taking nature hikes with other academics from the University of Oklahoma, including herpetologists and ornithologists, who according to Shetlar, were always pointing out neat facts about the various species they discovered along the way.

This interest in insects only grew stronger with age. Shetlar’s wife, Renee, remembers hearing Marvin tell the story of his car breaking down, only to have the mechanic find that a very young Shetlar had filled the gas tank up with grasshoppers when he was playing outside the previous day. “He had started collecting insects even then and just thought the gas tank was a good place to store them,” she explains, chuckling.

In fact, when the couple first met in high school, Renee says dates with Shetlar were never dull. On their fifth date, Shetlar came to the door with something behind his back, asking her mother very politely if he could have a plastic bag. “It was a tarantula – they were everywhere in Oklahoma and Dave couldn’t help but pick them up,” Renee says. “And on our dates we would go around to lit areas at night with a jar between us and collect beetles and spiders. I had to overcome my fear of critters pretty quickly and get used to a refrigerator full of vials and bags of bugs after we got married.”

Renee’s adventurous spirit is what turned Shetlar’s head. “We went to the movies that night and she asked me what was in the bag,” he says. “I said, ‘You can look if you want.’ She looked. That was it – I was smitten.”

“The knowledge he had about insects and science always floored me,” Renee adds. “Plus, I was impressed with his sense of humor, his incredible patience and the fact that he was a really good dresser.”

Shetlar also excelled in mathematics, a major he pursued for awhile after testing out of math courses through his second semester junior year of college as a high school senior. Though the topic was interesting and challenging, Shetlar says he moved up too rapidly to a level of professors who he felt didn’t care. “They enjoyed throwing math tricks at you to let you figure out their solutions,” he explains. “I didn’t think it was right – it wasn’t education. They never taught us how to figure out these problems. I had a bad reaction to that form of teaching.”

So it seemed only natural for Shetlar to continue pursuing his interest in insects. Because the University of Oklahoma, Norman, Okla., didn’t have an entomology program, Shetlar majored in zoology, specifically invertebrate zoology, the study of insects like worms, slugs and snails.

One professor, Shetlar remembers, played a lot of mental games with students to get them to think. “Once a week, he would give a quiz,” Shetlar says. “Out of 15 quizzes, he was only going to count 10 toward our grade and we got to decide which ones counted – before the grades were given. His philosophy was that if we truly knew the answers to the quiz questions, we would know it before the grades were handed out. He was building our confidence in what we really knew vs. what we only thought we knew.”

This philosophy is something Shetlar uses in his teaching today. “You have to play some games with young minds to get them to start thinking more so they can realize what they’ve committed to their short term memory vs. their long term memory. Many students are clueless of what they know and don’t know. This professor spent time choosing quiz questions that were made up of bits and pieces that the average student will pick up and miss. He knew what he was doing when he came up with this system.”

When Shetlar entered his senior year, another professor became influential in his future career path – Dr. Hubert Frings, who taught Zoology 101 to a room full of more than 600 students in the spring and fall semesters. By offering a zoology research credit, Frings, or as Shetlar called him “Huby,” wooed Shetlar into filling a laboratory instructor position. “Half way through that semester, he came to me again and said, ‘You’re doing really well and I’m getting good reports from the students about your work, so can you teach one of the lectures?’” Shetlar explains. “A teaching lab for 30 students was OK – they were all younger and I could bluff my way through it. But in a lecture course, there are 600 students, and I was an extremely shy person.”

The course Huby wanted Shetlar to teach was genetics, a subject Shetlar nearly flunked, so Huby provided Shetlar with his notes to make it easier for him to teach the course. “He also told me it’d be a means for me to take a refresher on a subject that I did so poorly in,” Shetlar remembers. “His notes were meticulous – highlighted, emphasized, explained and well-choreographed.”

Huby coached Shetlar on the secrets of good teaching. “He said, ‘Dave, I handle my lectures as if they were each one act, one person plays.’ That stuck with me,” Shetlar shares. “He said that when the lights go down and I was up on that stage, I was the actor and the act was for me to deliver information that was well explained in a somewhat entertaining method and at a reasonable pace. He reminded me to interject a few jokes and a few tear-jerkers to keep the audience interested.”

Needless to say, on his first day, Shetlar was terrified. “I made the mistake of standing up at the podium when the students came pouring in,” he says. “I was looking out into a sea of faces, all talking with each other. But when the lights went down and everyone became quiet, I could only see a half a dozen or so people in the front row – the rest were hidden. I thought, ‘This doesn’t seem so bad.’ So, I introduced myself and let out the first joke – there was some laughter. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this is kind of neat. I do have control. I am communicating to these people.’ I had memorized Huby’s notes, but found out that I had a talent for taking information and modifying it into my own words.”

Afterward, Huby asked Shetlar to teach two more courses that semester. “He was grooming me,” Shetlar soon realized. “He cultivated a talent in me that I didn’t even know I had. Being a teacher was the furthest thing from my mind. I thought I was going to be a scientist running around in a rain forest discovering new things until Huby opened my eyes and I finally understood – science without education was useless.”

ABOUT DAVID SHETLAR 

    Q. What does the term grassroots mean to you?
    A. My feeling is that grassroots in the lawn and landscape arena used to come from the big contractors who had the money to support research arms. But today I think it comes more from the small operators who are willing to try and test new products to see if they work or not. These mom and pop shops are working in upscale neighborhoods, have a total commitment to service, customize their programs to each specific property and charge a premium for their services.

    Q. Describe a situation where you feel you had to defend the industry and how this impacted you in your career.
    A. I do this all of the time. I take no guff from environmentalists – I’ll stand toe-to-toe with them any day.

    Q. Who is one person you admire most for taking a stand on an issue and why?
    A. Bob Miller with ChemLawn because he had high standards and Chuck Darrah, who I also knew from ChemLawn, because he wasn’t afraid to scold a branch manager for not following the proper protocols. And I will always admire Dr. Hubert “Huby” Frings for putting me down the right career path and encouraging me to experience teaching. Good teachers pick up on the talents of their students and try to cultivate them. Huby did this for me – he saw a spark in me that no one else picked up on. Now I try to do this for others in my courses.

    Q. What is one thing you do to ensure your employees are reflecting a positive and professional image on your company when they are out in the field?
    A. When you have a poor performing employee, you get rid of them – this works in any situation. I explain to my graduate students the values and standards I want them to have, and they need to follow these values if they want to work with me. I have yet to catch a graduate student deliberately doing anything against these standards – I try to communicate this in the beginning so they know what is expected.

    Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to help defend the industry against negative perceptions, pesticide legislation, etc.?
    A. Communication is the key, but it has to be done the right way. When I give lectures about pesticide use, I always start by talking about the charged words people use – natural, organic, synthetic, chemical, cancer, risk, safety, etc. I talk about how people combine them to make them sound better or worse – for instance, naturally occurring biological control vs. synthetic man-made chemical. One sounds good to people, one sounds bad. There are always two sides to everything. For example, everything is synthetic in Diet Dr. Pepper, but I still drink five to six cans of it a day. Why? And if people drink synthetic fluids, why are they sometimes so reluctant to have pesticides used on their lawns? One of the ways lawn care operators can spread the positive message about lawn care is by talking to their customers about how they provide them with a convenience so they can do the other things they might want to do with that saved time. They are helping their customers maintain a certain lifestyle. This is the message they need to drive home.

THE BUG BUSINESS. In research, it is not a common practice for scientists to get all of their degrees from the same institution or pursue work at that college after concluding their education. And since Shetlar received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma (in 1969 and 1975, respectively), Huby pushed him to leave the state. So, Shetlar packed up his belongings, his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Norann, and drove their Dodge Dart to Pennsylvania to pursue a graduate teaching assistantship at The Pennsylvania State University.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1977, he was offered a position to teach general entomology as an assistant professor. However, after a few years some faculty at the university felt that as a Penn State student, Shetlar should have gone elsewhere to teach. So Shetlar left and started a private consulting firm he called P.E.S.T. Co. in 1983. Here, he did research for pesticide manufacturers as well as testified in court cases where his expertise was needed. However, the company was what Shetlar called a “zero-profit” one. “It basically made me enough money to travel for research or a ‘working’ vacation, where I took photos of insects or turf damage on golf courses,” he says.

Consequently, one year later, Shetlar took a position with ChemLawn as a research scientist in entomology in Delaware, Ohio. Here, he was intimately involved in the implementation of all turfgrass care programs that the company offered its clients. The researchers studied different turf types, and then presented their findings to the various ChemLawn branches. “Because we each had to sit through all of the areas of expertise – weed, disease, fertility, insect and cultural practices – we all got a total turf management education,” Shetlar says. “We also learned the business background of lawn care.”

After Ecolab purchased ChemLawn in 1987, research became less important to the company and cost cutting became a common practice. Shetlar recalls one day when the research department was chopped from six to two people. “We felt that research was such an important cog in the wheel that they would never get rid of it, but the reality was that they did,” he says. “Then, not long after the new CEOs made their display that they were bringing the budget in line and things settled down, they hired a few people back. But it was never the same.”

In 1990, Shetlar left ChemLawn and took a position as an associate professor in landscape entomology at The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, where he continues to work today. In this position, his work is made up of 20 percent turf research, 60 percent extension education and 20 percent teaching.

Shetlar also inherited an industry-specific newsletter after working only a couple of years at Ohio State when another entomologist, Dick Miller, retired. Industry professionals had grown attached to Miller’s Bug Dope newsletter, and asked Shetlar if he could recreate it. He agreed, releasing the PEST Newsletter, which provides readers with regular turf insect forecasts. 

“I like to think of myself as the grandfather in the industry who will give you that sage advice you need,” Shetlar says. “I’m not going to tell you how to operate your business or tell you how to retain customers, but I will try to help you find the most cost efficient techniques for managing the insect problems you have on clients’ lawns. The key is increasing the consistency of your results – that’s where I can help you shave maybe 10 percent off of your failure rate and boost your efficiency.”

In his education of the industry, Niemczyk says Shetlar has bridged an overdue gap. “He has a reputation for having a wealth of up-to-date turf insect information and photographs that no other researcher has in the industry,” Niemczyk shares. “It took researchers a long time to develop a relationship with the turfgrass industry and Dave has made it stronger than it ever was.”

NOT BUGGIN’ OUT. Being a student in one of Shetlar’s courses is anything but dull. As a teacher, he likes to seek out clever ways to help students retain knowledge.

For instance, students might steadily grow nervous watching the clear plastic bag of wasps sitting on Shetlar’s desk one morning, twisted – not tied – shut. As students try to focus, wasps buzz and eventually one unravels the loose coil and escapes. “Dr. Shetlar!” the students shout and point, as Shetlar calmly grabs the free wasp with his hand and puts it back in the bag. “Aren’t you going to get stung?’ the students ask. And here’s where the lesson comes in. “Eventually, I bring out another bag full of wasps closed tightly and explain to them that I did this little scare tactic on purpose to show them that the male wasps in the open bag do not sting and the female wasps in the closed bag do,” he explains. “I have them come close and examine the difference in antenna between the male and female, so they can actually see and learn from the experience.”

Renee chuckles when she hears this story, knowing it’s a telltale sign of her husband’s personality. “He really tries to get students to think for themselves,” she says. “He may make bizarre statements in class just to see if the students are listening. He wants them to challenge him – he doesn’t want them to just take what he says as gospel.”

“Too many professors try to give facts and don’t challenge kids to be investigative and to think,” Shetlar adds. “I have a sense of humor and I think life can either be a bitch or it can be fun, so why not try to make it fun. I can be a bastard in class and demand that my students memorize information and make the experience dry and boring or I can make it fun. If I make it fun, the students will be more inclined to learn the material and they will also be more inclined to seek out additional information or take another course if they want to. People who have a painful experience don’t repeat it, but if it’s fun, they will try it again. That’s my general underlying philosophy – science doesn’t have to be boring.”

To industry professionals, fellow researchers and students, Shetlar is known as the “BugDoc,” a nickname that Renee helped him obtain. “When I joined Ohio State, I thought I should have a moniker that I could hang my hat on, and I mentioned that once I figured out what it was I wanted to get it printed on vanity plates for my car,” Shetlar says. “Renee went onto the Web site and entered in ‘Bug Doctor’ – that was taken. Then she tried ‘Dr. Bug’ – that was taken too. But ‘BugDoc’ was available, so that became my moniker.”

In this way, Niemczyk calls Shetlar “the entomologist’s entomologist,” which he defines as “an entomologist 24-7, no matter where he goes, whether it’s in the middle of New York City or the desert. If you invite him to your house, I assure you that he won’t leave without checking out what sort of insects are hiding in your trees, turf and shrubs.”
 
BEYOND BUGS. Shetlar’s office is what he describes as organized chaos. “If a student or coworker needs to reference a publication I showed them earlier, I just reach down 2 inches into the pile on my desk and pull it out,” he says. “Many people wonder how I do that. My feeling is that there are two types of people – people who organize in file cabinets and complicated rows and others who embrace mental organization – they know where they put something and can find it in chaos.”

But in his office, as well as his home, one can identify Shetlar’s many hobbies, which include collecting old pest control equipment, old woodworking tools and antique stretch glass – the latter being his favorite.

Shetlar and Renee discovered iridescent stretch glass when Shetlar was a graduate student living in Pennsylvania. They first became interested in other types of glass, such as Tiffany, which were too pricey for a graduate student to afford. So a furniture maker and antique dealer acquaintance suggested to them iridescent stretch glass as one that was less expensive that they could enjoy. The glass is like carnival or other art glass in that it is pressed or blown and then sprayed with a metallic salt to give it a multicolored, iridescent surface. The Shetlars have acquired approximately 3,000 pieces of the art glass. “We have collector’s syndrome,” Shetlar says. “I think people are either born with an accumulator gene or they like their life clean and simple. I’m definitely an accumulator – my parents had it and I have it too.”

How can someone who’s so passionate about science and mathematics also have such a strong interest in the art of glassmaking? Renee says it’s in her husband’s blood. “He has the same intensity in his work as he does in all areas of his life,” she explains. “He always goes one step beyond what is normally expected. And I think his interest in pottery, glassmaking and certain types of art all comes from his love of math – he tends to love things that have symmetry.”

Considering his deep passions for family, entomology and stretch glass, Shetlar wants his legacy to be surprisingly simple. He says, “the best that can be said about anybody is that they tried their best, did what was right and delivered information when asked in a knowledgeable and entertaining fashion.”

Beyond that, Shetlar continues to hope that with each science fair he judges and insect discovery day he teaches that he can influence just one more child to remain fearless of all insects, great and small.