Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2006 | People

Pollen Lover: Jim Huber

By Mary Fishburn
Jim Huber works with state geological surveyors, national foresters, environmental archaeological consulting firms, and universities to uncover clues about what the climate was like thousands of years ago.

Watery eyes and runny noses are what most people associate with pollen, but Jim Huber views the tiny particles as keys that can unlock exciting discoveries about the past.

Huber, 79BA, 80BS, uses ancient pollen samples to reconstruct what the environment and vegetation looked like thousands of years ago, a science dubbed palynology.

In the past four years as a private consultant, he has studied pollen and sediment samples for public firms and universities around the globe. From his home lab in Vinton—a barn filled with beakers, centrifuge tubes, balances, and ovens—Huber explores times when mammoths, mastodons, and red pandas ruled the planet. "You never know what you're going to find," he says.

From microscopic clues, he's determined the season when a 2,000-year-old Chilean mummy was buried and discovered when wild rice became available for North American consumption in northeast Minnesota.

Huber's childhood interests in forestry, archaeology, and geology led him to geoscience classes at Iowa, where UI emeritus professor Dick Baker sparked his pollen passion. After graduating with a B.A. in anthropology, Huber went on to earn advanced degrees in geology and interdisciplinary archaeology from the University of Minnesota and worked in a laboratory there for 21 years before returning to Iowa.

Now a UI adjunct geoscience instructor, Huber is currently examining pollen samples to provide researchers information about the vegetation that sustained southern Iowa's prehistoric giant sloths. He doesn't always dabble in the extinct, though. Once, he helped Minnesota police investigate a kidnapping and murder. Huber analyzed mud in the wheel well of the getaway truck, hoping to find information about where the vehicle had been—and possibly lead police to the missing woman.

"That was a stressful job," he says. "I had to be as accurate as possible because one tiny mistake would have led police in the wrong direction."

Huber's favorite part of the job will never make an episode of CSI, though. He's happiest analyzing pollen and writing up reports. "Then I get to share them with other people who can build on my work," he says. "That's the foundation of science."