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What do you love about teaching at EKU?

Teaching at EKU is a very rewarding experience. We have some very talented and hardworking students here. For many of our students, their experience at EKU really is a gateway to a different kind of life than they would otherwise experience. It is moving at each commencement to see how many of the graduating seniors stand when the president asks, “How many of you are in the first generation in your family to earn a college degree?” Eastern faculty members are lucky because we get to experience that milestone step by step in the classroom. It is particularly rewarding to watch the development of our students over the course of a semester, or even over the course of several semesters, as they become more sophisticated thinkers.

What is your favorite memory?

There are lots of small moments that bring me smiles when I think back on them. Early in my career we used to teach Ecology and Human Affairs (NAT 261) for non-majors. We used to run an all day trip for that course to the Red River Gorge. Some students, of course, had been there before, but I was struck every semester by the number who had not been there – and who were sure we had gone to the edge of the earth. Most found the area beautiful and interesting (How could one not?!), and so those trips were always satisfying for me, thinking that perhaps some of those students would pay just a little more attention, and appreciate perhaps just a little bit more deeply, the natural world.

Another situation that sticks in my mind is that one of the first semesters I taught BIO 102 (for future elementary or middle school teachers), I copied an activity that Bill Staddon used in his sections. I had students look at skeletons of a variety of animals – frog, salamander, chicken, monkey, bat, alligator – and asked them to pay particular attention to the front limbs. We discovered that all of those organisms contain the same bones in the same arrangement (although proportions may differ) in those front limbs. This is powerful evidence that tetrapods (4-legged vertebrates) have all descended from a common (4-legged) ancestor. I saw one of my students several semesters later – a very smart and talented young woman – and she told me that I had caused her somewhat of a crisis. She had never really thought that evolution could be a viable theory before, but after making those anatomical comparisons, she began to see that evolution really does make a tremendous amount of sense. College isn’t about forcing any particular viewpoint on people, but it absolutely should be about challenging people to ask themselves, “How do I know what I think I know?” At least in that one case, I helped someone do that.

A number of years ago, I had a student in NAT 101 (non-majors biology). He stopped to chat with me several times after lecture – it was one of those big classes with 100 students in a large lecture hall. I learned that he had been at EKU, had dropped out for a couple of years, and was back at it. He was obviously very smart, but also had not found something that really called to him. We talked about that a bit and then figured out that geology might allow him to combine several of his interests – the outdoors, knowing how things work, using his considerable mathematical skills. So he became a geology major. Along the way he discovered that chemistry was fun, so he stuck around at EKU another year and finished a chemistry major. Then he went off to graduate school in chemistry and then on to a very nice post-doctoral research position. He has published lots of papers already, with several in very high prestige journals. He has worked with people in Europe and Asia. Others taught him geology and chemistry and inspired him to keep going. I helped him think through options and he did the rest. It is fun to look back and realize that Eastern really did work for him – EKU opened some doors for him, and he charged through!

What are your areas of research?

I haven’t been actively engaged in research for several years. I have done research in the area of physiological ecology, which means that I like to think about how organisms deal physiologically with their physical environment. Early in my career, I studied a couple of different kinds of aquatic insects and asked the question, “How do these organisms maintain an internal balance of chemicals, such as sodium, even as they live in a dilute medium (water) into which these chemicals might be expected to be lost?” That led to thinking about salamanders, which are relatively porous creatures, when they are living on acidic soils (since acidic waters causes changes in chemical balance in aquatic organisms like fish).

Another area in which I have worked is thinking about how animals like frog embryos and insects deal physiologically with below-freezing temperatures. Over the last couple of years, Wally Borowski and I have worked with 7th graders at Madison Middle School to investigate some of the chemical parameters (Wally) and fauna in Tates Creek. Wally has published some of his findings on the chemical characteristics of the stream; they biological stuff has turned out to be more of a “get the kids involved in science” endeavor. It has been fun to see those young students finding things for the first time that they had no idea existed in a stream that starts in town, not far from where they live.

What do you enjoy most about being in the classroom?

I really feed on interaction with students. Almost all of the teaching I have done has been of non-majors. Many of these students are afraid of science, or think they don’t like science, or both. Science is fascinating. I have fun talking with students about the natural world and helping them experience sides of the natural world that they have not explored before (for example, looking through a microscope or trying to make sense of how information is packaged, passed on, and used in organisms. Sometimes I can break through and I can actually see a reluctant student begin to have fun too. Of course, sometimes I am not successful, and that is disappointing. Recently I have gotten to teach at the other end of the spectrum – students who are close to graduating with a degree in biology. I’ve had fun being in a seminar setting with them discussing current research and interacting much more as colleagues as we examine the work of professional scientists.

How did you become “shepherd of the Science Building project?”

Andy Schoolmaster, then dean of Arts and Sciences, asked me if I would be the project shepherd. I had just stepped down as chair of Earth Sciences, so Andy and I had worked together for a year and he must have had confidence that I could do the job effectively. I didn’t know what a “shepherd” was; in fact Eastern didn’t really know either. Several folks from EKU had gone to a Project Kaleidoscope workshop the year before where the project shepherd model for building models had been advocated. James Street was our Director of Capital Projects at that point, and he embraced this idea. I think that was a very unusual stance for a capital projects administrator to take. (I went to a workshop a year or so later, and the message seemed to be “Keep faculty away from your projects or they will mess them up horribly.”) James was courageous in saying “We want this building to work for faculty and students. Let’s get faculty heavily involved.” Hats off to James for realizing that this way of doing things could work. Carroll McGill was the project administrator at the state level in the Cabinet of Finance and Administration. He, too, agreed that faculty could and should have a prominent role in designing the building. And the last piece of the puzzle that had to be in place for this to work was that we had to get buy in from the architects. Omni Architects jumped in with both feet. Joe Williams led the charge with Eric Zabilka in the “boots on the ground” roll. As the project developed, Eric took over the lead role, and continued working with us directly on a day to day basis too. He has a real talent for being able to parse the great big job of designing and building a building into smaller, prioritized tasks and decisions. He is also a wizard at understanding what non-architects are trying to tell him, and in framing architectural questions so that he can get useful information back from faculty and staff. My role has been to try to keep communication flowing among the design team, EKU’s Capital Projects and Facilities Services folks, and faculty and staff, and mostly to stay out of the way so that others could do the real work.

What does being part of the process mean to you and your students?

My serving as project shepherd has not affected my students directly. I’m not in construction management or another related field, so the things that I have learned and experienced on this project don’t really fit into my classes that deal with biology. On the other hand, this building is already (Phase I) working very well for students in Chemistry, Physics, and Science education. Phase II will work just as well for students in Biology and Geosciences. And that’s because EKU, the state, and the design team all embraced this idea of bringing faculty and staff into the process. On the EKU side of things, faculty and staff have been absolutely wonderful about offering up their time, energy, and brainpower. Lots of people have put an awful lot of thought and work into this building even though they already had full time jobs. But, again and again, faculty and staff have said, “This is my chance to help make this building better” and they have stepped up to the plate. And the decisions have not always been easy. We’ve had to scale back on several occasions to get back into budget. Two departments had to wait for phase two – we started this project in August of 2005; Phase II folks should move in by August 2017! Those budget-crunching and phasing times were perfect opportunities for internecine warfare. Instead we got cooperation and found solutions. EKU really is a special place. When push comes to shove, we do focus on furthering the mission of the university. I don’t think many places can make that claim with a straight face.

For me personally, this project has been absolutely fascinating. I knew very little about construction when we started on this. I have learned lots since then – and it is fascinating. I have learned to really appreciate the talents of people in the building industry, and, perhaps more importantly, the talents and dedication of people across the EKU campus. Some of our facilities are showing their age and they get hard use. When budgets squeeze – and we have been experiencing squeezing for the entire duration of this project – institutions tend to try to make things work by cutting in the area of facilities. Makes sense – we need to protect the core mission of the university – but it is not a situation that can persist. I am amazed at how well our Facilities folks keep us all running while being understaffed and under budgeted. Another group that tends to remain in the background are our IT folks. We all expect technology to be there and working for us, but most of us don’t think about it until we are ready to use it. The EKU IT folks did yeoman work getting wiring pulled, projectors installed, telecommunications up and running, etc. over a very compressed time frame. That’s some of the last stuff that goes into a building and we had a hiccup during move in, so IT was really under the gun. And they came through for us. So, one of the most rewarding aspects of this project for me has been the chance to work with some many talented people and to be able to appreciate at a much deeper level all the things that so many people have to do well to make a project work. I wouldn’t trade my experience on this project for anything.