That time of year…

8 August , 2014

It’s that time of year again. Summer projects started aren’t quite done. The long to-do list I started with is, well, still long.

Some things will be done. Within a few more days, we will have moved the boys out of their old rooms and into the new. This involves one of the rooms getting new paint and floor, and a new loft bed that is out of stock at IKEA for a few days — part of the very slow process of removing ALL of the carpet in the house and replacing it with laminate or other materials.

Many projects are in progress. Many things need to be started yet in the diminishing time before the start of yet another semester.

And so, rather than trying to conjure up more words, a picture of a place I’d perhaps rather be:

Just one picture from Jiuzhaigou...

Just one picture from Jiuzhaigou…



31 July , 2014

I like to cook, but I have a tendency to most like to cook things that are very yummy, but take a lot of preparation. And as I’ve gotten older and picked up more responsibilities (and have young kids, same thing?), I do less and less cooking period, much less of the big prep recipes. (Fortunately, I have a spouse who does enjoy cooking, and is better at not making a production of it!)

From our vegetarian and less time crunched days, we have a couple of cookbooks by Martha Rose Shulman, Vegetarian Feasts, and a shorter and smaller volume, Fast Vegetarian Feasts. In the former book are such amazing recipes as pumpkin lasagna, which not only features starting with a fresh pumpkin, but also fresh, homemade noodles, tied together with a béchamel sauce. (And this was something we last made over a decade ago… and no, I did not peek at the recipe.) Another favorite is black bean enchiladas, which I was reminded of by some refried black beans we used for tacos last week.

Tomorrow, I’ll be visiting a colleague who welcome his first child just over two months ago. I’ll be meeting her for the first time =). And having three kids of my own, I thought that it would be more useful to bring food for mom and dad than to bring another toy for the baby to ignore (for now), or cute clothes to be made a mess of. So, I used it as an excuse to make the black bean enchiladas…

Now, yes, I did look online to find a simpler recipe. But, none of them seemed to be much easier, and if they were, they didn’t look anywhere nearly as good. So, I went back to Feasts, and prepared to doctor the recipe a bit… I did not start with dried black beans, and I cheated with a can of sauce. But in both cases, I doctored the prepared items, hopefully in such a way as to improve them and get closer to the original recipe.

One benefit of my cheats was that I ended up with excess tortillas at the end — after making one tray for the newly-larger family, and another for home, I had enough to make yet one more entire tray. And it just turns out that a good friend who has been going through a lot of late has been given yet more to go through — and I can make a delivery of a tray of yummy enchiladas to that house tomorrow, too.

Part of what I look about cooking is the therapeutic benefits of paying close attention to what you’re doing, to the exclusion of all other worries. It feels even better to make food that I can give to others to enjoy.

And in this case, I may have to rely on others to find out whether my experiments worked… I will be visiting with the new baby tomorrow afternoon, and then staying nearer the city for a while to avoid the traffic jams on the way back home. Chances are, I will not eat dinner at home tomorrow — so I won’t get any unless the kids leave me some leftovers…

Tortillas prepped with a tomato based sauce and spices. Mmmm….

Assembly line…

Finished products




Many hats

25 July , 2014

I moved my research lab this week. From a space it sat for ten years, to a somewhat larger space, but with a smaller exhaust hood, and on a different floor. As I moved everything, it was like going through time, all of the different projects that have taken place there.

Sometimes, I find it hard to be an ecologist in a smaller school. When I came to this place, I was the only organismal biologist who actually worked on entire living organisms. My background is in insect-plant interactions, so I could talk about insects, other animals, and even plants. I usually end up teaching as many different classes as classes, which does not make the most efficient use of my time. It also means I have even less time to put into research.

Over the past ten years, I have accumulated a number of research projects. Some work better under circumstances that others won’t work at all. Some can be worked on in the winter, others cannot. Some projects get stalled when there are no plants or insects available. And some get stalled when something like a maternity leave (or a trip to China) kills off all of the plants… So many of these are still in progress. Chemical ecology of the black swallowtail, pollination of tree of heaven, allelopathy of tree of heaven, preference and performance under different nitrogen and phosphorus treatments with two different pairings of insects and plants, color learning in butterflies, sampling and collection of insects in and around campus, and, most recently, pollination in China. My lab has thus accumulated the materials and supplies to study all of these things. Cages of all sizes, insect drawers and cabinets, pins, models of flowers, leaves, and plants, all kinds of chemistry equipment… to inventory my lab, it would look like the combination of at least one each of chemist, systematist, behavioral biologist, field ecologist, botanist — oh, and photographer as well.

Such is the danger of going to a small school, and wearing many different hats at many different times. I have yet to decide what hat will be worn in the lab when classes begin again in the fall. Perhaps I can make a project of identifying the insects and plants we saw in China. Probably more sensible than trying to find the time to restart a project with plants, caterpillars, and butterflies or moths — what with another trip in the works for next summer.

Someday, perhaps when my part-time administrative role is up, I need to take a sabbatical and try to catch up with all of the data and projects that have accumulated… For now, it works as it ever does — triage reigns, and that which must be done is, and that which can wait does. (Oh, there are way too many things in that ‘waiting’ bin…)



All moved out of the old space

All moved out of the old space

New space, insect drawers visible

New space, insect drawers visible

Better view of the new space. More floor space...

Better view of the new space. More floor space…


22 July , 2014

I’m still recovering from the weekend. I know that many others are as well, certainly anyone who made it past the reunion proper, and the closing of the speakeasy bar, and the continuation into a couple of the hotel rooms. The room I ended up in reportedly had 25 people — fitting for a 25th reunion, I think. We were part of a group who had spent three years of high school together, and who had then gone on to amass degrees a-plenty from a very impressive list of schools. But, we all hung out into the way wee hours of the morning and talked. Talked about our kids, our plans, our lives. Reminisced about old stories, some of which only one or a few could recall, some of which only one or a few ever had any prior knowledge of.

A spouse in the room who also happens to be a colleague (same field, different school, but in a consortium with the school I am at) asked me how many in our class went into academia. I don’t know the number offhand, but a quick Facebook question turned up at least 10% of the class fitting that description, and I know we’re leaving people out. I suspect that’s higher than the usual high school class.

A word that was used to describe the group attending the reunion by one who knows us well (and has known us since the first fateful day nearly 28 years ago) was “unpretentious.” I like it.

While “what do you do?” was a common question at the reunion, it was not a loaded question. The answer was not judged, as far as I can tell. I talked to surgeons and professors and stay-at-home moms and all sorts of others, it was all good.

And to think, some 28 years ago, we saw ourselves on the pages of the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and countless other local Illinois papers — the best and the brightest, they said. Here’s part of the mission — of a high school!

...igniting and nurturing creative, ethical scientific minds that advance the human condition

part of the mission statement

But today — this weekend, at least — gathered together to celebrate 25 years that we were not all together in the same building on the same campus — we were ourselves, and we were not merely the sum of our degrees or of our titles. I’d like to think that it extends beyond this weekend. While yes, I have invoked my degree in certain circumstances, I generally feel uncomfortable doing so. (I am made uncomfortable when my CV gets scrutinized in China, and much made of where my degrees were earned — which has happened much more than I would like.)

Perhaps it’s age-related. But I think it’s more than that. As a group, we have been good at learning things. And I think that many of us have learned how to be comfortable with who we are as individuals. And if you’re comfortable with yourself, you’re less likely to have to rely on that title or that degree to prop yourself up.

That’s enough philosophy and psychology from a tired ecologist.


16 July , 2014

Nothing can ground one as a parent faster than a sick child.

I regularly spend time in a children’s outpatient procedure area in a hospital. I also regularly spend time in an outpatient area of another hospital where I am a regular patient, but it’s different to be the parent. My child is well, and is kept well by the medication he is infused with during these visits. Often, the other rooms in the area are empty. But it’s not uncommon for them to have occupants. I know that we will be leaving in just a few short hours. I don’t worry about the side effects, because, well, it’s been several years, and if he were going to have a reaction, he probably would have reacted by now.

But I don’t know the stories of the other kids. Some are in hospital gowns. Some seem to be restricted and not allowed to walk around. Some are just tiny babies. Some have been in the hospital for more than a day already, and some won’t be going home tonight.

We are all mortal in body. It’s part of being human. But we do not expect our children to face mortality before we do.

This child and I share a common diagnosis. But I was thirty when it first arrived. He was three. I cried when he was diagnosed. I blamed myself for passing this diagnosis on to the next generation. Not that there was anything I could have done to prevent it… genetics are but a small part of this particular diagnosis, and the chances of passing it on were small, but even events with very small probabilities do, in fact, occur.

In the long run, the path to wellness that I took sped up the path to his. He’s had one detour so far, and surely the future will hold more. But receiving a diagnosis of a chronic disease is much more traumatic when you are thirty than it is when you are three. I’ve been amazed at the resilience shown by my son given the medical hoops he’s been through. In the end, this is not a diagnosis that impacts lifespan, and for both of us, we seem to have found treatment that allows us to live a normal life. Most of the time — when we aren’t busy paying another visit to the outpatient area of a hospital.


15 July , 2014

Our lives are littered with landmarks. Births, deaths, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations…

This weekend, I will be fortunate to celebrate two very special landmarks in my life. The longer of the two is the IMSA Alumni Weekend. As a member of the Charter Class, we will be celebrating our 25th reunion this weekend. And yes, I say weekend: we will begin with a private affair at a restaurant that one of my classmates is involved in, visit campus for updates and to see alums from other classes for a bit, and then to a resort for the evening for the reunion proper. It looks like over half of the graduating class will attend — considering our class is far-flung (worldwide), and the number of life events that conspire to get in the way, this seems like a very good turnout. I’m looking forward to seeing people I’ve been reconnecting with online for the past 5-10 years. IMSA has a strong sense of shared history — perhaps especially for our class, who practically had the place to ourselves for the first year. (Perhaps literally so… we lived in the main building for the first seven months!)

Yare, an IMSA landmark

Yare, an IMSA landmark

Second, this weekend will also mark seventeen years of marriage for my hubby and I. We had a simple wedding on that date, in the Cornell Plantations. I was a graduate student, the building manager where my lab and office were was a judge in a nearby town — he officiated a lot of graduate student weddings, as it turned out. My advisor and a lab and office mate were the witnesses, and we had a simple ceremony and shared a picnic dinner that we prepared. One year to the day later, we had a more elaborate event in the suburbs here in Chicagoland, in which all too many people were invited. It was a lovely venue — it no longer functions as such, but we did a ceremony that hubby’s grandfather unofficially officiated in a gazebo outside and then went indoors for a lovely dinner and dancing and more. Of course, to me, the day is mostly a blur — I remember there were more people for the ceremony than we expected (hubby had spent so long telling people that he wasn’t ever going to get married that I think they all had to come and see it actually happen). But I’m told it was a lovely event!

Wedding pic

Wedding pic

And yes, hubby agreed to spend our anniversary eve at a reunion event. At least the kids will be with a grandma and grandpa for the weekend!

I am thankful for the happy landmarks to mark the passage of life.

And yes, there are more landmarks on the horizon as well. I have officially begun shopping for school supplies, and have a newfound respect for parents of multiple school aged kids. It’s amazing how many crayons and pencils two kindergardeners need for the first day of school! (Far more than their fifth grade big brother!)

Bees and butterflies, oh my!

10 June , 2014

If you want to follow along on my journey in China, check out our Benedictine Faculty Abroad blog!

Ben U Faculty Abroad

I am not a morning person. That is, I am not a morning person until I leave the US and head off to another part of the world. In Beijing, I awoke at 6am daily — at least an hour before any alarms were set. This morning, our first in Shenyang, I awoke at 5am, with the sky already fully lit.

I putzed around the room for a while, with 3 and a half hours before any commitments and no internet with which to waste away the time, or make any alternative plans. Eventually, it was 7am and I was fully clothed and ready to explore. I began by walking around the floor of the campus hotel — the 13th floor. (In China, 4 is an unlucky number, and 13 is just the number between 12 and 14.) Shenyang Jian Zhu University is in the suburbs, so there are not…

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Thank you, and goodbye

7 June , 2014

I am still in China.

This morning, 13h ahead of Illinois, I checked my email before leaving for another part of the country. (Woke up early in Shenyang, spent several hours on a bumpy flight, and am now in Chengdu, under cloudy but bright skies, with probably several hours of daylight remaining.) Immediately, I saw notifications of posts in the several IMSA alumni groups to which I belong. Not reminders of coming reunions… but news of the passing of one of the many remarkable leaders of a remarkable place I had the great fortune to attend.


The picture above was taken four years ago: November 2010. It was Veterans’ Day, and I visited IMSA that day because they had invited a classmate, Ron McKenzie, to give the address.

I didn’t know it until later that day, but when I took this picture, Eric McClaren had already received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lou Gerhig’s disease. It would be a few weeks or months yet before this diagnosis was shared with the IMSA community. I do not recall the first time I met him, but it must have been in the fall of 1986, as I first arrived at IMSA. At that time, he was a resident counselor, but by the time of this picture, he had earned a PhD and was now the principal. He was always a tall, athletic figure, the sort you would never predict to suffer from a dehabilitating disease. But in the past four years, he did so, I think with grace and dignity.

Enough will be written about Eric today, and in the days to come. I know that he was working on a book, and I hope that he was far enough along with it that it will yet be published.

But I want to thank Eric, and what he did to make IMSA what it is today. He is one of many role models in my life, although I’m not sure I realized how much so. But Eric had a drive, a drive to make things better, even when there was a personal cost involved. I can only hope to live up to the standards he set for himself, and challenged others to reach.

One more note: When Eric’s diagnosis became public, the IMSA community pulled together in amazing ways. I once visited him at the Rehabilitation Institute in the city, and there was an alum there who was checking in on him. I heard more stories about alums, no matter where he went, seeing to his medical care and other needs — others will likely share these stories as the news spreads.

But, I am today thankful to be a part of this community, and to have had Eric as an influence in my life.

Here is one remembrance, posted to the IMSA web site:–-june-6-2014

May is for leaving

26 May , 2014

This May, the theme in my life is leaving.

I leave for China in two days. It’s a four week trip, away from my husband, my kids, my pets, and my home for longer than I have attempted in a very long time. It will be an amazing trip: field research in multiple sites, sprinkled with sight-seeing and experiences, for the primary benefit of the five students who will make the flight with me. A colleague, in whom I have the utmost in respect and trust, will be meeting us in the airport. A scholar of Chinese language and literature, his support is invaluable, from making connections and arrangements to being able to give us context for our experiences in China.

I will be coming home again, but not in May.

This morning, I said goodbye to a minister who will be leaving while I am away. She told us this morning that, in order to ease the transition to a new minister, she will be cutting off everyone in the congregation, even on Facebook. She was our first contact in the church community, and her welcoming words four or so years ago brought us to a congregation with whom we feel we have found another home.

The week before last, I finished grading exams and attended events to celebrate and say goodbye to six colleagues and two administrators. A provost who was the department chair who hired me, a CIO with whom I worked closely, and several colleagues who I feel privileged to be able to call friends. Unlike my minister, they will stay in touch. But, they have all left their regular roles in the university — this month, in May.

And long ago, eleven long years ago, I said goodbye to one who cannot ever be replaced. Moms are special… I am reminded of that as my trip comes near, and my five year olds hold my hands in stores — of their own accord, and take every opportunity to touch and cuddle with me. (The ten year old is more subtle, but he also needs his mom…)

And so May is for leaving; this May, at least.

I will come home, to my husband, my kids, my pets, and my life.

But not until June.

Summer classes

6 July , 2013

I’m often asked if I’m teaching during the summer. As a full-time tenured faculty member, the answer is “no” in the traditional sense, but that’s not entirely true. Every summer, I take on one or two summer research students. Sometimes one of them has already been at work in my research lab, on a part-time basis the summer before. But sometimes it’s a brand new student or students, who take time to learn how to care for all of the organisms involved (just keeping plants and insects alive can be a challenge) and then the experiments… and as our department only teaches undergraduates, we do not have continuity provided by graduate student workers. 

This summer, I have two new-to-the-lab students learning everything anew, which is both fun and exhausting. But, I am also trying something new: I’ve signed up for a mini-MOOC. It only runs for four weeks, and it’s on Game Elements for Learning (on Twitter as #GE4L). 

I have been working to make my classrooms more interactive for as long as I’ve been teaching, and games are one way to do this. I’ve found two board games to use in ecology–both pedagogically sound. And game theory is a gimme (in animal behavior, when I can teach it). The introductory webinar was led by Dr. Gerol Petruzella from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who teaches a class called “Dungeons & Discourse” — introductory philosophy as a game, akin to Dungeons and Dragons. This sounds appealing, but it’s not truly possible for me — his class is one section among many, while mine tend to be single and required, leaving no options for a student who would not be comfortable in this scenario. Playing a game here and there to practice content is one thing; embedding the entire course in a game is something else. 

This was “week 0” of the course, so it’s mostly introductory material for the MOOC. I’m curious to see where it goes — my hope is to use this as an impetus to “gamily” another part of one of my courses. But, I’m not sure either that the tools I’ll learn from this will be applicable to the courses I teach or that I’ll have the time to really focus on this, with everything else going on this summer. At any rate, I’ve made an avatar Image (best I could do with the options available — if only my hair laid so neatly…) and will earn a class badge whenever they get to me, so I guess that’s something.