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Behind the Scenes

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  • Serpents of the Badlands


    I stop dead in my tracks. Despite the howling prairie winds, that unmistakable sound cuts through the bluster and into my ears. My eyes search the ground, scanning through the prairie grasses, yucca, scoria and prickly pear. Nothing.

  • From pythons and ferrets to coughing parrots: Adventures in exotic animal medicine

    Working with exotic animals in the Small Animal Clinic involves a lot of thinking on my feet. Each type of animal comes with unique needs and challenges. Parrots often have nutritional deficiencies and, like humans, can develop atherosclerosis – the result of a poor diet and too much sedentary time. (We sometimes refer to them as “perch potatoes.”) Reptiles and mammals tend to develop fungal infections on their skin. Birds, snakes and mammals need stimulation and like to explore – with sometimes tragic results.

  • Titan the survivor

    The first time I see Titan, a pit bull with mesothelioma in his chest, I give his owners “the talk.” The dog is breathing hard and fast because of the buildup of cancerous fluid around his lungs. Dogs develop some cancers that are very similar to human cancers. This is one that we don’t see very often and for which we don’t have really good treatment options, just like in humans. We eventually learn, however, that Titan is unique.

  • Weightless in San Luis Potosi

    OUTSIDE VALLES, MEXICO — When we first arrived at this stream, I knew we were in a special location. The clear, turquoise blue water rivals that of any picture from a Caribbean tour magazine. When I put my snorkeled face in the water, I can actually see mussels in the streambed below, something that doesn’t happen very often in Illinois streams. Collecting the mussels, however, is proving difficult.

  • Learning from the Lenca

    The warmth of the cookstove fire belies the blustery wind outside, whipping through the pines and occasionally lifting the corrugated steel roof under which we sit uneasily. I am with my volunteer interpreter/research assistant/daughter, sitting at a small wooden table in the kitchen. We are in Llano Largo, the highest point in Central America and also the client community of my course in international water-system design, Honduras Water Project.

  • Ancient American goddesses on display

    A new exhibit at the U. of I.’s Spurlock Museum offers a glimpse of the artistic and spiritual legacy of the American Indian people who built Cahokia, a great, thousand-year-old urban center on the Mississippi River. “Cahokia’s Religion: The Art of Red Goddesses, Black Drink and the Underworld” displays artifacts recently returned from the St. Louis Art Museum, including three of more than a dozen red carved-stone goddesses that the Illinois State Archaeological Survey found in our excavations of this ancient metropolis. You can view these figures alongside other cultural objects that reveal a civilization’s core beliefs and values. 

  • Telling stories and touching history

    I slowly turn each page of Florence Lee’s large paper scrapbook, making sure not to wrinkle any of the items she placed inside. Its contents offer a snapshot of student life in the early 20th century at the University of Illinois: a laminated orange and blue button from a homecoming football game, a brochure from the Anti-Cigarette League of America, ribbons and tickets from Dad’s Day events and dozens of photographs of scenes around campus, including personal photographs of Florence Lee with her family and friends. All of these items were either glued or, in the case of some of the flat paper items, had their corners tucked into angled slots cut into the pages. The items that Florence Lee placed in this scrapbook come from her undergraduate years at the University of Illinois – 1917-20. This memento offers a window into that time.

  • Chasing waterfalls

    MIRI, MALAYSIA — We awake from our post-training slumber at 6:30 a.m. for an activity unlike any of the team-building exercises we have experienced so far. This is only the first week of training for the Fulbright Program here. There are nearly 100 of us on this waterfall hike, braving the rain and humidity together to swim in one of Malaysia’s hidden pools.

  • Tarantulas in a pickle jar

    Storing your dead tarantulas in a gallon-sized pickle jar is not the best solution to long-term preservation. Especially when those tarantulas are toe-tagged – like corpses in a morgue. But that’s what I find this morning when I open one of the dozens of metal storage cabinets in the chilly insect collection: a pickle jar full of tarantulas.