Student Research and Scholarship Symposium Keynote Speaker 2004

First off I would like to thank Dr. Shurina for the kind words.  I know I can always count on him for flattery no matter what the situation.  Also, I would like to thank the research symposium committee for asking me to speak at this occasion.  I would like you all to know that this is the first time I have ever spoken in this type of setting, so I hope everything goes without any major hang-ups. 

Secondly, I would like to explain the origin and meaning of the title of my talk.  I thought long and hard of a title that was catchy, but not too corny.  Needless to say, I had a very hard time and I will save everyone the torture of sitting and listening to some of the not-so-good titles.  My good friend Andrew Johnson suggested that I look to the great Yogi Berra for some of his well known "Yogiisms."  Upon reading over several of his sayings, we came across the gem you see adorning the top of this speech. 

At first glance of the title you probably ask, should I go right or left when I come to the fork?  Actually the title has nothing to do with choosing an actual direction when one comes to a fork in the road, but refers to dealing with abrupt decisions when life presents them.  In case you have not figured it out yet, "the road" refers to one's everyday life and "the fork" refers to those abrupt, unexpected changes life throws in one's direction.  The focus of my talk will be centered on my own personal "road" and the "forks" that have been thrown in my direction that have ultimately made my life more tranquil.

Two of my greatest life decisions have come as a result of the fork in the road mentality, my choice of undergraduate and graduate institutions.  I was a senior in high school when I finally started to think about where I wanted to attend college.  I sat down one evening with my mother and started to hash out a list of potential institutions.  After a little bit of thought I came up with the top four following choices: WVU, WV Wesleyan, Marshall University, and West Liberty College.  I applied to all four schools and waited for responses to my applications.  While waiting on the responses, I started to realize that whatever decision I made was going to be a decision for the next four years of my life.  After realizing that, I quickly cut two school choices from my list.  I decided to cut WVU and Marshall, because a majority of the students leaving my high school were going to Morgantown or Huntington, respectively.  I had been going to school with the same people for the last 14 years of my life and I decided that I didn't want to continue this trend any longer.  I decided that I wanted to go to a college where I could meet some new people who did not have any preconceived notions about me.  At this point, it was between West Liberty State College and WV Wesleyan.  I quickly cut West Liberty State College, because I saw the roller coaster nature of Route 88 and decided that I wanted nothing to do with that road in the middle of winter.  Finally, I had picked my college.  I had decided on WV Wesleyan as my undergraduate institution.  Ok, now a story without a fork in the road would have ended right here, but as you probably guessed, my story does not end here.  Throughout this entire application process, my mom suggested several times that I check out Wheeling Jesuit University.  I assured her that it was not necessary because I was going to WV Wesleyan and that was final.  As one begins to become comfortable, that is usually when the surprises start to happen.  This is exactly what happened to me.  Enter the fork in the road.  I received a letter from WV Wesleyan and it was not the usual happy, "great to hear you are attending our college" type of response.  This letter had a much different type of tune.  They were writing to inform me that the gift money I had just received was being revoked, because I had achieved a higher score on my ACT.  So in essence I did not gain any more money for getting a higher score on my ACT.  This did not make me very happy to say the least, so in response to this I decided I was going to check out Wheeling Jesuit.  This was probably one of the best decisions I have ever made.  I can still remember the day that I went up to Wheeling to get the grand tour.  My parents, Scott DePriest, and I piled into the car at five in the morning and made the trip to WJU.  It was sometime in late April, because I can remember it was getting close to final exam time.  I was scheduled to sit in on a Literature class taught by Dr. Voorhes.  Sorry about this Dr. Voorhes, but I was pretty bummed out that I had to sit through a boring literature class.  I can also remember that Melissa DePietro was also sitting through this class.  Anyway, to make a long story short, Dr. Voorhes was the deciding factor that swayed me towards Wheeling Jesuit.  She had actually found a way to make literature cool.  Now just because I am admitting to the fact that she had made literature cool does not mean for one second that I had contemplated on switching my major.  Let's just say for the record that I have not always been the literature whiz.   But the point of this whole story is that life decisions usually occur when one does not expect them to show up.  If WV Wesleyan had not revoked my scholarship money, I would have never met my good friends on 2nd McHugh or ever had to suffer through Fr. Serva's horrible laboratory experiments.  I can say with complete confidence that I was supposed to attend college here and am a much better person for doing so.         

For this portion of my talk I am going to fast forward about four years.  As my time at Wheeling Jesuit was coming to a close, I suddenly realized I did not have any future plans (graduate school, employment, etc.).  I had taken all of the tests for life after undergraduate, but I had not made an honest attempt to find what I really wanted to do.  I knew that I really loved Biology, but to say that is as bland as saying I love food.  I honestly could not think of one area of Biology that I did not enjoy.  I loved it all, Ecology, Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology and Organic Chemistry.  In fact, I can still say with some certainty that Organic Chemistry was my favorite course at Jesuit.  It is okay, I know I am weird.  So here we go again with the mass application process.  This time it was Virginia Tech, Tennessee Tech, and WVU.  Needless to say, none of these worked out and here I was without any direction for my future.  Then out of nowhere, Rob Cassell offered me the head brewer job at River City.  After about 5 seconds of thought I decided I would take the job.  Why not, I had nothing better planned.  In the meantime, as I was beginning my new job, Dr. Rastall decided to put a call through to Dr. Thomas Pauley at Marshall University, to see if he was taking any graduate students.  Unfortunately for me, Dr. Pauley did not have any additional funding to support graduate students.  So, once again I was out of luck.  Now we are at mid-summer and I am still working at River City.  The job was going okay, except for a few issues I will not choose to talk about at this time.  I continued working for another two weeks when all of a sudden, "the fork" decided to enter back into my life.  I believe the date may have been around August 1 when I received an email from Dr. Pauley.  The email began by saying, "I might have a graduate assistant position open, so please email me back if you are interested."  My first feelings were great excitement, which was then followed by substantial anxiety.  All of a sudden I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about Herpetology and I was getting ready to enter a Masters program focusing on this.  I began to ask myself, "What is a herpetologist and what does one do?"  Now here come the awesome jokes I have had to entertain for the past two years.  I can thank jokesters, such as my friend Julie Davis for coming up with the following knee slapper.  "Bill, so now that you're a herpetologist, how does it feel that your best friends are a bunch of herpes?"  Then there also are the contributions by the great Eric Rothwell.  "So now that you are a herbetologist, does this mean that you are going to grow some good herbs?"  I think we all know what he is talking about when he refers to herbs.  I finally emailed Dr. Pauley back and told him that I was definitely interested in his program, but I kept telling myself that I wasn't completely sure.  Much to my hesitation, I finally decided I was going to take the position.  I figured that even though I barely knew the difference between a salamander and a lizard I could probably learn a substantial amount.  For those of you that don't know the difference between a salamander and a lizard don't worry about it.  I didn't realize at the time that this decision was going to affect me so greatly. 

Upon starting my graduate program things were very difficult at first.  I was placed in a lab with a bunch of people that knew anything and everything about amphibians and reptiles.  By the end of the first week I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be able to cut it.  I knew hardly anything and thanks to a few people in the lab, they were not afraid to consistently point this out.  But by the end of the first month I started to feel much more comfortable.  I had written a competitive grant to support my graduate research project and I was enjoying the various field research projects.  Things were going smoothly and I started to feel like I belonged in the lab.  Things went as planned into the next spring until the next fork in the road made its appearance (THESIS TIME!!!).

This fork had a much more ominous appearance.  For my research project I had decided to study the movements of Leopard Frogs using radio telemetry.  Sounds simple enough, right?  That's exactly what I was thinking, however I was completely wrong.  Up to this point things were working out perfectly.  I had received a substantial amount of funding from the WV Department of Natural Resources to complete my research and I had an awesome thesis site 17 miles from my house.  I had planned everything out perfectly and I even intended to use a published method to attach the transmitters to the frogs.  It had to work, why wouldn't it?  So one of my labmatess and I set out to the swamps in search of Leopard Frogs.  We ended up finding more than enough frogs to use all of the transmitters I had purchased with my grant money.  After outfitting all of the frogs I returned home a victorious scientist.  I returned to the swamp the following morning to record the movements of my frogs.  I trudged out into the swamp with my large three-pronged antenna, telemetry unit, and range finder slung over my back.  You should have seen the looks I was getting from the fisherman in the swamp.  After about 8 hours of searching I had successfully located all ten of my frogs.  Once again I returned home a victorious scientist.  I returned to the swamp two days later to see if my frogs had moved any since my last visit.  Upon locating the first frog, I noticed that the frog had not moved any since my last visit.  Of course always being the scientist I explained the phenomenon with the following.  "The frog did not move, because it is residing in a small breeding territory.  After the breeding season, they will move more."  It seemed like a pretty good explanation.  However, after attempting to locate the remainder of the frogs I started to notice a similar trend.  None of the frogs had moved!  All of a sudden I got that feeling in my gut that only happens when I realize that I have really screwed something up.  I had managed to lose $1,000.00 worth of transmitters in a period of two days!  Not only had I lost the transmitters, but I had lost the transmitters in 3 feet of water in the middle of a swamp.  All of a sudden I began to emit a number of expletives that the creatures of the swamp had never heard before.  After the completion of my rage attack I realized that this is the usual route of research.  If it were easy then they would call it a success project and not a research project.  I guarantee if you ask any professor if they completed there theses without any roadblocks and you will find out quickly that 99.9% of them all had similar problems.  I was beginning to realize that the most important process of this whole deal was in the design of the project.  Needless to say, I had much more planning to do.  I made it a point to stay in the swamp until I had gotten some sort of useful data.  What this fork had taught me about my future as a scientist is not to sweat the screw-ups, because this is the way research works.  Even attempts that do not work are still important information, because you have narrowed down the routes to success by a least one explanation.  

I feel that I have rambled on enough, so to conclude I would like to make the following points.  Life is not always going to present us with the most straight forward pathway.  We all come to find out that a majority of the decisions we make in life are much different than how we had originally planned them to be.  In order to get the most out of life, we have to question ourselves and never become confident with the status-quo.  When we start to become complacent with our everyday lives we stop questioning the implications of our decisions.  Jostein Gaarder, author of Sophie's World describes our existence on earth with the metaphor of the rabbit's fur.  She describes that we all exist at some distance within the rabbit's fur.  Most of us are residing near the base of the fur, while a few of us reside a little further, near the middle of the fur.  Even fewer of us reside at the very tips of the fur looking outward into the unknown.  She uses this metaphor, because a majority of us exist within the comforts of the rabbit's fur, refusing to question the current situation of our lives.  She also explains that when we do venture out to the tips of the fur, we begin to move away from the implications of the majority.  Those of us who choose to question the situations of our every day lives are rewarded by leaving the comfort of the status quo.  From this, we begin to discover the real passion and purpose of our lives.  If we choose to question our lives, we are rewarded because we begin to understand the complexity of our everyday lives and we begin to see the many options that lie before us.  These options, whether hindrance or help, go undiscovered unless we choose to take "the fork in the road."  Whether the fork manifests itself as a decision in one's personal life or as a problem in research, until we question our current situation, the fork will remain hidden.  Throughout my life I have gone through stagnant periods where I have felt that I did not have a clue where I was going to end up.  It took a while for me to realize that this was the normal route of life.  I finally realized that it was the presence of "the fork in the road" that helped me to come to many of the decisions that have allowed me to prosper.