Brain man

1 Jun


It’s possible that the smartest thing Ken Sufka ever did was crash his eighteen-wheeler on the Pennsylvania Turkpike. Because that action set off a series of serendipitous events that have allowed Ken to live a happy and fulfilling life.

Here’s what happened: Ken was an over-the-road truck driver, happy just to see North America, when that accident persuaded him to quit his job. Left with few alternatives – “I didn’t know what to do, other than I didn’t want to do THAT,” Ken says – he chose to follow in his siblings’ footsteps and enroll at Iowa State University, but he had “no intention of graduating.”

A month into his classwork, he says, he realized that college was not for him and was ready to drop out. Ken called his boss to see if he could get his old job back. His boss said no way. If Ken dropped out of school, he’d never hire him. But if Ken would stay in school, he’d hire him during school breaks, a move that would motivate Ken to stay in school and also help him pay for college.

The next serendipitous event occurred when Ken enrolled in Ron Peters’ Psych 310 Brain and Behavior class at Iowa State. Despite earning a “D” on the first test, Ken was “totally wowed” by the topic and also by Prof. Peters’ teaching mastery. In that class, Ken found his direction. He also found his passion.

“From that moment on, it wasn’t about a bachelor’s degree, not about a master’s degree. It was about becoming a university-level professor,” Ken says.

Ken had a 4.0 every semester after that. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1986, followed by a master’s in ’88 and Ph.D. in ’90. He joined the University of Mississippi psychology faculty in 1992, and more than 20 years later he’s loving every minute of it.

“I have a great life because I’m passionate about it,” Ken says. “I love teaching. I love research. I’m happy, and I’m blessed, and I’m the luckiest person around.”

Ken’s passions include a number of diverse research projects – ranging from psychopharmeutical studies on stress, anxiety, and depression to the effects of cancer pain to student learning. (His book, The A Game, was published in 2011.) Ken professes his love for teaching; he routinely teaches introductory psychology to classes that range from 100 to 500 students, and he teaches a “brain class” just like Prof. Peters.

Ken lives on a secluded acreage in Oxford, Miss., where he has built a wood shop, greenhouse, barn, and chicken house in addition to renovating and adding on to his log cabin home. He builds furniture, raises free-range chickens, and rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He recently married a woman, Stevi, with whom he’d been close friends, and the couple has partial custody of her three children.

“Ten years ago I came to terms with what brings me peace and happiness,” he says. “I do things that are soul-nurturing.”

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