Blackburn students Travis Buchanan, Cynthia Roberg, Jacob Maag, and Catherine Young pose with Blackburn alum and University of Chicago doctoral candidate, Ben Zalisko, outside of the Texas Natural Science Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.
February 14, 2014—On January 2, 2014, as another big snowfall was coming to an end, and I-55 was reduced to one slow southbound lane, four Blackburn students loaded into a minivan with Dr. Ed Zalisko, Blackburn College Professor of Biology, for a 900 mile journey to Austin, Texas. The students on the trip were Cynthia Roberg (Maple Park, IL), senior Biology major, Travis Buchanan (Momence, IL), senior Chemistry major, Jacob Maag (Golden Eagle, IL), junior biology major, and Catherine Young (Belleville, IL), also a junior biology major. They all were on their way to participate in the national meetings of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, formerly the American Society of Zoologists.
After an overnight in Waxahachie, Texas, the group arrived early enough in Austin to take a long tour of the newly renovated Presidential Library and Museum of Lyndon Johnson. The museum and library were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and there was much history to appreciate.
During long days of January 4, 5, and 6, the group attended some of the presentations by more than 1,000 scientists from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. Dr. Zalisko notes, “It is always wonderful to introduce our students to graduate students and professors from all over the world. The late afternoon sessions are a special event over a three-day period, when authors stand for at least an hour next to their research poster presentations. It is a casual, informal, and lively atmosphere where everyone can enjoy a chance to learn from other scientists. And this year, it was very well attended, at what seemed like capacity. I think our students had many meaningful interactions.”
Each evening, the group gathered for a long dinner to discuss the most interesting papers of the day. As is the long-standing custom, each Blackburn student leads a discussion of a presentation they attended, sharing some of the interesting insights and other details. “The evening discussions are the highlight of the trip for me, and I suspect for the students too. We try to pick special restaurants, which make each evening discussion all the more enjoyable. This year, we dined at an authentic Russian restaurant and enjoyed Tex Mex, Texas barbecue, and Chinese. But beyond the meals, we learned much from each other.”
The group was joined by Ben Zalisko, doctoral candidate in chemistry at the University of Chicago, who flew in to Austin and avoided the snowy roads! Seven years before, Ben was part of a Blackburn group at the SICB meetings in Phoenix, Arizona. Ben joined in the dinner discussions, sharing research he saw and bringing special insights from his chemistry background and graduate school experiences.
On the last day of the meeting, the group departed the presentations in the afternoon to tour the Texas Natural Science Center on the campus of the University of Texas, in Austin. In the ceiling of the museum is mounted the most famous of all pterosaurs, a giant 65 million year old flying reptile with a wingspan of about 40 feet. Noted Zalisko “It really was something to look up at the largest flying animal ever known. We spent a lot of time craning our necks to marvel at the unusual adaptations for flight.” The journey home was a long haul through rain, freezing rain, and snow, which required another stopover in Springfield, Missouri, before returning on January 9.