Three Kansas State professors were appointed as 2018 university distinguished professors. After a university-wide nomination and evaluation conducted by the provost, the faculty members received this highest honor from the university.
Mary Beth Kirkham, professor of agronomy; David Poole, professor of kinesiology and anatomy and physiology; and James Sherow, professor of history, received this title.
Mary Beth Kirkham
Kirkham started teaching at K-State in 1980. She now teaches plant-water relations and the study of water movement through the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum. She said she is equally known for her work in the uptake of heavy metals with sewage sludge.
When Kirkham first came to K-State, her parents helped her pick out an apartment. He father told her to live close to her work so she wouldn’t spend all of her time commuting. She said she took her father’s advice and has lived in the same apartment, which allows her to get to work in five minutes by bicycle, since being in Manhattan.
“I have a great feeling of freedom because I live so close,” Kirkham said. “I credit my closeness of living here to giving me more time to do work.”
Her favorite work has been related to the study of elevated carbon dioxide, an ongoing phenomenon since the Industrial Revolution. Her work done in the late 1980s to the mid-1990s was the first research to be done out in the field in a semi-arid region and was supported by the Department of Energy.
Kirkham said it has been a joy working at K-State because of the freedom she has been given in regards to her research, especially since she was not given that privilege at her previous jobs.
She received a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Wellesley College, and after receiving her master’s degree in botany from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she wanted to pursue a career in academia.
“I desperately wanted a job in academia,” Kirkham said. “I wanted to teach, but there were few jobs. I sent out, I bet, close to 100 letters, and there was no job available.”
Instead, she took a job with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Cincinnati, Ohio, due to the equal opportunities for women and minorities provided by the federal government. It was in Ohio that Kirkham worked as a plant physiologist to follow the uptake of heavy metals by sewage sludge placed on the land, but she said the access was very limited.
“About a year after I was working there, I wanted to get out of the government because I really wasn’t able to do all the research I wanted to do,” Kirkham said. “The building there was closed on weekends. I couldn’t get in to do my research. I was always the first one sitting on the steps there when the night watchman came in and opened the door.”
Kirkham then held teaching positions at Oklahoma Sate University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst before coming to K-State. She is now conducting research about the effect of gravity on plant-water relations, experimenting with how to grow plants in micro-gravity.
Poole has been at K-State for 23 years, during which he said he has had the opportunity to help build two of the university’s programs. He is a part of both the kinesiology and physiology department, where he specializes in understanding exercise function from athletes down to dysfunction in patients with heart failure, emphysema and diabetes. He studies problems related to how people get oxygen from the atmosphere and how it’s transported from the lungs to be used by tissue mitochondria.
After living in several big cities, Poole said he wanted to move somewhere a bit smaller to raise his family. Poole received his bachelor’s degree in sports science and applied physiology from Liverpool Polytechnic in England, his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of California in Los Angeles and did postdoctoral training in medicine at the University of California in San Diego.
“I was captivated [by K-State],” Poole said. “I thought I could do great things for the students.”
Through his research, Poole works with humans, racehorses, elephants, dogs and rats. Recently, Poole has studied exercise-induced poly hemorrhage, a bleeding into the lungs that occurs when horses run. This is a result of humans breeding horses to have hearts too big for their lungs. In an extreme case, Poole said a horse will bleed from its nostrils, and in extreme instances a horse can blow its lungs out and die, which Poole said happens to several horses a year in the U.S.
“[Horse racing] is magnificent to watch, but there’s a dark side to it,” Poole said. “Sometimes, like in Japan, if you have a horse that bleeds twice out of its nostrils, it’s not allowed to race again. One day you can have a $10 million horse, and if it bleeds a second time, it’s not worth anything. It’s a really big deal to try to understand what the mechanisms are for this and how we can prevent it.”
Although, Poole said his research questions are always germane to humans. In order to receive National Institute of Health funding he has to show direct relevance to human health. Poole said he is an unmitigated animal lover, but if the endpoint is human health, that is much more important.
“[Animals] can help us answer very defined and valuable questions,” Poole said. “I’ve always thought that the human medicine side loomed larger than the animal side, but we’ve also been able to help elephants and horses with the research we do.”
Poole said he can sometimes find money elsewhere to study animals purely for the benefit of the animals, but often, the first step in understanding and improving human health is animal research.
As a newly named university distinguished professor, Poole also has a mission to encourage more awareness and appreciation within the administration and university as a whole. Poole said he hopes to see the administration begin to recognize the work done within departments, not just the dollars spent, and he believes that could ultimately lead to an increased appreciation to filter down to all levels of students.
“The number one thing [students] choose a class based on is how easy it is,” Poole said. “We understand that, but if you have the ability to go to a world-class professor, why wouldn’t you want to go there? Why not have your education dollars be spent on that?”
Poole said the university distinguished professors have the opportunity to meet with the university president once a month as a group and hopes to have his ideas heard there.
Sherow, a fourth-generation Kansan, came to K-State in 1992 to fill position that had been held by the previous professor for 44 years.
“I never thought I would get a position here given how long he had been here,” Sherow said. “When this job came open, this was an ideal spot for me.”
Sherow currently teaches Kansas history, the history of the American West, North American Indian history and environmental history. He said his interest in Kansas history started with his father. When Sherow was a boy, his father would take him to Langdon, Kansas, the town where his father grew up.
“I could never figure out why he wanted to go back there, because it hadn’t looked like much of a place to me,” Sherow said. “Even though I was raised in a town that was only 600 people, there were fewer than 100 people in the town that he took me to.”
Sherow said Langdon started his road for historical research. At Wichita State University he did an honors essay as an undergraduate looking at the town and its township, which later became his master’s thesis. Then, part of his master’s thesis became the subject of his first publication.
He has had six books published and has two other books that are currently partially completed that he said he would like to finish.
“I’m a voice for another time,” Sherow said. “It explains, for me anyway, what it means to be a human being. History can provide a lot of insight.”
Sherow also said he takes the land-grant mission of K-State very seriously.
“It was designed to take education and learning to the people, so it wasn’t only simply to do scholarship for yourself or to have a distinguished career or to publish a lot,” Sherow said. “It was that but also to take that kind of research to the public so that it benefited the public.”
Sherow said he pursues this mission in his Kansas history class by teaching students not only the history of the state but also how to become involved citizens in the community.
“I really believe that as professors we have certain talents that shouldn’t just be left inside the university,” Sherow said.
This type of public outreach also led Sherow to get involved in local politics. He was on the Manhattan City Commission for six years and served as mayor from 2011-2012. Sherow’s six years on the Commission was the time when the north and south end redevelopment occurred, the Flint Hills Discovery Center was built, all the community pools were re-done, the zoo education center opened and the airport was upgraded.
He said it was a crazy yet wonderful six years, and the highlight of his political career was seeing the Flint Hills Discovery Center built. With the purpose of highlighting the history and ecology of the area, Sherow was able to help guide the creation in both a political and intellectual context. Serving as mayor at the time, he was also given the opportunity to give the dedication speech.
Sherow’s work has attracted national attention as well. He was one of 10 historians across the nation to write an essay for the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Portfolio. The idea behind the series of essays was to go back to President Lincoln’s administration and look at the legislation that was passed in 1862 and 1863. Alongside his wife Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, he wrote an essay about the Moral Land Grant Act, since K-State had been the first operational land grant school in the nation.
“That was a real highlight of my career,” Sherow said. “It’s not often that you’re picked out of all the historians across the United States to write one of those essays.”
Kirkham, Poole and Sherow each said they were both honored and humbled to be selected and honored as a university distinguished professor by their colleagues and the university.
“Everyone who earns a Ph.D. is pretty unusual anyway, all of us are, that’s a given, but all these people I work with are gifted individuals,” Sherow said. “It’s humbling to be singled about among all of my colleagues and friends.”