A Lifetime of Curiosity


One thing I really love about my job is that I get to work with researchers and scientists who have dedicated their entire lives to their work. And there’s one individual in particular who has gone above and beyond in his dedication to his research. Datuk Dr. Robert F. Inger first came to the Field Museum as a volunteer when he was an undergraduate. He eventually got his Ph.D. and became a curator in the reptile division in 1954. And he held that position until his retirement–in 1994. Today, he’s 96 years old and continues to come in to work on his revised manuscript on the frogs of Borneo. Bob has described 75 new species to science, authored 8 books, and published more than 150 research papers. 40 species are named in his honor. And we got a chance to interview him recently about some of his 5 decades of field work. Check it out. [The Brain Scoop theme song plays] Emily: We are here with Datuk Dr. Robert F. Inger who is a herpetologist here at the Field Museum. Bob: That’s what I do. [Emily laughs] Emily: Bob, you’ve been here at the Field Museum since… Bob: Oh, too long. [Chuckle] Emily: Too long! Emily: What I find really interesting is that you have such an extensive history studying the frogs and reptiles in Borneo. Emily: When did you start doing work in Borneo? And why? Bob: I did my doctoral dissertation on a study of the frogs of Philippine Islands. The Museum wanted to send one of its mammalogists to Boneo, which lies south of the Philippines. I was the only one who was working on an area near Borneo, so I was selected. And I must say, that was the best accident of my life. The best place that I’ve worked in that rain forest–which covers all of Borneo– is a spot in the state of Sarawak. I hired four guys from the nearest longhouse. This is Bajok, Abas, myself, Jarau, and Aran. I was a city fellow, plopped down in the middle of this forest, and I didn’t know where I was. So I depended upon them for all kinds of things. First of all, to build a house. And this is that house. We were two days travel from the nearest village, and we worked in the forest itself and along creeks that fed into this major river. Emily: So when you first went to Borneo, how many species of frogs did we know from that area? Bob: We knew about 70 species from Borneo. When I published my first monograph on the frogs of Borneo, we had a list of 90 species. There are now 185 species known, and new species are found maybe every two years. Emily: For comparison, how many species of frogs are in the United States? Bob: Well… in Illinois, fewer than 20. Emily: Really!? Emily: What do you think about Borneo has allowed for so many different species of frogs to evolve and to thrive in this environment? Bob: Well, every species has a limited ecological distribution. Some species of frog is kind of using every little kind of space in the forest. Emily: Well, I mean, you were doing field work too, before there were all these technological luxuries that we have today. You know to make life a little easier in the forest than to… Bob: Well, there was another problem of a sort. To get from Chicago to out to Borneo. My first trip, we left Chicago and flew to San Francisco, spent overnight in San Francisco, then got on a plane the next morning to Honolulu, Hawaii to Wake Island, to Guam, to Manila, from Manila to Singapore. From Singapore, we went to Kuching, then to get to this spot, we went on a boat. And that took a day to get to the last town. And from the town, we got in a boat. We went for another two days upriver, and finally arrived at this spot. Emily: What I love about this picture, too, is that you’re wearing this (Bob: Oh, yes) great accessory on your legs. Bob: One of the things about the Borneo rain forest that’s particularly interesting is that it is filled with land leeches. There, the atmosphere is so humid that they can live in the forest away from streams. The first time I went for a walk in the forest, in a couple of hours, we had 10 to 12 leech bites on each leg, all bleeding. And I was wondering “How am I going to work in this place?” [Emily chuckles] And then I ran into some British guys who were timber people, and they had the solution. Emily: Oh, wow!
Bob: Wear leech stockings! Bob: So you wear your regular clothing, and you put your legs in this, tie it. You see the leeches climbing up here, and you can pull ’em off and cut ’em with a pocket knife. Emily: There you go! I mean, innovated a good solution.
Bob: It’s what the well-dressed forest researcher will wear. [Emily chuckles] Emily: At that time, you were so disconnected from the rest of the world. Bob: I had finished, spent two months in the field and I went down to the coastal city. Sunday morning, I’m walking around the street, there are newspapers with headlines like “Crisis Over”. And I, my reaction was, “What crisis?” That was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Of course, I was spared all the anxiety at the time that people here were experiencing. Emily: Yeah, I mean you should just go into the forest and disconnect from the world. Over your decades of working in Borneo and surveying the species and collecting all these things, What is the biggest change that you saw over time? Removal of the forest. When I first worked in Borneo, the RAF had kind of excursion flights for publicity purposes. And we flew over an area of about 200 miles. You didn’t see the ground. All you saw was the crowns of trees. Take the same flight today, you see nothing. You see no forest at all. It’s all been removed, first for timber, and now for plantations of various sort. We had a rain gauge that we’d set out at the edge of our camp clearing. And one year, we had 300 inches of rain.
Emily: Oh my gosh. Bob: With rainfall that heavy, when the trees are removed, the ground is exposed and mud, silt carried into these rivers. And rivers that were once clear are no longer clear. They’re all silt. The fishes and tadpoles that feed on vegetation. That vegetation disappears; it’s choked out. Species are going extinct because of deforestation almost as fast as we discover new ones. Emily: Wow.
Bob: Yeah, it’s kind of discouraging. I came here to the museum while I was an undergraduate at the recommendation of one of my professors the the University of Chicago. He said, “Why don’t you go to the Field Museum and volunteer your work?” And so he introduced me to the man who was then head of our department of zoology here. Instead of putting me to work dusting shelves or something like that, he put me to work on a research project. [Emily chuckles]
And as a result, I published thee papers while I was an undergraduate. It was a great start, and only because of the interest and generosity of the professor at the University of Chicago and curators at the Field Museum. It was a wonderful opportunity. Emily: Did you ever think at that time that you would go on to be a curator? Bob: I didn’t think it would happen, but I hoped. And it did happen!
Emily: Yeah! Bob: And I was extremely lucky. Emily: Well you were a Curator of Fishes in, I think it was ’49? Bob: Yeah, I was Assistant Curator of Fishes. And suddenly there was an opening in the reptile division And I was fortunate enough to get that job. It was wonderful. Emily: Well you were a Curator of Reptiles here at the museum from 1954 until you retired in 1994? Bob: Gee, you know, I forgot what year that was.
[Emily laughs] Emily: I was reading up on your dates.
[Bob chuckles] Emily: But I think that’s so remarkable that you can have such a long career here. Bob: My wife said that I was the only person she knew who looked forward to Monday. Emily: Really!?
[Bob chuckles] Bob: Because I could go back to work. Emily: Well, I think that’s really telling of your character. I mean, you retired 22 years ago, and you still come in to work on your frogs. And so what does keep you coming back to work on these frogs? Bob: Well, there’s still things I don’t know. And there’s still interesting questions to ask. [The Brain Scoop outro music]

100 comments

first holly hell is he old im never going to live to that age good chance almost every one in the comment section wont but i would love to get a job there but then i would have to write papers so fuck dat shit

interesting stuffs about jungle leeches – some hang around tree leaves and dropped on you when you walk under it, even tho they dont have eyes.

This man should be considered as a "living treasure", like the Japanese do with some of theire peoples.

What a guy!! Still going in at that age. That's passion and curiousity.
I can only imagine how much editing went into this. He seems a little all over the place. I'm sure a nap took place at some point.
But seriously! What a fantastic interview!

How inspiring! This showed me how fulfilling a job can be. I'm kind of envious of his drive and his motivation after all these years.

What a great interview! Thank you for giving us this glimpse into Dr. Inger's fascinating life. To be 96 and still working on frogs is remarkable!

wait, there are places in the world where leeches don't just hang out on the ground waiting for someone to come past?

hey, please watch my video
its dedicated to brain scoop
its my way of saying thank you to brain scoop for giving us quality time
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfj9nGDTVR0

This interview is great – he's had such an amazing experience! I wish more scientists/researchers were as enthusiastic about and dedicated to their art as Dr. Inger!

When one live so long he walks through a lot of pain.
He sees the loved ones go one by one.
you got to respect him.

It's amazing that his mind is so clear at his age and that he can still contribute too science at his age. He's an example to us all.

Terrific interview. Always great hearing first hand stories from old timey zoologists. Even those with illustrious careers can go unnoticed. Thanks for bringing him to peoples attention, he deserves recognition for a career advancing science, like so many others do.

I bet those "pictures" from Dr Inger's Travels were Slides. Wow an Awesome and long "Career" but you can tell he Loved what he did. Still working on frogs.

i lived in borneo a couple years ago for about a year, so i completely geeked out over this video!! thank you so much for this!!

i love all his stories of field research — all of these wonderful bits don't generally come across in finalized/published studies.

To my knowledge, correct me if I'm wrong, the title 'Datuk' is awarded to those who have earned it through their hard works. As for the people who buy the title, they were given the title Dato' instead. So there is a way to distinguish the real from the fake.

i would love to some day have a conversation with someone like him. I could literally sit down like a little child and listen to his stories all day. just wow , ps . English is not my first language.

anyone know whats most likely to cause a mutation in frogs? I was raising tadpoles and releasing the froglets back into the garden, but I've kept one as it has no eyes! it has a Facebook page so people can watch her grow and see pictures on my special frog!, Facebook.com/IrisTheEyeless

Does this channel do animal dissections and necropsies anymore? Am I just missing them on a sister channel or something? I haven't seen any here in several months, and to be honest, that was the only reason I subscribed. While the scientific discussions are fascinating and I fully respect the efforts too few people are putting in to save wildlife and change how we view and class them scientifically, it's subjects that are being done by several other channels. Need more "inside looks" if you know what I mean. 🙂

Bob miss you and fui lian very much. Thanks for all the trainings, knowledge and opportunity. You are indeed my lifetime sifu. From Borneo with Love.

What a lovely, interesting, inspiring gentleman. Thank you for sharing a little of his life story with us. I'd love to hear more – I bet he has some great anecdotes!

Emily- "What does keep you coming back to work on these frogs?"
Dr. Inger- "Well, there's still things I don't know." <3

What a beautiful man! I wish I had something that had me so excited I'd still be doing it 12 years after I retire!

This is so inspiring. I remember my thesis adviser, Dr. Mariano Estoque, Philippine's first meteorologist, still teaches at the age of 94 and still better than anyone I know.
Hat's off to you,Dr.Inger!

Emily, this episode is now added to my list of "The Brainscoop" favorites. Thank you so much. Dr. Inger is a gem of a guy, isn't he?

This is pretty much the BEST thing.
I love the stories, and the pictures of old timey science work in the forest are amazing to see.

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