Bevin could show a conservative can care about conservation

November 14, 2015

Kentucky is blessed with a beautiful landscape and abundant water resources, and we have been trying for more than a century to ruin it.

Too often, Kentuckians have been presented with a false choice: We can either have jobs and economic prosperity or clean water, air and land — but not both.

That kind of thinking has left Kentucky near the bottom in national rankings of wealth, health and well-being. It is no coincidence that this state’s most environmentally damaged places are also its poorest and sickest.

Twenty-first century reality is the opposite of that false choice. Pollution may bring a measure of prosperity in the short-term, but it harms it in the long-term. Balancing commerce with conservation ensures that Kentuckians will be able to live, work and prosper here forever.

These issues are worth thinking about now because a new governor will soon take office. Many people who care about the environment fear that Republican Matt Bevin, with his business and Tea Party background, will make things worse.

I’m not so sure about that.

Kentucky’s environment has suffered under both Democrats and Republicans. That suffering has included irresponsible surface mining, industrial pollution, poorly designed sprawl and costly highway projects designed more to enrich land speculators, road contractors and developers than to meet real transportation needs.

A recent investigation by Erica Peterson of WFPL radio in Louisville used state records to show how polluters have faced less scrutiny during the administrations of Democrat Steve Beshear and Republican Ernie Fletcher than they did before.

At the same time, pollution increased. Under both administrations, there was much less funding for enforcement and less political will to go after polluters, especially when they were coal companies.

The consequences of that have been real. For example, more than 500 miles of streams in the Lower Cumberland basin were classified as fully supporting aquatic life in 1992. By 2012, that number had fallen to about 100 miles, state records show.

Big polluters — such as the people behind the “war on coal” propaganda campaign — try to make Kentuckians think that the only people who care about the environment are liberal tree-huggers. But that’s not true.

An increasing number of conservatives realize the importance of environmental protection, for a variety of reasons. Hunters, fishermen and farmers have been powerful conservation advocates for decades.

There is a growing Creation Care movement among conservative Christians, who cite Genesis 2:15 and other scripture. Influential groups include the Evangelical Environmental Network and Lexington-based Blessed Earth.

Christian environmentalists recently got a powerful ally in Pope Francis, whose encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, makes it clear that destroying God’s creation for profit is a sin.

Conservative businessmen such as Alltech’s Pearse Lyons have realized for years that there is a lot of money to be made in helping society become more environmentally responsible. He is a bright beacon for Kentucky’s future.

On the flip side, libertarians are speaking out against the crony capitalism that allows corporations to pay off politicians to protect their pollution and stifle innovation.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that solar and other renewable energy industries are growing rapidly as Appalachia’s coal industry shrivels and dies. But the coal barons’ money and power have kept Kentucky politicians, both Republicans and Democrats, toeing its line. At least until now.

Bevin seems to be a smart, independent man who doesn’t owe many people favors. That last attribute puts him in a unique position compared to his predecessors.

The self-funded candidate wasn’t put into office by coal magnates, highway contractors and developers. Coming from outside the political establishment, he isn’t steeped in the crony capitalism that has long corrupted state government.

Bevin is under less obligation than his predecessors were to protect Kentucky’s economic past. He has political cover to pursue new ideas and more environmentally friendly approaches to economic development.

Bevin could create a powerful legacy by showing Kentucky that conservative and conservation come from the same word. Does he have the courage to be different?


Transylvania University biology students study bats around campus; No, this isn’t a Halloween joke

October 27, 2015
Transylvania University biology student Kelli Carpenter makes notes while she and two other students work with instructor Josh Adkins to detect bats on Transylvania's campus. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Transylvania University biology student Kelli Carpenter makes notes while she and two other students work with instructor Josh Adkins to detect bats on Transylvania’s campus. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

When I heard that biology students were studying bats that fly around the Transylvania University campus, I knew there had to be a good Halloween column there. Could a punch line be much easier?

But what struck me was the fascinating technology used for this research. It is an example of how new and relatively inexpensive digital devices are revolutionizing science.

It was a dark and spooky night when I met Transylvania biology teacher Joshua Adkins outside a classroom building. We were soon joined by three biology majors: juniors Kelli Carpenter and Devin Rowe and sophomore Brandon Couch.

Kentucky has 16 species of bats. Many live in colonies in remote caves and forests. But other, more solitary species like city life, where street lights attract an endless buffet of insects for them to eat.

“A lot of basic, fundamental questions are unknown about many species of bat because they’re small, they’re nocturnal, they live in places you can’t easily access and they pretty much avoid or ignore people,” Adkins said.

Adkins and his students knew there were bats on campus. In their search for nooks in which to hide, bats occasionally wander in an open window. One flew into the orchestra room Sept. 9, causing quite a stir.

“I go to lacrosse games, which are usually at night,” Couch said. “I’ve seen a lot of them swooping over the athletic fields.”

Despite their creepy appearance and fictional association with vampires, bats are nice to have around, because they eat mosquitoes and other insect pests. Last year, Rowe and a student environmental group raised money to build two bat shelter boxes on campus.

“The idea really was to get a sense of where bats are most active and then use that information to place bat boxes in the most effective places,” Adkins said.

But since bats are small, dark and avoid people, how could the students figure out their favorite campus hangouts?

Luke Dodd, a bat ecologist who teaches at Eastern Kentucky University, told Adkins about a new $400 microphone that can detect the sounds bats make as they fly, most of which can’t be heard by the human ear.

150922TransyBats-TE061The Echo Meter Touch, made by Wildlife Acoustics Inc., plugs into an iPad and comes with software that records and can identify the species of nearby bats with about 80 percent accuracy.

Adkins got money from Transylvania’s David and Betty Jones Fund for Faculty Development to purchase a couple of microphones and iPads. One night a week since June, his three students have made three-minute recordings at a dozen locations around campus, and they have found a lot of bat activity.

Transylvania’s campus seems to have five species of bats: big brown, hoary, silver haired, Eastern red and evening bats.

On the night I walked around campus with them, they may have found a sixth. At one listening station, Rowe’s iPad detected a long-legged myotis bat, which normally is found in western North America.

“I’m not sure about that, but bats are migrating now,” Adkins said. “Maybe it could be lost.”

“Maybe he’s on vacation,” Carpenter joked. “Checking out Martha’s Vineyard.”

One species the students probably won’t find on campus is Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, which, like its namesake, prefers to live in forests.

Constantine Rafinesque was an eccentric biologist who was on the Transylvania faculty from 1819 until President Horace Holley fired him in 1826 because he was always off in the woods doing research and rarely on campus teaching.

Legend has it that Rafinesque put a curse on Holley, who was forced out of Transylvania and died the following year. Rafinesque died in 1840 in Philadelphia, but his body was dug up in 1924 and reinterred in Transylvania’s Old Morrison Hall. Rafinesque’s tomb is a popular campus attraction, especially at Halloween.

The students’ bat research will be winding up soon, because bats hibernate after the first frost of winter kills most insects. Adkins hopes to get funding to continue their work next year, and to expand it to include a study of campus insects that bats eat.

“Given that we’re a college right in the middle of Lexington, this is a perfect setting to determine what are some general patterns of bat activity in a city,” Adkins said. “Once these guys collect more data and present their results, I hope it will help take away that negative stereotype bats have.”

Carpenter, left to right, Brandon Couch and Devin Rowe stood with biology instructor Josh Adkins, right, outside the Haupt Humanities Building, one of a dozen campus locations where they have been surveying urban bat populations using a high-tech microphone hooked up to an iPad.

Carpenter, left to right, Brandon Couch and Devin Rowe stood with biology instructor Josh Adkins, right, outside the Haupt Humanities Building, one of a dozen campus locations where they have been surveying urban bat populations using a high-tech microphone hooked up to an iPad.

Adkins, left, works with Carpenter, Couch and Rowe to listen for and record bat sounds using a high-tech microphone hooked to an iPad.

Adkins, left, works with Carpenter, Couch and Rowe to listen for and record bat sounds.


New book explains history, mystery of the Bluegrass’ ancient trees

October 17, 2015
This bur oak on Gainesway Farm near Lexington is thought to be several hundred years old, pre-dating the first white pioneers and settlers in Central Kentucky. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

This bur oak on Gainesway Farm near Lexington is thought to be several hundred years old, pre-dating the first white pioneers and settlers in Central Kentucky. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

Most of us pay little attention to Kentucky’s oldest living residents. They are huge, but to the untrained eye they seem to just blend into the landscape.

Central Kentucky and Middle Tennessee may be the only places on Earth with this unique assortment of centuries-old bur, chinkapin and Shumard oak, blue ash and Kingnut hickory trees.

When Daniel Boone blazed his trail into the Bluegrass in 1775, many of the same trees we see today were already here, and big enough to offer him shade.

We seem to know little about how to care for and preserve these rare trees, which are rapidly disappearing from the landscape. But with Tom Kimmerer’s new book, Venerable Trees: History, Biology and Conservation in the Bluegrass (University Press of Kentucky, $39.95), we can know a lot more.

Kimmerer is a forest scientist, former University of Kentucky professor and one of only two tree physiologists in the state. Now a consultant, science journalist and photographer, he founded a Lexington-based non-profit organization, also called Venerable Trees. It seeks to protect these old-growth species and promote the planting of native trees in the region.

While deeply grounded in science, this book is written with a general audience in mind. It is easy to understand and filled with interesting information and stories, plus useful maps, illustrations and dozens of Kimmerer’s beautiful photographs of the trees.

Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist and author of the book, Venerable Trees. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Tom Kimmerer

Kimmerer explains why this mix of old trees is found only in the Inner and Outer Bluegrass regions of Kentucky and the Nashville Basin region of Middle Tennessee.

While some of these trees were part of forests, most grew up in pastures above deep limestone deposits. The largest remaining specimens are about 7 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet tall. Many are between 300 and 500 years old.

Why did these trees thrive here? For one thing, Kimmerer writes, crevices in the underground limestone allowed the trees’ roots to grow deep to reach groundwater and survive periodic droughts.

Another reason is that huge herds of bison once roamed the Bluegrass, before they were hunted to near extinction in the early 1800s. The bison’s periodic grazing helped keep the woodland pastures from becoming forests.

Early Kentucky settlers wrote about the enormous trees they found, many of which they cut down to build their structures. Lexington’s first building, a blockhouse where the downtown Hilton is now, was made from a giant bur oak felled by 21-year-old Josiah Collins in April 1779.

While settlement and development decimated many North American forests, hundreds of giant trees in Bluegrass pastures were kept to shade livestock or decorate the estates of wealthy landowners.

That explains Lexington’s many urban specimens. The finest collection of venerable trees is in Lexington Cemetery, where they have been nurtured since the 1850s. These trees escaped the fate of hundreds more like them cut down by 20th century real estate developers.

151018VenTrees001Kimmerer tells the story of what he calls the St. Joe Oak. It is the largest of what was once a grove of ancient trees that between the 1950s and 1970s became the St. Joseph Hospital complex. After neighbors protested plans to cut down the huge bur oak, it was surrounded by a concrete parking structure that may yet kill it.

But the author offers a hopeful example of how builders are beginning to view these distinctive trees as neighborhood signatures and amenities rather than obstacles.

Ball Homes hired Kimmerer to develop a preservation plan for what he calls the Schoolhouse Oak, a bur oak about 500 years old that dominates a hill over Harrodsburg Road at South Elkhorn Creek. Previous development plans for that property by other companies had called for the tree’s destruction.

Efforts to reproduce these tree species have met little success for many reasons, including urbanization and a lack of modern herds of grazing bison. Climate change will make this even more difficult.

Kimmerer offers good suggestions for preserving our venerable trees and replacing them with these and other native species that are more suitable than what is often planted.

Venerable Trees will likely become a classic among books about Kentucky’s natural history and environment, because it covers so much new information in such an accessible way.

These magnificent trees are as much a part of the Bluegrass landscape as horses, rock walls and four-plank fences. Whether or not you paid much attention to them before, this book will give you a greater appreciation of Kentucky’s oldest living residents.

If you go

Venerable Trees

What: Author Tom Kimmerer discusses and signs his book

When: 2 p.m., Oct. 18

Where: The Morris Bookshop, 882 East High Street.

More information: Venerabletrees.org


Annual conference could help make your invention ideas reality

September 27, 2015
Inventor-Con helps would-be inventors make their ideas into products and businesses. Photo provided

Inventor-Con helps would-be inventors make their ideas into products and businesses. Photo provided

 

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it has many fathers: ideas, money and collaboration, to name a few.

Would-be inventors may be able to find some of those things at Inventor-Con, a series of seminars Oct. 6 at the Lexington Public Library’s Central Library. The event is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is recommended.

This is the 10th annual Inventor-Con sponsored by the Central Kentucky Inventors Council, a non-profit organization that helps people with ideas for inventions bring them to market.

What began as a small regional conference now attracts inventors, entrepreneurs and service providers from across the country.

“We try to cover a lot of different areas, because there are so many pieces to the invention process,” said Don Skaggs, the council’s president.

The featured speaker is Stephen Key, author of the book One Simple Idea, who began his career as an inventor by helping develop popular 1980s toys such as LazerTag and Teddy Ruxpin.

The conference will have about 30 exhibit booths and eight breakout sessions. Other speakers include patent attorney Jim Francis of the Lexington firm Fowler Bell; Gordon Garrett of the Kentucky Small Business Development Council; and Doug Clarke, owner of Lexington maker’s space Kre8now.

Nick Such, a technology entrepreneur who works with the incubator space Awesome Inc., will discuss learning to write computer code. Ben Van Den Broeck of ArtLab KY will talk about using 3D printing to make prototypes. And the owners of the youth engineering education center Newton’s Attic will have a session for young inventors.

Skaggs said one of the most valuable things about the conference is that inventors get to meet and share their experiences with other inventors. Last year, the Inventor-Con attracted about 200 people.

“Inventors need to be around other people,” he said. “They don’t often succeed in isolation.”

The Central Kentucky Inventors Council was organized in 1996 as a networking and assistance organization for inventors and entrepreneurs. It is now one of the largest of more than 100 such organizations nationwide, and the only one in Kentucky.

The council has about 100 members. Membership is open to anyone, and the $40 annual dues entitle members to attend monthly meetings to discuss their inventions and get feedback from fellow inventors, who sign non-disclosure agreements.

“It’s sort of a brainstorming session on steroids,” Skaggs said. “Sometimes it can keep people from spending a lot of time and money going in the wrong direction.”

The council has a young inventors’ group in cooperation with the state’s Student Technology Leadership Program.

Skaggs said advances in technology have opened many new avenues for inventions, including iPhone applications and software development, and made the process more approachable.

Inventions aren’t always gadgets. Some of the most successful ones are simple, problem-solving ideas in areas where the inventor has knowledge and expertise. Sometimes, the finished product turns out to be much different than the original idea.

“It runs the gamut — everything from medical products to simple garden tools,” Skaggs said. One example: a council member with a background in the lawn care equipment industry invented a simple, commercially successful device for cleaning the underside of a lawn mower.

Some people have ideas for inventions they want to produce and market themselves; but most want to license their ideas to others.

“A lot of people have ideas for inventions,” Skaggs said. “But most of those people never act on them.”

If you go

Inventor-Con

What: Central Kentucky Inventors Council’s 10th annual free seminar for inventors and entrepreneurs

When: 3-8:30 p.m. Oct. 6

Where: Central Library, 140 E. Main St.

Information, registration: Ckic.org


Ignore political scare tactics; EPA’s Clean Power Plan will be good for Kentucky in the long run

August 9, 2015

Here’s some advice for Kentucky politicians freaking out about the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Power Plan: Calm down, take a deep breath and face reality.

On second thought, maybe they shouldn’t take that deep breath. Kentucky has some of America’s dirtiest air, and most of that pollution comes from the coal-fired power plants those politicians are trying to protect.

Kentucky leads the nation in toxic air pollution from power plants, according to a 2012 study by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those plants also are the main source of man-made greenhouse gasses that are causing climate change.

The Clean Power Plan, unveiled in final form last week, is the Obama administration’s better-late-than-never attempt to fight climate change. Its goal is to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants by 32 percent from 2012 levels by 2030. That is tougher than the 30 percent in an initial proposal, but states would be given more flexibility and two additional years to meet their targets.

Still, the EPA’s goal is modest by international standards. Many European nations have pledged to do more, and scientific studies show carbon emissions must be cut dramatically if the world hopes to curb the disastrous effects of climate change.

Despite the politicians’ howling, Kentucky was on track to meet its initial EPA target of an 18 percent cut in carbon emissions. That’s because utilities already were planning to phase out old coal plants or convert them to natural gas to save money.

The final plan calls for Kentucky to cut emissions by nearly 30 percent — a tougher goal, but still one of the least-stringent among the states. In addition to phasing out coal-fired power plants, Kentucky can meet its target by adding more renewable power sources and improving the energy efficiency of buildings, two areas where it lags behind many other states.

As with previous environmental rules, segments of corporate America and the politicians they sponsor are fighting back.

Kentucky is one of 16 states suing to block the Clean Power Plan, with Attorney General Jack Conway taking a lead. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged states to simply ignore the EPA’s requirement to submit a compliance plan — and risk having one imposed on them if the new rules are upheld in court.

It is no coincidence that Kentucky, West Virginia and other states leading opposition to these rules are places where the coal industry dominates the economy or politics, or where energy-intensive manufacturers have long enjoyed cheap electricity subsidized by damage to the environment and public health.

It will be up to the federal courts to decide whether the EPA’s modest and long-overdue plan to cut carbon emissions, clean the air and water, and improve public health will take effect next year.

But Kentuckians should ignore the scare tactics of politicians, who know they must toe the coal industry’s line if they want to get campaign contributions and votes.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan won’t ruin the economy or “kill jobs.” It will require some difficult transition. But a number of studies predict that, in the long run, the move toward cleaner, renewable power will create a stronger economy with more jobs. At least for those states that embrace inevitable change rather than fight it.

Think about it: Since environmental laws first were enacted 40 years ago, each new regulation, from cutting automobile emissions to curbing acid rain, has been met with corporate and political opposition and dire predictions of economic disaster.

Those predictions have never come true. In fact, just the opposite. That is because environmental regulations have stimulated innovation, creating jobs and growing the economy. Since 1970, air pollution nationwide has been cut by 70 percent and the size of the U.S. economy has tripled.

Regardless of your views on climate change, cleaner air and water mean a better quality of life, a stronger work force and better public health. Those are not small issues in a state like Kentucky, which has some of the nation’s highest cancer and asthma rates.

Kentucky and its leaders have a simple choice. They can cling to the past and fight a losing battle to preserve pollution. Or they can face reality and realize that change is inevitable, pollution is unhealthy, global warming is a threat, renewable energy is the future, and innovation will create a stronger economy.


Kentucky priest thankful for Pope Francis’ environmental message

July 18, 2015
Father Al Fritsch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, stands on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

Father Al Fritsch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

RAVENNA — Pope Francis’ pronouncements about the immorality of social injustice and environmental degradation have rattled economic conservatives worldwide, and nowhere more than in King Coal’s Appalachia.

But the message isn’t new for Catholics in some parts of Kentucky, where Albert Fritsch — Jesuit priest, scientist and activist — has been writing, preaching and teaching for nearly four decades.

“I call myself a true conservative,” Fritsch, 81, said when I visited him at his home beside St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Estill County. “I am fiscally and socially conservative.”

But the jovial minister with a shock of white hair, who most people call Father Al, has always been a critic of economic conservatism. Now, he has some powerful backup.

Pope Francis, the Argentine cardinal elected pope in March 2013, issued an encyclical, or statement of church doctrine, last month that sharply criticized capitalism, consumerism, pollution and denial of human-induced climate change.

These are not political issues, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics said, but moral and religious issues. Christians must start behaving differently, he said, or risk destroying the Earth.

Father Al Fritch, a Jesuit priest with a doctorate in chemistry and a long history of environmental activism, stands on the porch of the rectory at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in Ravenna. Photo by Tom Eblen | teblen@herald-leader.com

I thought this would be a good time to visit Fritsch. As expected, he is pleased with Pope Francis’ leadership. “What he says is, to me, great stuff,” he said. “We need him in this age very badly.”

Fritsch said his interest in the environment began on his family’s farm near Maysville, where his father grew their food and cared for the land. His love of nature led him to science.

Fritsch earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Xavier University and a Ph.D. in chemistry at Fordham. He did post-doctorate research at the University of Texas.

But Fritsch became disillusioned that advances in chemistry were being used and abused for corporate profit. He went back to school to become a priest, studying theology at Bellarmine and Loyola universities.

Fritsch threw himself into advocacy, first as a science adviser with Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law and then, in 1971, as a co-founder and co-director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

By 1977, Fritsch decided he could have more impact in Kentucky. He moved to Mount Vernon and started Appalachia Science in the Public Interest, which focused on environmental issues.

Since 2002, Fritsch has ministered to Catholic congregations in Frankfort, Somerset and, currently, Ravenna and Stanton. But half his time is still spent on environmental work through his non-profit Earth Healing Inc.

He has authored or contributed to dozens of books and articles. Berea College Special Collections recently came to get his personal papers for preservation.

Fritsch writes daily reflections and records videos for his website, Earthhealing.info. His website manager thinks that Francis, before his election as pope, was among Fritsch’s online readers.

laudato-si400-255x363By focusing on wealth and its moral consequences, the Pope has made a lot of powerful people nervous. “The system that we have today, the capitalistic system as such, is really a state religion,” Fritsch said.

Pope Francis’ message is especially tough to hear in Kentucky, where the coal industry has a big influence in politics and the economy.

“A lot of Catholics are not taking this too well,” Fritsch said. “So many of them are committed to their way of life. One fellow got up and called me a communist and walked out.”

The man came back, Fritsch said, and asked him to lead a series of congregational meetings to discuss the encyclical. They begin next month.

Fritsch said one of the things that frustrates him most is that environmentalism has been politicized.

“When I started in environmental work in 1970, both Democrats and Republicans were in favor of the environment,” he said, noting that Republican Richard Nixon presided over creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Only after Reagan and with time did it become a partisan issue.”

The real issue is money, which is why Fritsch thinks politicians in both parties and institutions that depend on corporate money are dragging their feet. Renewable energy threatens investments in fossil fuels.

The Pope’s encyclical doesn’t offer solutions. Rather, Fritsch said, it calls for society to change and for people to frankly discuss these problems and seek solutions.

“We need to do a lot of talking in Kentucky,” he said. “This is a new frontier in theology, that we have a duty to save an earth that is threatened with destruction. Our grandparents didn’t have this. It’s a secular thing, but it’s also deeply religious.”

The biggest challenge, Fritsch thinks, is that the pace of climate change leaves us no time to waste.

“Things are changing, and we’ve got to be prepared for these changes,” he said. “I think that’s what Pope Francis is trying to say. And I think people are listening, because there’s a whole world out there that knows something is deeply wrong.”


American Medical Association is again led by a Lexington doctor

June 30, 2015

Steven Stack, a 43-year-old Lexington emergency room physician, recently became the youngest president of the American Medical Association since 1854.

He will need all of the youthful energy he can muster.

The nation’s largest physician organization has some ambitious challenges, from helping sort out health care reform laws to rethinking medical education and trying to stem epidemics of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Stack is the second Lexington doctor to head the AMA in three years. Ardis Hoven, an infectious disease specialist, was AMA president in 2013. She now chairs the council of the World Medical Association.

“We live in the same Zip code,” Stack said. “But we never see each other in Lexington.”

Dr. Steven Stack, a Lexington emergency room physician, recently became the youngest president of the American Medical Association since 1854.  Photo provided

Dr. Steven Stack. Photo provided

Stack and his wife, Tracie, a physician and University of Kentucky graduate, moved to Lexington in 2006 to be closer to family in Ohio. He is from Cleveland and got his education from Holy Cross and the Ohio State University.

He is director of emergency medicine at St. Joseph East and St. Joseph Mt. Sterling hospitals. Before moving here, he directed emergency medicine at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis.

When I caught up with Stack by phone Monday, he was relieved that the U.S. Supreme Court had rejected a technical challenge to the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as the ACA or Obamacare.

“If it had come out the other way,” he said, “there was the risk of over 6 million Americans losing their health insurance that they had just recently gotten and throwing the entire delivery system into a whole new type of chaos with no clear path forward.”

The AMA has been generally supportive of the ACA, especially its goal of increasing insurance coverage. That doesn’t mean doctors don’t think the law needs improving.

“But you have to be willing to want to correct it and make it better as opposed to just ripping apart and destroying it,” he said. “If we want to make some things better about it, then we need to focus on those things and not on trying to cut the whole law.”

The ACA has both good and bad aspects, Stack said. A bigger issue is how it and other health-reform laws do or don’t work together. Insurance companies also have regulation and bureaucracy that makes doctors’ jobs more difficult and interferes with patient care.

“We spend too much to provide care to too few people with results that are not as good as they need to be,” he said.

In 2012, the AMA identified several broad areas where it hopes to have an impact over the next decade.

One is medical education. Stack said the AMA has invested $11 million in 11 medical schools around the country to pioneer ways of incorporating new technology, new learning methods and new leadership skills in the training of doctors.

Another big initiative is addressing the diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) epidemics through early diagnosis and prevention.

About 86 million Americans are thought to be pre-diabetic, “and nine out of 10 of them do not know they are,” Stack said. With better diet and more exercise in proven intervention programs led by partner organizations such as the YMCA, many pre-diabetic people can be prevented from developing Type 2 Diabetes.

Early diagnosis and disease management also are critical for hypertension, which affects 70 million Americans, or 1 in three adults.

“Those are two of the most prominent and prevalent conditions of chronic health in the United States, and they cost over a half-trillion dollars a year in healthcare expenditures,” Stack said.

“If we can improve the care of those conditions … then we could profoundly improve the health and wellness of the nation, improve their capacity for work and fulfilling lives, and improve the economy of the nation all at the same time.”

Kentucky’s diabetes and hypertension rates are some of the nation’s highest, but Gov. Steve Beshear’s embrace of the ACA, by creating a state insurance exchange and expanding Medicaid, has helped get more Kentuckians treatment for a variety of health problems, Stack said.

Another AMA goal is to help “restore the joy to the practice of medicine,” he said.

Doctors “have so much intrusion from governments and private payers and other regulators in their lives,” he said. “If we want to have a healthier, happier nation, we have to have healthier, happier physicians to partner with patients to make that possible.”


A case of Pappy helps add glitz to Derby wine auction and gala

April 28, 2015

The Lexington Cancer Foundation will have its 10th annual Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala at Donamire Farm on April 30. This photo was taken at the 2014 event. Photo Provided

The Lexington Cancer Foundation will have its 10th Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala at Donamire Farm on Thurday. This photo was taken at the 2014 event. Photo Provided

 

A bottle of hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle has become a hit at many Central Kentucky charity auctions, sometimes fetching bids of $1,000 or more.

So here is one reason the Lexington Cancer Foundation‘s Kentucky Bluegrass Wine Auction & Derby Gala is one of the state’s fanciest Derby parties: It will auction an age-mixed case of a dozen bottles of the high-priced bourbon, plus a limited-edition Scottish crystal decanter filled with even more.

Kristi Martin, the foundation’s executive director, wouldn’t say who donated the Pappy or how much she thinks it might sell for. But I would expect several five-figure bids from the 400 guests Thursday night. After all, tickets to this sold-out gala at Donamire Farm cost $700 per couple.

Other auction items may bring even more than the Pappy. There are University of Kentucky basketball season tickets; a U2 concert in Chicago; a breeding season with an Ashford Stud sire; a Breeders Cup package; golfing at Pebble Beach; and luxury trips to Rome, Argentina, Mexico, Napa Valley, Las Vegas and Wyoming.

The wine auction gala has become a popular fundraiser for the foundation, which by the end of this year will have made more than $3 million in grants and donations to cancer-fighting organizations throughout Kentucky since 2004, Martin said.

At least half the attendees will come from out-of-state, she said, including a large Silicon Valley contingent that includes Kevin Systrom, the founder and CEO of Instagram. Graham Yost, creator of the hit TV series Justified, also will be there.

But compared to some other Derby parties, this isn’t a star-studded event — unless you are a wine connoisseur.

“Some high-level groups are coming in now, and that’s wonderful,” Martin said. “But what we have found out over the years during Derby week a lot of celebrities want to be paid to come, and that’s something we would never do.”

Brenda Rice, the wife of Lexington attorney Brent Rice, started the foundation in 2004 after a family member was diagnosed with cancer. She talked with friends she had volunteered with for other causes over the years and discovered many of them also had been touched by the disease.

“I thought, how can we make the biggest impact?” Rice said. “I knew what these women were capable of when their hearts were in it.”

The foundation is run by a 50-member board of women volunteers, with help from another 50 “junior” board members. Each year since 2005, the foundation has made an average of more than $280,000 in grants to a variety of hospitals, researchers and cancer-related programs throughout Kentucky.

The private foundation receives no state or federal funds, but has attracted a long list of corporate and individual sponsors, whose donations significantly cut the cost of putting on the wine auction and gala.

A key to the event, Martin said, has been its ability to attract top vintners. Each year, more than a dozen wineries spend about $50,000 each from their marketing budgets to participate. This year’s vintner chair is Will Harlan of the Harlan Estates family in Napa Valley. He now has his own label, The Mascot.

“The event has grown over the years as word has gotten out,” Martin said. “The level of wineries that we’re able to attract is phenomenal.”

Festivities begin Wednesday with six private dinners for top sponsors at foundation patrons’ homes. Vintners have a trade fair for area restaurateurs and wine merchants Thursday morning to promote their products, which will be served that evening at the gala with food catered by The Apiary.

After a Friday breakfast at Keeneland, guests are offered tours of horse farms and Woodford Reserve Distillery before dinner for vintners and top sponsors at the Iroquois Hunt Club. For those who want to attend the Derby on Saturday, the foundation helps them arrange to buy tickets.

“They get a wonderful experience of Kentucky during the Derby season,” Martin said. “And they help us raise money for our mission.”

The foundation’s other major fundraiser this year will be the fourth annual Roll for the Cure, a bicycle tour Aug. 22 in partnership with the Bluegrass Cycling Club.


Hunting agate in Estill County ahead of this weekend’s big festival

April 25, 2015

150421Agate-TE0064Cindy Striley of Cincinnati, left, examined a rock she found along Station Camp Creek while hunting for agate. James Flynn, right, who led the hunt, discussed another specimen with Richard and Linda Schlabach of Nashville, Tenn. Back left is Jerry Parton of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. People from more than a dozen states went on agate hunts last week leading up to this weekend’s 25th annual Mountain Mushroom Festival in Irvine. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

IRVINE — Jerry Parton waded slowly down Station Camp Creek, scanning the rocky bottom beneath shallow riffles.

He carried a plastic bucket in one hand and a three-pronged rake in the other, using it to turn over stones now and then. Parton bent down, picked up one and rolled it in his hand. Then he shook his head.

“It’s just a piece of hamburger,” he said, referring to a round, ridged rock that looks like Kentucky agate but isn’t. “I always have high hopes for those.”

Parton, who lives in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, was part of a record crowd of 150 rock hounds from 13 states who came to Estill County last week for three guided hunts before the Kentucky Agate, Rock Gem & Jewelry Show.

The show is part of the Mountain Mushroom Festival, which began Friday and continues through Sunday. This is the 25th year Irvine has celebrated the tasty morel mushrooms that grow wild in the surrounding hills and the eighth year the festival also has showcased rare Kentucky agate.

Other events include a mushroom market and cooking demonstrations, car and craft shows, a beauty pageant, the Fungus 5k Run and the Speedy Spore River Run. Last year’s festival brought 20,000 people to this town of 2,400.

150421Agate-TE0003“These are things that make us unique, and we want people to see what a nice community we have here,” said Francine Bonny, the festival’s chairwoman. “We’re salt-of-the-earth people.”

Kentucky agate is found only in Estill and parts of five adjacent counties: Madison, Lee, Rockcastle, Jackson and Powell. Spring is the best time to find it. Heavy rains tend to wash chunks out of underground bedrock formations into creek beds freshly cleared of algae.

The General Assembly declared agate the state rock in 2000, even though it is mineral quartz and technically not a rock. (Legislators struggle with science. They also declared coal the state mineral, even though it is a rock and not a mineral.)

Geologists think Kentucky agate was formed as part of the Borden layer during the Mississippian period, about 350 million years ago.

Agate stones appear rather ordinary on the outside. When broken open, they look like translucent glass with irregular, concentric bands combining red, orange, yellow, black and gray. The coloration is caused by various chemical impurities.

Collectors often use rock saws to cut agate into slices. They then polish them for display or use in decorative items such as jewelry or bookends.

Rondle Lee was giving away pieces of unpolished agate last Tuesday morning to people who signed up for one of the festival’s three official hunts. Lee wanted everyone to know what they were looking for, because locals say the stretch of creek on his property contains some of the finest agate in Kentucky.

James Flynn of Irvine, who has been hunting agate for 35 years, led the group on a one-mile hike to the creek, followed by a long wade upstream.

Bright sunshine made it a good day for hunting, Flynn said, because the agate’s coloring would stand out better from limestone and sandstone. Hunters tried to be choosey: whatever they put in their bucket or backpack had to be worth carrying around all day.

“Until about the 1960s, nobody knew this agate was here,” Flynn said. “A lot of people come and hunt now. I’ve gone many a day and not found a piece. Other days, I’ve found a pack full.”

Dan Newbauer of Apple Valley, Minn., came to hunt last April and enjoyed it so much he returned this year. Others, such as Esta Helms of Columbia, Mo., and Richard and Linda Schlabach of Nashville came after hearing about it from other members of their rock hound clubs.

“It’s just a totally different kind of agate,” said hunter Chip Burnett, a retiree from Killeen, Texas, who collects rocks, makes jewelry and has sold his wares at the Irvine show for four years.

“If you want some of this stuff, this is where you have to come,” he said. “But it’s beautiful country with a lot of friendly people.”

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Studying great art can help improve everyday observation skills

April 13, 2015

150330ArtPerception0088Gray Edelen, left, an art history student from Bardstown, talked with medical students Taylor Gilbert of Lexington, center, and Amanda Pursell of Louisville about Robert Tharsing’s 2011 painting “A Natural History of Kentucky”, which hangs in the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center. Photos by Tom Eblen

 

On a recent afternoon, small groups of University of Kentucky students huddled around paintings and sculptures on display at UK’s Chandler Medical Center.

As you might expect, some were art history majors. But they were there to help 17 medical students.

The medical students weren’t really there to learn about art, but to observe it — very closely — and then describe what they saw and what they thought it meant.

The goal was to improve the medical students’ observation and communications skills to make them better at diagnosing patients’ illnesses.

“It’s good to learn how to see the bigger picture by looking at the details,” said Taylor Gilbert, a medical student from Lexington.

The exercise grew out of a presentation by Amy Herman, a lawyer and art historian who travels around speaking about what she calls “the art of perception.” In early February, Herman spoke to a packed classroom at UK’s College of Medicine.

Herman began this work more than 15 years ago when she was education director at the Frick Collection, an art museum in New York City. She had heard how art historians at Yale and the University of Texas worked with medical students to improve their perception skills, so she set up a similar program at the Frick for the nearby Cornell University medical school.

Amy Herman. Photo provided

Amy Herman. Photo provided

When a friend heard what Herman was doing, she suggested that these skills could help other professionals, too. Homicide detectives, for example. Herman contacted the New York Police Department and, within six months, she was training every newly promoted captain.

A Wall Street Journal reporter wrote about the program in 2005 and, Herman said, “My world exploded.” She left the Frick to start her own consulting business. In addition to medical students and New York cops, she now trains agents for the FBI, CIA and even Navy SEALs.

As Herman began showing slides of paintings to the UK medical students and asking them to describe them, she forbid the use of two words: obviously and clearly.

“We work and live in a complex world, and very little obvious and even less is clear,” she said. “No two people see anything the same way, and we have to understand and enrich our appreciation for that fact.”

Herman showed what appeared to be an abstract painting, but was really a picture of a cow. Few saw the cow until she brought attention to it. She then drew lessons from landscapes, still life paintings and portraits of “handsome women of the 18th century” that held subtle clues about their lives.

“Perception goes both ways,” she said. “How do patients perceive you when you walk into the room? Do you put them at ease? Is it easy to ask questions? Your patients may have an entirely different perspective than you do.”

Herman said people often make mistakes by trying to “solve” problems too quickly, before they have taken time to assess a situation.

“Before you decide what to think and what to do, you need to say out loud what the issue is,” she said, adding that some of those things may seem too obvious or be embarrassing to mention but can be vital details.

Herman showed a painting of an elderly, obese and naked woman sitting on a sofa. When asked to talk about it, an audience member began by describing the sofa’s upholstery.

“You need to say what you see and not dance around it,” Herman said. “I always tell police officers you will never get in trouble for saying what you see. Saying what you think is an entirely different story.

“Raise the issue, even if you can’t explain it,” she added. “Raise any inconsistency, because with more information somebody else may be able to answer the question for you. Also think about what’s missing. What should be there but isn’t?”

Herman said she recommends that child abuse investigators ask a child to smile. Seeing whether a child’s teeth are clean says a lot about the care they are receiving.

“Small details can provide volumes of information,” she said. “Body language and facial expression tell us a whole lot.”

When describing observations, choose words carefully to be precise. And don’t make assumptions. The three most important questions to ask when problem-solving: What do I know? What don’t I know? What more do I need to know?

“There are often things hiding in plain sight that you are consciously or unconsciously not seeing,” said Herman, who gave an embarrassing personal example.

Several years ago, while running in New York, she noticed a man in a wheelchair walking a puppy. She loves puppies, so she asked him if she could pet it. After playing with the puppy for several minutes, they parted. Within minutes, she realized that the man had looked familiar. It was Chuck Close, a famous artist she admired but had never met.

“He’s one of my favorite artists in the world, but I was so focused on his puppy that I didn’t even notice the man was a captive audience right in front of me,” she said. “Don’t miss what’s right in front of you.”

150330ArtPerception0095Christina Romano left, an art education major from Louisville, talked with medical students Katie Donaldson, center, of Independence, and Amy Chen of Davis, Calif., about Warren Seelig’s stainless steel and fabric mesh sculpture, “Gingko”.


Newton’s Attic teaches kids engineering through fun and games

April 5, 2015

150401NewtonsAttic0023Kate Golden, 10, rode The Device, which sling-shots riders down a 125-foot-long track at Newton’s Attic.  The non-profit company uses hands-on fun and games to teach kids engineering, technology and physics. Photo by Tom Eblen 

 

When Bill Cloyd was growing up on a Lexington farm in the early 1980s, he enjoyed building go karts and mini bikes from spare parts and testing the laws of physics.

He erected an 80-foot-tall tripod from old TV antenna towers and practiced free-falling into a circus net. He made a human catapult to launch friends into a pond. And he created a centrifugal “vomit express” ride that quickly taught him the importance of putting an “off” switch within easy reach.

Making those toys inspired Cloyd to become a mechanical engineer.

“But I realized I was learning as much about engineering by building stuff as I was in the classroom,” he said. “And building stuff was a lot more fun.”

150401NewtonsAttic0230After teaching high school physics for two years, Cloyd started the non-profit company Newton’s Attic in 1998. He began by making resource materials for teachers, but soon developed facilities and programs where kids could learn engineering, physics and technology by creating their own toys.

Cloyd and his wife, Dawn, a businesswoman and former language teacher, have operated Newton’s Attic since 2012 from a five-acre former tractor dealership off Versailles Road just past Blue Grass Airport. They offer summer, spring break and after-school classes for kids ages 6 to 18.

Last week, when Fayette County Public Schools were on spring break, Newton’s Attic was a beehive of adolescent creative energy:

Kids and their instructors were hurling pumpkins with a giant ballista catapult. They were building and flying drones. They were using wood, metal, PVC pipe and power tools to create robots. And they were learning about gravitational force by riding the Sling Shot, a 125-foot, bungee-powered roller coaster.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Kate Golden, 10, as she built a robotic arm she designed to pick up tennis balls. “Nobody tells you exactly what you have to make. You can invent it yourself.”

This summer, Newton’s Attic plans 28 classes in such things as robotics, computer programming and building your own 3-D printer. There also is Camp Catapult and Camp Chemistry. During the past three years, summer camp enrollment has grown from 183 students to 730, and Dawn Cloyd expects more this year.

150401NewtonsAttic0091“The whole idea is fun with physics,” she said. “Play is the ultimate learning tool.”

Newton’s Attic has worked on programs with many Central Kentucky school districts, UK, Berea College and the Christian Appalachian Project. Cloyd said they hope to offer professional development training for science teachers in the future.

The facility also hosts school field trips, scouting events and birthday parties. Private tutoring is available, as is a “mobile engineering center” that can take programs to other locations. More information: Newtonsattic.com.

The business is supported by student tuition, donations and grants from companies such as Messer Construction, which recently gave several thousand dollars to improve the shop facilities.

“We have kids as young as 6 using power tools,” Dawn Cloyd said. “It’s amazing how responsible kids become when they get to do it.”

Everyone wears safety glasses when using power tools, and there is plenty of supervision and help from instructors, both adults and older teens. Some instructors started coming to Newton’s Attic as kids and are now studying engineering and related subjects at the University of Kentucky.

Blaise Davis, 13, has been coming to Newton’s Attic for several years from Cincinnati and staying with his grandparents. He has built a go kart and last week was making a PVC cannon to mount on it to shoot tennis balls in competitive engineering games.

Rikki Gard’s son Dexter, 10, started attending Newton’s Attic classes four years ago. She said he has learned to build and fly drones, studied several computer programming languages and is already considering a career in computer science.

Her daughter, Maura, 6, began classes last summer.

“I don’t know what we would have done if Newton’s Attic didn’t exist,” Gard said. “You can’t find electives like that anywhere else. I guess he would have had to get books and study on his own.”

The family recently moved to Cleveland, where both kids will be going to Menlo Park Academy, a public school for gifted kids. “I’m sure Newton’s Attic will be the thing they miss most about Lexington,” she said.

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Ark park fiasco a wakeup call to aim higher with taxpayer incentives

January 11, 2015

ark3

 

The dispute over tax breaks for a proposed Noah’s Ark theme park is ridiculous on many levels, but it offers a good economic development lesson for Kentucky politicians and taxpayers.

In case you haven’t been following the story, the nonprofit organization Answers in Genesis, which opened the Creation Museum in Boone County in 2007, is trying to build the Ark Encounter attraction in nearby Grant County.

AIG believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible’s creation story that is contrary to both scientific evidence and the views of most Christians. Among other things, AIG’s followers believe the world is only 6,000 years old, and that humans and dinosaurs once lived side-by-side, just as in The Flintstones cartoons.

The Creation Museum drew a lot of tourists — believers and scoffers alike — so AIG announced plans in 2010 to build a big theme park around a 500-foot-long, seven-story-high version of Noah’s Ark.

This time, though, AIG wanted taxpayer subsidies. And it got a lot. But it wants more, even as the project has been scaled back because of fundraising shortfalls.

The city of Williamstown agreed to a 75 percent break on property taxes for 30 years and a $62 million bond issue. The Grant County Industrial Development Authority gave the park $200,000 plus 100 acres of land at a reduced price. The state has promised $11 million in road improvements for the park’s benefit.

The state also agreed to provide $18 million in tourism tax credits, but it withdrew the offer after it became clear that Ark Encounter jobs would go only to people who pass the group’s religious litmus test. You would think state officials could have seen that coming.

Kentucky politicians should never have agreed to these incentives in the first place. And you have to wonder: Would they have done the same for a Wiccan World theme park? Buddha Land? Six Flags over Islam?

AIG has threatened to sue, and it has rented billboards around Kentucky and in New York’s Times Square to wage a holy war of words against what founder Ken Ham calls “secularists” and “intolerant liberal friends” who object to his ministry feeding at the public trough.

The sad thing is, AIG might have a case. It doesn’t help that in 2013, the General Assembly foolishly passed a conservative feel-good law that protects religious groups from vague “burdens” imposed by state government.

So don’t be surprised if AIG — a tax-exempt group with more than $19 million in annual revenue and enough extra cash to rent a billboard in Times Square — argues in court that it is “burdened” by being denied millions more in taxpayer subsidies.

The ark park mess is a symptom of a bigger problem with Kentucky’s economic development strategy. Despite recent reforms, officials aim too low too often. Rather than focusing on high-paying jobs that will move Kentucky forward, they are often happy to subsidize jobs that don’t even pay a living wage.

It is an unfortunate reality that state and local governments must sometimes throw money at corporations to bring jobs to their areas. It has become quite a racket, as companies play cities and states off one another, demanding more and more concessions that shift the burden of public services to everybody else.

Sometimes, such as with the Toyota plant in Georgetown, incentives are good investments. But Kentucky has shelled out money for far more clunkers.

The ark park is a great example of a clunker. It would create mostly low-wage service jobs while reinforcing the stereotype of Kentucky as a state of ignorant people hostile to science.

Think about it this way: For every low-wage job the ark park would create, how many high-wage jobs would be lost because science and technology companies simply write off Kentucky?

But economic development incentives are only part of the problem. Kentucky’s antiquated tax code no longer grows with the economy, and it is riddled with special-interest loopholes that leave far too little public money to meet today’s needs, much less make smart investments for the future.

The ark park fiasco should be a wake-up call for Kentucky politicians to raise their standards.

This state will never become prosperous by spending public money to create low-wage jobs and reinforce negative stereotypes. Prosperity will come only through strategic, long-term investments in high-wage jobs, education, infrastructure, a healthy population, a cleaner environment and a better quality of life.

Everybody say amen.


Thomas Hunt Morgan: history to empower, not limit, Lexington

January 3, 2015

While most of us are making plans for this year, some people in Lexington have their eyes on 2016. They are planning a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Hunt Morgan, the most famous Lexingtonian most people here have never heard of.

The goal is not so much to celebrate someone who lived from 1866 to 1945, but to use his legacy to help reshape Lexington’s image and future. If this local boy could grow up to become one of the 20th century’s most influential scientists, what might other Lexington children be inspired to accomplish?

If Thomas Hunt Morgan’s name sounds vaguely familiar, it is probably because you have heard of his uncle, Gen. John Hunt Morgan, a dashing Confederate cavalry raider. His statue is outside the old Fayette County Courthouse.

Thomas Hunt Morgan was born in the home of his great-grandfather, John Wesley Hunt, one of Kentucky’s first millionaires. In 1955, the house was saved from demolition and inspired creation of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which now operates it as a museum.

THMMorgan grew up in a circa 1869 house behind it. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky recently deeded that house to the Blue Grass Trust, which has begun renovation.

Morgan spent his childhood collecting fossils, birds’ eggs and other natural specimens that filled his parents’ attic, inspiring him to a career in science.

After earning a degree from the University of Kentucky, he got his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University. As a professor at Bryn Mawr College, he did pioneering research in embryology there and at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass. He moved on to Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan’s experiments with fruit flies explained how the theories of genetics and evolution worked. He became the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize in 1933 and wrote seven books that are now scientific classics.

But Morgan’s significance was not just in the results of his research, but in the ways it was conducted. His emphasis on collaborative, skeptical experiments over theory created the foundation for modern biological research.

The attic of Morgan’s childhood home was the first of several laboratories he would use to change the course of science. “He always said this was a key part of his success,” Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, said.

UK’s biological sciences building is named for Morgan, and the biology department hosts a prestigious annual lecture that bears his name. But Morgan is much more famous everywhere else than in Lexington, which has always been more fixated on his Civil War uncle.

Kimmerer thought it was time to change that. After writing a piece about Morgan for the website PlanetExperts.com, he launched an effort to make 2016 the “year of Thomas Hunt Morgan” in Lexington.

The Blue Grass Trust hosted a lunch at the Thomas Hunt Morgan House on Dec. 5 for more than 40 representatives of local government, education and business communities. Kimmerer outlined his vision for a year of events that could have a lasting impact on Lexington’s potential to become more of a center of scientific education, research and commercialization.

Kimmerer said the response has been good — especially outside Kentucky.

“We’ve gotten a very warm reception from all of the institutions where Morgan studied and worked,” he said, noting that they have offered to send speakers and lend artifacts and materials.

After the lunch, attendees formed committees to help interested groups organize events and raise some money for facilitation once a non-profit has been identified as a financial steward.

“We would like for interested companies or schools to step up and create events they think would have value,” Kimmerer said.

Among the ideas: science fairs, lectures, and an educational event called a bioblitz, where teams of volunteers work together to identify as many species of plants, animals and organisms in a defined area as possible within 24 hours.

Kimmerer is trying to organize a screening of the new movie, The Fly Room, which is set in Morgan’s Columbia University laboratory, and perhaps an exhibit of the scientifically accurate movie set.

Even more important is creating a long-term legacy, such as public art and exhibits; economic-development initiatives focused on science; scholarships or fellowships at the prestigious institutions where Morgan studied and worked; and naming a local public school for Morgan.

But the most important legacy Lexington could create for Morgan is the attitude that this city should be empowered by its history, rather than be limited by it.

“We look at this as an opportunity for Lexington to change its self-image,” Kimmerer said. “And the more we can get kids involved, the better.”


Taste-testing a way to make truly local, crusty Kentucky bread

November 3, 2014

141028Wheat0016Jim Betts, front, owner of Bluegrass Baking Co., works with David Van Sanford of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture to test baguettes made with five varieties of wheat they raised in Lexington that usually don’t grow well in Kentucky. Betts checks the aroma, while Van Sanford pulls a slice apart to check texture and taste. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Why have the French always eaten baguettes, while Kentuckians preferred biscuits? The answer may have more to do with climate than culture.

Kentucky’s wet winters are more conducive to growing the low-protein “soft” wheat used for soft breads, biscuits and cookies than high-protein “hard” wheat, which works best for crusty breads.

But Jim Betts, who owns Bluegrass Baking Co. on Clays Mill Road, has noticed a couple of trends in recent years: his customers are buying more crusty, chewy breads, and they want more of their food to be locally grown.

“We’re trying to source as many locally produced products as we can,” Betts said, adding that a couple of organic farmers in Central Kentucky have told him they want to grow new varieties of wheat if they can find a market for them.

141028Wheat0068So Betts began talking with experts at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture to see if it might be possible to find varieties of high-protein wheat that would grow well here.

He also wanted to know if there would be noticeable differences in taste between organically grown Kentucky flour and the nearly one ton of North Dakota flour he buys each week from ConAgra Foods.

Betts worked with Mark Williams, a horticulture professor who teaches sustainable agriculture, and David Van Sanford, a wheat breeder in UK’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.

A year ago, they planted four varieties of wheat they thought might work, including one developed in North Carolina for wet Southern climates. One was grown at UK’s Waveland research farm in south Lexington, the rest at the Spindletop research farm north of town.

“Of course, we chose the worst winter in 20 years,” Betts said. “But we got some flour out of it.”

That flour was given to Andy Brown, Bluegrass Baking’s chief baker, who used it to make baguettes.

Last Tuesday, Betts brought Williams and Van Sanford together to do a blind taste test of the four baguettes, along with one of his store’s regular baguettes and a “ringer” made from UK-produced soft wheat. They were joined by Bob Perry, a UK professor who teaches gastronomy and dietetics.

Betts and the UK professors sliced up each baguette so they could smell, taste and pick it apart. They evaluated each on the color of its crust and the aroma and texture of the “crumb” inside.

When wheat is mixed with yeast, water and salt to make bread, the fermentation releases gasses that form bubbles in the bread — and produce that wonderful smell. The higher the flour protein, the bigger the bubbles, the larger the loaf and the chewier the bread.

Betts likens this “gluten strength” to a balloon: “The stronger the balloon, the bigger it can get.” The problem with low-protein flour is that it “cannot hold the tension you need to make a good, crunchy loaf.”

The men agreed that some of the wheat varieties made better baguettes than others, but all were good. The “ringer” loaf wasn’t as good as the others, but it wasn’t bad.

Having demonstrated that high-protein wheat can be grown in Kentucky, Williams said the next challenge is to refine farming practices to maximize consistency, quality and yield.

Van Sanford said about 500,000 acres of wheat is now grown in the state, mostly in Western Kentucky, but almost all of it is low-protein varieties. Growing high-protein wheat for local consumption would require more than planting different seeds. Farmers would need storage and milling facilities — and customers.

Central Kentucky once had dozens of flour mills, which survive only in the names of the roads that led to them. Weisenberger Mill in Midway is the last one operating.

But here’s the big question: Can high-protein wheat be grown economically enough for Kentucky farmers, millers and bakers to all make a profit at a bread price Kentucky consumers would be willing to pay?

Betts thinks so. He says many Bluegrass Baking Co. customers realize that fresh, local food tastes better, and the more they can keep their money in the local economy, the better it is for everyone.

Creating this new niche market for Kentucky farmers would be a challenge, but I give it better odds than convincing Frenchmen to eat biscuits.

141028Wheat0037Betts, left, talks with Van Sanford, center, and Bob Perry of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture as they evaluate baguettes made with five varieties of wheat UK grew.

 


Here’s the local hero a forward-looking Lexington should celebrate

October 18, 2014

What holds Lexington back? Well, for one thing, we celebrate the wrong member of the Hunt-Morgan family.

That may sound trivial, but it’s not.

In my work, I talk with some of Lexington’s most innovative people. They are behind many of the exciting things now happening in this city. Privately, though, many say they feel as if they are swimming against the tide. Lexington resists change, is too comfortable with the status quo.

Lexington loves to celebrate its history, and rightfully so. But the value of studying history is not to dwell on the past; it is to better understand the present and find inspiration for the future.

As a boy growing up here in the 1960s, I considered Gen. John Hunt Morgan a local hero. The Confederate cavalry raider was the star of the Hunt-Morgan House museum, his mother’s home on Gratz Park. His statue was on the courthouse lawn.

But the more I learn about Morgan, the less I respect him. He stole horses and burned towns, all to further a cause that wanted to break up the nation and keep black people in slavery. To my adult mind, that’s not hero material.

Morgan was a colorful, controversial character, and if Civil War buffs want to celebrate him, that’s fine. I would never want to see his statue removed from what is now the old courthouse lawn, because he is a significant figure in our history.

THMBut it is a shame he is more famous and celebrated here than his nephew, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a pioneering scientist and the first Kentuckian to win a Nobel Prize.

Thomas Hunt Morgan came along two years after his uncle’s death in a Civil War ambush. He was born in the Hunt-Morgan House on Sept. 25, 1866 and grew up behind it, in another family home facing Broadway.

That house was in the news last week. The Woman’s Club of Central Kentucky has deeded it to the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which plans to restore it for programming and events.

I was vaguely aware of Morgan’s accomplishments, but I didn’t fully understand his significance until I read an essay Tom Kimmerer, a Lexington forest scientist, wrote recently for the website Planetexperts.com.

“Thomas Hunt Morgan was to become the most important biologist of his time, and laid the foundations for all of modern biology,” he wrote.

After a childhood of collecting birds’ eggs and fossils, Morgan earned degrees from the University of Kentucky and Johns Hopkins University. He spent 24 years doing pioneering embryology research at Bryn Mawr College. He joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1904 and the California Institute of Technology in 1928.

Morgan exhibited the best traits of scientific skepticism. He didn’t just theorize, he experimented. His work challenged, and eventually affirmed, two major concepts of biological science: Darwin’s theory of natural selection and Mendel’s ideas about genetics.

At Columbia, Morgan used fruit flies in sophisticated experiments to explain how genetics and evolution work. He showed that chromosomes carry genes and are the mechanical basis of heredity.

“He did not believe any biological theory unless he could test it,” Kimmerer wrote. “Almost every biological scientist working today is the beneficiary of Thomas Hunt Morgan’s approach to research.”

Morgan won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 and wrote seven books, all now classics of science. He died in 1945.

Kimmerer and I were talking recently about how Morgan may be one of the most accomplished Kentuckians in history. UK’s biological sciences building is named for him, and there is a state historical marker outside his boyhood home.

But I’ll bet if you asked most people in Lexington who Thomas Hunt Morgan was, they wouldn’t know.

Kimmerer has a great idea: Lexington should start planning now to celebrate 2016 as the year of Thomas Hunt Morgan, because it will be the 150th anniversary of his birth. This celebration could showcase Lexington as a city of modern scientific education, research and commercialization.

There could be Thomas Hunt Morgan banners on Main Street, exhibits and school science fairs. There could be a lecture series about his work, as well as the scientific research now being done in Lexington or by Kentuckians elsewhere.

Perhaps the Kentucky Theatre could show The Fly Room, a new scientifically accurate movie set in Morgan’s Columbia University lab, and invite filmmaker Alexis Gambis to come and speak. The film’s set, a recreation of that lab, was on display in New York this summer. Could it be brought here?

Could this attention help the Blue Grass Trust raise money to restore Morgan’s house? Could the Fayette County Public Schools’ STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Mathematics) Academy be named for him?

A statue of Thomas Hunt Morgan on the new Courthouse Plaza would certainly be appropriate. He should be a local hero, an example to future generations that a kid born in Lexington can grow up to change the world.