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Ken Sufka named prof of the year

11 Dec


Ken Sufka, our VISIONS Across America-featured alum for the state of Mississippi, has been named the 2014 Mississippi Professor of the Year. The award comes from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Ken (’86 psychology, MS ’88, PhD ’90) is a professor of psychology and pharmacology at the University of Mississippi. You can read our VISIONS Across America story about him here.

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.”

The Deep South

2 Apr

Hey, y’all! We’re back from our 10-day, five-state tour of the Deep South, where we met with nine alumni and attended a gathering hosted by the ISUAA Club of Atlanta.

It was a fantastic trip from start to finish. I am in awe of the alumni we met, and it occurred to me as they were telling their stories that a few themes seem to be recurring: Their lives were changed at Iowa State because of a particular professor, mentor, or class; they truly took advantage of all that Iowa State had to offer them when they were students; they have developed a strong passion for their work; and they chose Iowa State because they were seeking out world-class programs in their areas of study. Their stories are truly inspiring.

You’ll meet some of these alumni in more depth in the coming weeks on this site, and others will be featured later in VISIONS magazine. But here’s just a sneak peek at who we met and what we did on our most recent VISIONS Across America road trip:


I met with two alumnae, Hang yue (Jessica) Wong Mock and Natasha Thomas, in Atlanta before Jim arrived. So I apologize to them (and to you) that their photographs will not be up to Jim’s high standards. (I did the best I could!)

I went to dinner with Jessica (’97 food science) and her family, husband Quentin and 8-year-old son Lofton. Jessica and Quentin met in the food science industry (he’s an engineer with a degree from Georgia Tech), and Jessica currently works for Naturally Fresh, Inc. in Atlanta as a culinologist/senior food scientist.

Natasha (’89 marketing) and I also went out to dinner in Atlanta, and although I already knew her (she is a member of our ISUAA Board of Directors) I learned so much more about her during our visit. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and came to Iowa State to run hurdles for the track and field team. She was only 16 years old when she came for her campus tour, and she became the only New Yorker on her team.

I’ll tell you more about Jessica and Natasha in the coming weeks.

After Jim arrived, we spent the afternoon with Michael Studier (’01 horticulture) on the Capital City Golf Club’s Crabapple course north of Atlanta. I am not a golfer, but I recognize a beautiful golf course when I see one. Mike is the course superintendent, and it’s his professional leadership that keeps the course looking good and running smoothly. He took us around to most of the holes on his 4-person golf cart. The weather was iffy when we got there, but by the end of our visit the sun was out and the course was glowing. Mike will be featured in the 2014 special issue.


I’ve been looking forward for months to meeting our next alumna, Leola Adams – ever since I received a news release from South Carolina State University when she became dean emeritus of the School of Applied Professional Science. Leola’s story is truly inspirational. I wish I could tell you about her right now, but I’m saving this one for the 2014 special issue. I will just say that she left her mark on Iowa State during her time here, working on her master’s (’70) and Ph.D. (’75) in home economics. I should also mention that she welcomed Jim and me to her home with warm Southern hospitality – and sent us on our long drive to Alabama with a bag filled with fresh fruit, cheese, and bread. (We briefly considered spending the night with her – that’s how “at home” she made us feel!)


We weren’t sure what to expect from our next alumnus, Dean Gjerstad, a retired professor of forestry at Auburn University. We had visited on the phone a few times, and I knew he was going to take us to some forested property he owns south of Auburn. I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the tall loblolly and longleaf pines on his acreage, or for the fun we’d have riding along the rough forest roads in Dean’s Polaris Ranger ATV (even better than the golf cart!) Dean earned three degrees from Iowa State: a bachelor’s in 1966, master’s in ’69, and Ph.D. in ’75, all in forestry. That’s photographer Jim Heemstra and Dean walking through the forest, above.

After a fun morning with Dean and his family, we headed south toward Tuskegee. This was another very exciting destination for me. Tuskegee and Iowa State have many connections, most importantly the connections made by George Washington Carver. It was a real thrill to meet Jacquelyn Jackson, a Tuskegee native who came to Iowa State for a Ph.D. in plant genetics. Jackie is now a professor at Tuskegee and is following in the research footsteps of Dr. Carver himself. Jackie is a warm and bubbly person – and she knocked me out with her expertise in plant genetics. Like so many alumni, I felt like Jackie and I were best friends after spending just a few hours with her on campus. That’s her above with Jim at the photo shoot in front of George Washington Carver Museum.

Our last alumni meeting in Alabama was with Keecha Harris in Birmingham. Keecha (’96 dietetics) is one of those people who talks so fast and is so articulate that I sure hope my tape recorder kept up with her. She’s doing great work with national issues surrounding nutrition, public health, and community development. And she’s an awesome spokesperson for Iowa State, too. We met at the Whole Foods Market in Birmingham, above.


It seems like we spent an unusually large percentage of our time on college campuses during this trip, but it was a complete coincidence that our alumni connections included faculty or former faculty at South Carolina State, Auburn, Tuskegee, and the University of Mississippi. I very much enjoyed being on each of these campuses. I even had an opportunity to visit with the magazine editors at Auburn and Ole Miss – a bonus!

The Ole Miss campus (above) looked like a picture postcard the day we were there to meet with psychology professor Ken Sufka. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many flowering trees and bushes in one place. I guess that’s the South in spring – but we were very lucky to be there when we were.

Ken is another example of an Iowa State alum who’s had an extraordinary career in teaching and research – and changing people’s lives in both areas. Ken says he came to Iowa State as an afterthought and didn’t have much interest in earning a degree – but because of some strong professors he not only earned a bachelor’s degree in 1986, he also went on to earn his master’s (’88) and Ph.D. (’90) at Iowa State. He’s such a fascinating guy – not just because of his career but also his lifestyle in rural Oxford – that we were almost late to our next appointment.


Which brings us to our last state on this trip and our last alumni appointment with Andrea Vogt-Lytal. Andrea is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. She is an information analyst for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency resident office in Memphis. She started at Iowa State as a journalism major but was transfixed by an anthropology class she took during her sophomore year and ended up pursuing a research project in Mexico before graduating in 1995. She’s now lived all over the world, is fluent in Spanish, and has a career tailor-made for her many interests and talents.

I can’t wait to tell you more about all of these awesome alumni. After each interview and photo shoot I just had to pinch myself that I am really lucky enough to be doing this project and meeting all these incredible people who all have a single connection: Iowa State.

P.S. I wish there were some way to thank all the people who have been kind enough to photograph Jim and me at each of the state entrance signs on our travels (see photo at the very top). I’ve handed over my camera to a lot of strangers! My favorite was the woman who, at the Alabama visitor center, told us to “smile and say ‘grits’!”

College campus tour of the Deep South

2 Mar

Our next VISIONS Across America trip is really shaping up to be a tour of college campuses in the Deep South. We’ll be in Orangeburg, S.C., home of South Carolina State University; Auburn, Ala., home of Auburn University; Tuskegee, Ala., home of Tuskegee University; Birmingham, Ala., home of the University of Alabama at Birmingham; and Oxford, Miss., home of the University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss (above). I am looking forward to seeing some seriously beautiful college campuses! The photos I’ve seen online show lovely, traditional southern architecture on each of these campuses, and we should be there when flowering trees are in bloom, so it should be a very pretty time to visit.

Besides these traditional college towns, we’ll also be visiting alumni in the cities of Atlanta, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn. It looks like we’ll be visiting no fewer than nine alumni in these five states — and I’m hoping to be able to add a couple more in the weeks before we hit the road.