Director’s Letter August 2021

RMBL Mexican Cut

What could have been a wet, soaked July 3rd turned into a day of sunshine.

What could have been a wet, soaked July 3rd turned into a day of sunshine.

The day was a celebration of the life of Dr. Scott Wissinger.  Scott has been a big part RMBL’s success.  In 1988 he picked up the torch of long-term research at the Mexican Cut from long-time RMBL’ers, including Dr. Scottie Willey (See October 2020 Science Story) and Dr. John Harte.  Scott passed in the fall of 2019, and we were gathering this summer to celebrate him.  As his son AJ noted, Scott did so much in his life that he was chronically late.  It was only fitting that, because of the pandemic, his celebration was delayed, too.

To be honest, I was nervous.  We wanted the day to be special. Throughout his life, Scott quickly connected with people, lots of people, making them feel seen and heard.  And Scott dedicated enormous time to making RMBL thrive, including serving as Board President during RMBL’s first major capital campaign and keeping the RMBL community together during a period of rapid change.  This day was a time not only to celebrate Scott, but to also express RMBL’s appreciation to his family, especially his wife Sue, for the gift of his time.

I was also nervous about the Mexican Cut.  Any RMBL celebration of Scott necessarily involved sharing a place so special to him.  Because of the pristine ponds and importance of the research, however, RMBL limits access to, and impacts on, the Mexican Cut.  Visits to the Cut have to be managed carefully.

Details, details, details!  For a person and place that meant so much to so many, there was a great deal to get right.

As I hiked with friends up to the Cut, the overcast skies faded and sunshine emerged.  Carissa Coffield, a Master’s student working at the Cut, met me (and others) at the entrance to the ponds, providing careful direction.  I had one of my favorite science conversations of the summer, talking salamanders and research with Dr. Scott Thomas (see adjacent article).  Indeed, despite my anxiety, and largely because of great organization by Kelly Sudderth, Shelley Popke and Dr. Howard Whiteman, it all went well.  Scott’s friends, families, and colleagues were able to share a place special to Scott, leaving no impacts behind.  Everybody had a chance to share memories of Scott in the billy barr community center, without the celebration going on too long, especially for those with small children.

What really made the sun shine that day was realizing how many others had picked up Scott’s torch. When other scientists would talk about their publications, Scott would make it clear that he measured success by the paths of his students, such as the scientists that started with him as undergraduates that are now working at the Cut, including Carissa, Dr. Howard Whiteman (Murray State), Dr. Jared Balik (North Carolina State), and Dr. Amanda Klemmer (Univ. of Maine).  His success includes the innumerable scientists working across the country that started with, or got a boost from, working with Scott.

Sitting in the billy barr community center, which Scott helped make happen, listening to the stories of so many students, it didn’t matter what was happening with the weather.  Scott’s legacy, extending well beyond his students to his collaborators and colleagues, will ensure that the sun will shine on Gothic for decades to come.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL