14 October 2014

A trip back to my ol' Kentucky (and Indiana) home.

Historic buildings on Franklin Street are framed by neon
lights for one week a year.
As promised in my semester preview, and as a follow up to my Missouri trip a few weeks back, I had the opportunity to head back home to southern Indiana and central Kentucky last week. The timing of my trip was fortuitous, as my hometown of Evansville, Indiana was celebrating a momentous yearly event: the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival. More than a street fair, the Fall Festival marked the official start of autumn during my childhood. It's been probably ten years since I last partook of the food and frivolities. However, I was born and bred on the west side of town (my high school is less than a mile from the festival's location), so I fell back into old celebratory patterns without much trouble.

My happy face at
Fall Festival food.
As a kid, I was pretty invested in the games and rides at the festival. As an adult, I didn't even step foot into those areas, instead preferring to walk along the 4+ blocks of food vendors (each booth is a fundraiser for a group in the community, including several of my old school groups). My mom was kind enough to accompany me on my meanderings, which makes for great food-grazing because we could share twice the number of different menu options. I could wax philosophical about the virtues of various chili and cheese covered, deep fried concoctions, or you could take a look at the index of foods from this year's Munchie Map. Some items, like brain sandwiches and burgoo, are regional specialties. Some booth attract patrons with weirder options, like pickle juice slushies. I stuck with more traditional choices, like turkey burgers, stromboli, and cobbler with ice cream.

Of course, watching people is my favorite pastime at these events. The best overheard comment this year was from a family that stood in a semi-circle sharing corn dogs. One woman remarked (ever so sagely and without accusation), "Well, if one of us has ebola, I guess all of us do now." Indeed.

A rather large gingko tree.
The purpose of my trip was to give a seminar for the Department of Biology at my alma mater, Western Kentucky University. Part of the reason I'm enjoying my new job at UTTyler is because, as a regional school, it feels familiar to WKU. Campus has grown since I left, and the science folks have some great new teaching facilities. Despite these renovations, I was pleased to see this fantastic old ginkgo tree still standing between buildings.

It was a pleasure to meet with both mentors from my undergraduate years as well as with other assistant professors. After my graduate education and postdoc work at R1 universities, it's refreshing to talk to folks who are making a real difference in under-served parts of the country, both by helping students conduct science research as well as teaching classes in evolution.

It was gratifying to see a lecture room near full to bursting with students for my seminar that afternoon. I'm sure it was due in part to extra credit being offered for classes, but I hope a few of them gleaned some sort of benefit from my discussion linking the evolution of organisms to that of genomes and transposons (the powerpoint is available on Slideshare if you'd care to take a gander). After all, I graduated with my bachelor's degree from WKU less than ten years ago; if I were to believe the words of several folks I've encountered lately, I'm a shining example of a "success story."

Historic letterpress prints from Hatch Show Print
Why do I feel the need to qualify my "success" with quotation marks? For now, suffice it to say that I'm way too excited about developing classes and proposing new research to feel like I've accomplished anything more than the promise of more work! As my undergrad advisor, Larry Alice, reminded me when I saw him last week, I also need to enjoy myself. Recalling my previous obsession with mosses, he remarked: "Don't forget to stop and smell the bryophytes." In the spirit of following his advice, I allowed myself to make my travel back to Texas a little less miserable by sipping a caramel latte and perusing the Hatch Show Print display of historic letterpress designs in the Nashville Airport. Mmm...whole hog sausage.

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