Challenger anniversary brings back memories

The first thought that goes through my mind, thinking about the anniversary of the Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, is where i was at the time.

i was in the third grade, if i recall correct, and i’d stayed home from school that day, more than likely due to a “sore throat.” (That was always a good go-to ailment.) i was at my grandma’s house, sitting on the living room floor watching the TV when it happened.

More recently, i’d had an opportunity to learn more about one of the astronauts on that mission: Dr. Ronald McNair. While attending Cleveland State University, i wrote a story about the McNair Scholars Program, and during research for that i was happy to find out more about the scholarship’s namesake.

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Dr. Ronald McNair

If you’d like to check out the original publication of the story, it’s still available at The Cleveland Stater website.

Or, you can read it here below under the image of the Stater page as the story originally appeared, where i’ve copied the text from my original draft for your convenience.

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The road to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is daunting.  The challenge requires a serious commitment of time, focused research, comprehensive exams, publication and completion of a journal of the dissertation.

It was a journey made in 1976 by Dr. Ronald McNair, a first-generation college student from South Carolina.  He grew up in a house without running water or electricity.  He took a stand for his civil rights at 9-years-old when he refused to leave a segregated library without his books, a library that would later be named after him.  He was a high school valedictorian who went on to become a PhD in physics.  And he was selected as one of 35 from a pool of 10,000 to become a NASA astronaut.

On his second mission, on Jan. 28, 1986, Dr. McNair was killed along with six others aboard the space shuttle Challenger after it broke apart 73 seconds into its flight.

His legacy is preserved by the McNair Scholars Program, a U.S. Department of Education funded program that helps prepare undergraduate students for doctoral study.  The program is offered at 200 institutions across the US and Puerto Rico, including Cleveland State University.  Participants in the program are either first-generation college students with financial need or members of a traditionally under-represented group in graduate education.

For students majoring in STEM disciplines, the deadline to apply is Friday, Nov. 1 this year.  On Nov. 12 there is a follow-up interview for selected applicants.

“The goal of this program is to increase the diversity of the professoriate,” explained Dr. Valli Sarveswaran, director of the McNair Scholar program at Cleveland State.  “Every college has their own diversity challenge, to increase their numbers.  That has to start somewhere, like our program.”

The McNair Scholars program launched at Cleveland State in 2008 after Dr. Sarveswaran was hired as the first director.  Prior to that, he was an administrator for an outreach program funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of Notre Dame.  Through his work at universities, he came to admire the interactions that took place and bonds that formed amongst students and faculty.

“I have a PhD in chemistry and spent several years doing research,” Dr. Sarveswaran said.  “Then I realized I started liking working with students more than chemicals.”

The program sponsors 30 students each year and takes a comprehensive approach to prepare them for doctoral studies.  Students receive support in the form of research opportunities, paid full-credit tuition for independent study, meal and housing allowances, and mentored research with a chance to present their findings at Cleveland State.  Additional research and presentation opportunities exist beyond Cleveland State’s campus, with travel expenses covered by the program.  Trips also include visits to graduate schools and professional conferences, with expenses covered by the program.

“We offer a lot,” Dr. Sarveswaran said.  “Financially and through other support like a GRE [graduate record examination] prep course and writing courses.”

The GRE prep course is a 32-hour workshop offered in the summer.  Other workshops include effective resume building and cover letters, writing a statement of purpose, and financial guidance like how loan forgiveness works and how to pay for graduate school.

One of the current cohort of McNair Scholars is Shannon Walker, a senior environmental studies major.  She learned about the McNair program before transferring to Cleveland State, while attending Tri-C Metro.  Walker joined the program in spring 2013, and worked with Dr. Robert Simons to update the CSU Master Plan this past summer.  After the summer program ended, she was offered a position to stay on until the project is complete.

“The program’s been a great asset in facilitating opportunities and connections for all of us – especially as a first-generation college student,” Walker said in an email.  “The mentoring portion of it has been extremely valuable.”

Scholars work with both a discipline and non-discipline mentor and meet with each of them at least once a month.  The discipline mentor guides students with research projects and helps to navigate their interests and choices in graduate schools, internships and opportunities outside of Cleveland State.

Dr. Dan Simon, a professor of electrical & computer engineering at Cleveland State, became a discipline mentor at the request of Dr. Sarveswaran.  He considers a PhD important for anyone who wants to become a leader in their field.  Becoming a PhD means that you’re not only an expert in your discipline, but also that you can effectively communicate that knowledge.

“Communication is huge, and it goes both ways” said Dr. Simon.  “We stand on the shoulders of giants, but if we can’t understand what other people have done and explain it to other people then we can’t advance the state-of-the-art.  Communication is a two-way street and it’s very important for engineers, especially leaders.”

He noted two things that are vital to students of any discipline thinking about pursuing a doctorate.  The first is to maintain good grades throughout your undergraduate studies.  Second, he stressed getting involved with professional organizations.

Non-discipline mentors provide students with a faculty perspective in a more casual relationship removed from the pressures of study and research.  This mentor’s role involves teaching students what to expect as university professors and informing them of job opportunities.  And because 80 percent of McNair Scholars are first-generation college students, mentors often become a friendly refuge in what can be a challenging environment for them.

One of the McNair non-discipline mentors is Dr. Ulrich Zurcher, a professor of physics.  Dr. Zurcher got involved with the McNair program because he identified with the under-represented groups in doctorate studies.  Himself a first-generation college student in his native Switzerland, Dr. Zurcher understood that minority students can feel out of place in college.

“I’m highly motivated about this,” said Dr. Zurcher.  “When I went to college, because I’m not from an academic background I always felt excluded.  I felt I did not belong.  Minority students sometimes feel like they don’t belong, to some extent.”

Dr. Zurcher, who came from a working class family, can relate to students for whom college is a wholly unfamiliar environment.  As a non-discipline mentor he hopes to help students acclimate to college and find their niche.

Sara Al-Nimer, a senior McNair scholar double majoring in mathematics and psychology, considers the program invaluable.  She cites her mentors as well as fellow scholars and especially Dr. Sarveswaran as a wonderful support system.

“I have been fortunate to be a part of this program and I wouldn’t trade the experience, the skills or the people I have met for anything,” she said.

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Enyx Studios reloaded

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since my path first converged with Enyx Studios, the indie-game development studio helmed by Don Hileman. At that time, our connection was an opportunity for Don to share a developer journal here at The Long Shot, and for me to get more contributor content posted.

Enyx Studios

That interaction evolved into my visit to Enyx’s then-home at eCenter @ LindenPointe, a technology incubator in Hermitage, Pennsylvania. Don and his partner at the time shared their thoughts, ideas and work on Unholy, a horror-themed cross platform video game.

Fast forward a few weeks, and i found myself part of the Enyx team as a creative director, writer and designer – tasks that i felt woefully unskilled at but that i was assured as exemplary, much to my delighted surprise. Due to several other obligations, and an eventual parting of ways between Don and his partner, the project faded into the background.

But that past is prologue to an excited new venture by Enyx Studios.

“A Haunting: Witching Hour” is a brand new title that Don and a new team of designers is hard at work on, building off of what he learned from his experiences with Unholy.

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Promotional image from Enyx Studios’ “A Haunting: Witching Hour” game.

Now based at the Youngstown Business Incubator, a development that came about through Don’s association with Blackstone Launchpad’s Bob Sopko at Case Western Reserve University

The team at Enyx mostly came about through Don’s relationship with YBI. Mitch, who worked with Don on Unholy, remains as the audio engineer for A Haunting. Along with them, Byron works in a mostly research capacity, discovering ways to include real-world elements into the story that add to the immersion and authenticity. Art chores are handled by Steve and Marissa, and as head of the team, Don is involved with everything.

“For the project that we’re taking on, you kinda need a decent size team,” Don explains. “And last week, we got the email that we’ve been waiting for – that golden email from Playstation. We had submitted a concept to them, a full design document and everything, and not only did they approve it, but they want to give us a page on playstation.com that’s all about the game. Once we have a trailer, they want to put it on their YouTube channel as well as on the Playstation Network – which means it will be on 36 million Playstations worldwide.”

Settling on the Playstation platform initially, A Haunting takes advantage of the Playstation VR, Enyx Studios is working with some “really cool equipment” including a full motion-capture system that they’re using to give all the in-game characters a higher level of realism.

Porting the game over to other platforms like Xbox or PC is certainly not out of the question according to Don, but for the relatively small team to produce a multi-platform game right out of the gate is one of the stumbling blocks he experienced with Unholy. Instead, Enyx is focusing on producing the best title they can for a single platform, with an eye on a Q3 2016 release.

The game itself takes revolves around an indie film crew who travels to the fictional town of Shady Hollow to create a documentary about the murder of several coal miners that occurred in 1975. The owner of the mine had always insisted there were supernatural forces involved, claiming an entity known as the Hollow Creek Witch is to blame, but of course no one believed him. As the filmmakers dig deeper into the story, they begin to uncover evidence that the claims of evil occult forces might actually be true.

“We’re pulling a lot of real facts from things like the Salem Witch Trials and how that all occurred,” Don elaborates. “We’re using that as a background for this witch, and we picked up a bunch of books on witches, Wiccans and things like that to learn about that culture and what certain symbols mean, like air, wind and fire, different moons and that sort of thing.

“We’re trying to make it as real as possible,” Don says. “Of course, you have to change it up a little bit. But from day one, the whole goal is to be a creepy, scary game, and when you play it, it just scares the hell out of you.”

Described as a storytelling video game of dark horror and desperate survival, Enyx is taking great strides to create a rich background for all of the characters and places in the game, including Eddie, the protagonist controlled by the player.

Eddie, a mysterious character with a troubled past, possesses the “Gift of Sight” that manifests as psychic powers such as the ability to see things others cannot, psychometry (the ability to read the psychic residue left on objects), clairvoyance and more.

These abilities come with a price, however – every time a player uses Eddie’s Gift of Sight, he becomes weakened

Like Unholy, A Haunting aims to follow an episodic path, with new chapters of the game down the road building on the experience and offering new locations, paths and twists to the tale.

“We want to tell a story and have it build,” Don explains. “Just when you think you kind of have it figured out, oh my gosh – something else happens that makes you go ‘huh.’ One of the things that really inspired us was that thing on Netflix, ‘Making a Murderer.’ The whole time, you’re bouncing back and forth – did he murder them? Did he not? And we’re trying to bring some of that element into the game.”

The gameplay starts with Eddie in questioning, with the player traveling back into the story throughout the experience. Based on the player’s actions such as discovering clues, answering questions and so forth, the story will change depending on these outcomes. In essence, the game is a flashback, and the player controls how the past manifests in the present.

“As you play the game, that’s your story that you’re telling,” Don shares, revealing that there are multiple possible endings. “It’s almost like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books.”

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(Wood)turn your attention

Living in Las Vegas by way of a poker career that took him first to Rhode Island, Jerrod Toth has been busy shaping a new facet to his life as the man behind the Woodturners Journal.

A native of Kirtland, Ohio (go Hornets!) woodworking is something ingrained in Jerrod from his father, although he didn’t explore his interest in it until settling down in Vegas about 8 years ago.

“He actually got mad at me,” Jerrod explains. “I moved away, and he said ‘your whole life, you never had interest in it, and then you move away and all of a sudden you’re interested in it.’

“But I’ve actually always had an interest,” he admits.

He began exploring that interest first through several PBS shows devoted to the woodworking craft, which grew into eagerness for anything involving wood.

“It started because I bought a house out here, and my girl wanted furniture,” Jerrod says of his motivation, starting off with only a small miter saw. “I built end tables, our nightstands, an oak bookshelf – I built a ton of stuff.”

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A nightstand built by Woodturners Journal craftsman Jerrod Toth.

Back in Cleveland, his brother had gotten into woodturning, and during a visit home the two went to a friend’s shop to try using a lathe to make wood-handled pens. With the new experience under his belt, back in Vegas Jerrod absorbed all that he could through resources like Woodturning with Tim Yoder. Still without a lathe of his own, his imagination was filled with project ideas and the know-how to get them done.

Arriving the following year with those project ideas and the wood to make them, a lathe-less Jerrod had worked out how to properly make a natural edge wooden bowl and explained to his brother how to mount and cut the piece.

“I did mine first, then we got his piece of wood up on the lathe and he’s like ‘I really don’t know how to do this,'” Jerrod relates. “So, I tell him what I would do if I were him, and he ends up doing it. He liked it and it looked good.

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Natural edge black walnut bowl by Jerrod Toth.

“He’s like ‘How do you know so much about this already? You don’t even own a lathe, and I do own a lathe,'” he says of his brother’s surprise at his aptitude for woodturning.

Part of that aptitude comes from Jerrod’s background in art, the focus of his studies at Ohio State University. That background helps when it comes to imagining new designs, as well as looking at a piece of wood and seeing the potential hidden inside. To Jerrod, woodturning is an art form with endless opportunities to let his artistic side show. He considers himself an artist first and a woodworker second.

Despite the growing interest in woodturning, Jerrod’s woodworking efforts were bent primarily towards making furniture, and to that end his girl surprised him with a “really, really nice table saw.”

His brother, meanwhile, recognized Jerrod’s natural talent and pushed for him to get a lathe to explore what he could do with one. After a big argument hinging on his brother’s insistence that he owed Jerrod money, he returned home to find a package waiting for him.

“I come home – he bought me a lathe,” Jerrod relates of his brother’s method of settling the dispute. “His point was, I seem too good at this (woodturning) to not do it.”

Starting the Woodturners Journal YouTube channel evolved from his existing interest in similar channels and, again, his brother’s push for him to take his craft further. Plus, there was always the chance of getting endorsements to help take him even further.

Like any good man, he discussed the prospect with his girl, telling her about how his brother had asked why he wasn’t making his own videos.

“She’s like ‘Yeah, that is a very good point – why aren’t you?’ ”

Without any good reason why not, Jerrod set about getting a camera and software to produce his videos.

Since starting to share his videos early in 2015, the response has been terrific.

“It’s nonstop, everything I do,” Jerrod says of the work he puts into both coming up with projects, planning and then creating the woodturned objects as well as filming, editing and sharing his videos. “Somebody writes me about once a week, from all around the world. A guy wrote me from Russia, in Russian, and I had to translate it. People write to thank me and say they really love my videos.”

Even though his time is limited (he still maintains a full-time job as a department manager at Whole Foods), Jerrod’s love of the craft keeps him dedicated to growing his channel and constantly challenging himself with new projects that push the envelope of what is capable through woodturning.

“In the woodworking community, there’s people that travel around and do workshops,” Jerrod prefaces what he envisions as his long-term goals. “I want to get a big enough name where I could be invited to go and talk and show people techniques.”

Those techniques and skills are essentially self-taught, through observation and trial-and-error. Viewers on his videos find out right alongside Jerrod whether something will work or not. Even with forethought and planning, since he strives to push himself, he’s always trying new methods. More than once, he’s gotten responses from viewers who say they’ve never seen anything quite like some of the pieces he creates.

“Every single thing I do, I’m trying to push the limits of what I even know how to do, and everything’s setting me up for something in the future. I keep on trying to come up with something way different, that I don’t know how to do, than anything I’ve seen.”

Complex, unusual projects serve another purpose, too – building an audience. By continuously challenging himself and imagining things he’s never seen before, his videos are must-see viewing particularly for other woodturners. One of these projects, a slotted candle holder, received just the kind of response he hoped for, with comments about never having seen anything like it before. And in order to learn how he achieved the results…you gotta watch the video.

“I do want it to be instructional, and I do want to try to help people,” Jerrod explains of his video-making approach. Talking to the viewers throughout each video gives greater insight into his thoughts and plans, and helps to answer questions that viewers might have. “The point is hopefully give someone an idea, or get them motivated to take that idea, twist it and do something else with it.

“I want to inspire other people to go and, hey, steal my ideas and make them better,” he says. “Just get out there and do it.”

For those interested in where Jerrod gets the wood for his projects, he says living in Las Vegas makes it difficult. He did find a very good lumberyard where he was able to get some exotic wood, but a lot of his supply comes back with him on trips to visit family and friends in Cleveland, including a suitcase full of black walnut (his favorite), as well as shipments from his brother. His biggest haul, though, came from a tip from another woodturner, who directed him to the largest tree-clearing service in Las Vegas. From them, he was able to fill the back of a pickup truck with wood to the tune of $20 that included mesquite, sycamore and ash.

As for average project times, something like the very popular black walnut coffee mug takes about 8 hours to complete, plus about 3 hours of video editing.

To film his videos, Jerrod uses a Xiaomi Yi Action Camera that he discovered as an alternative to the popular GoPro camera with a lower pricetag. Made in China, Jerrod was a bit concerned when he discovered the software and phone app accompanying the camera are written in Chinese. Nevertheless, he figured out how to use it and is now in the market for a second camera to get multiple angles and speed up the production process (and workaround the 45-minute battery life).

The intro video to Jerrod’s videos (embedded at the top of this article), was created by Jerrod and includes licensed music he discovered on a site that offers music services for a fee. 

*****

Although not a woodturner or artist myself, I simply became entranced when I came across the Woodturners Journal on YouTube. Watching Jerrod explain his project idea and following right along with him as those ideas spring from his imagination into finished objects is fascinating.

His outlook, methods and story reminded me a lot of Stefan Pokorny, who combined his talent for classical art with his love of D&D to develop a unique artistic identity.

It’s really a pleasure for me to get a chance to speak with people like Jerrod, whose dedication and talents are plain to see and who modestly share the pursuit of their craft with others.

On a larger scale, a lot of the work I do here at The Long Shot involves sharing the stories of people who inspire me personally. If I have any talent at all, I hope it lies in an ability to properly connect readers with some of the fascinating people out there who are basically just following their dreams. Every single one of them will tell you that there’s nothing easy about it, but at the same time it’s infinitely rewarding – a message that everyone should take to heart.