Lander University assistant professor of biology Dr. Kerry Hansknecht poses with Hobbes, one of his 105 snakes. Hansknecht said that Hobbes, a Northern Pine Snake, will turn 15 in August. Asked how he intends to celebrate, he said, "give him a couple extra rats."
For Lander University assistant professor of biology Dr. Kerry Hansknecht, turning a lifelong fascination with nature into a career took some time.
After graduating from high school he went into the navy, tracking the movements of submarines from aircraft overhead.
He spent five more years working on office equipment in Florida. At one point he was called upon to fix musician Jimmy Buffet's fax machine.
In 1995, when he was 28 years old, he decided to return to school, to pursue a degree in computer science. It was a stay with his mother in Manassas, Va., near George Mason University, one of the schools he was checking out, that changed his mind.
His mother was living on 40 forested acres that bordered a small lake and had a nice stream. As Hansknecht explored the property, he encountered a profusion of snakes, salamanders, frogs and turtles, as well as other wildlife, and learned something about himself. "I found that I would much rather study reptiles and amphibians outdoors than poke at computers indoors," he said.
At George Mason, he got his wish, working under well-known herpetologist and turtle systematist Carl Ernst. Hansknecht called Ernst "one of the best mentors I could possibly have had. That was an awesome opportunity."
He continued his studies at Central Michigan University. For his masters thesis, he investigated the cold-water foraging behavior of Northern Water Snakes.
For his Ph.D work, at the University of Tennessee, he studied a rare form of lingual luring exhibited by Mangrove Saltmarsh Water Snakes, a subject which he continues to explore as a faculty member at Lander, where he has taught since 2009.
Hansknecht's dual identity as both a teacher and scientist was recently recognized by his colleagues, when he was named the recipient of Lander's Young Faculty Scholar Award for 2012.
Associate professor of biology Mike Runyan, who nominated Hansknecht for the award, called him "a great example of what good faculty are all about. He is very dedicated to his primary job as an educator. But he is also a dedicated scientist. He has a very active research program that keeps him in touch with his professional love, and he is involving students in that important part -- helping them to see what it means to be a scientist. I see his enthusiastic attitude and professionalism reflected in his students' comments."
Hansknecht, who teaches such courses as human anatomy and comparative vertebrate anatomy, said it's important to him that students feel they can approach him. "I don't want to get up there and act like I know everything. I'm just a guy trying to get them to learn stuff," he said.
Asked what sold him on Lander, he mentioned its new science building and the biology department's "comfortable size." Another plus, as he saw it, was Lander's low teacher-student ratio. "I really like that," he said. "I think it helps the students a lot."
Factor in the green light that Lander gave him to continue his research, he said, and it adds up to "a dream job, really."
As a result of Hansknecht's research at Lander, he has not only learned more about how the Mangrove Saltmarsh Water Snake uses its tongue to lure prey; he has discovered that its cousin, the Gulf Saltmarsh Water Snake, uses its tongue to attract prey, too. He and biology major Jason Magnuson of Swansea recently completed a study comparing tongue length in the two subspecies.
Hansknecht expressed gratitude for the award conferred upon him by his peers. "It's really nice to know that what I've done is appreciated," he said.