The native of Wilmington didn't dig jazz when his father used to play it at home to relax after delivering the mail all day. It wasn't until later when Dexter Gordon got to him that he was hopelessly hooked. He says now, "I couldn't shake it if I wanted to."
Thomas has a M.A. in history from UNC-Chapel Hill, and he writes and teaches in addition to being a jazz announcer. He has interviewed the likes of Carmen McCrae, Art Blakey and Sonny Rollins, and he produced The Carolina Connection, a seven-part radio series that profiled jazz artists who have a connection with North Carolina (Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Max Roach, Percy Heath, etc.), which aired on WNCU.
Thomas is a self-described "servant of the people" with firsthand knowledge of how this sophisticated, spiritual and beloved music can unite people, change a mood, teach us how to live. He sees how plain old 4/4 time can move society forward with its momentum. Says the jazz messenger, "I love jazz and it loves me."
Ilys' contributions range from political topics such as capital punishment and Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik to more personal preoccupations, like space exploration and the TV show Babylon 5.
But his greatest love is maps. "My biggest project--being a geography nerd--has been adding maps to articles showing the locations of various cities. It's not glamorous or high-profile or terribly stimulating, but I believe it is valuable," he says. "That's my current legacy to Wikipedia; it's introduced the term 'dot-map' into the project's lexicon and given the many articles we have on small obscure places a tangible connection with the real world."
According to the site, a geek is "a person who is fascinated, perhaps obsessively, by technology and imagination," a definition Ilys agrees with. "I've always been attracted to what nascent phenomena--to groups, communities, projects that are still coming into existence, still taking shape. The Internet offers that in abundance," he says.
What he likes best is the sense of collaboration and community, which will hopefully keep him connected next year as he starts graduate school in chemistry in Colorado.
"I've been here my whole life, and North Carolina is in my bones," he says. Born in Durham, raised in Apex, now living in Chapel Hill, Ilys has also lived in Raleigh, Cary and Carrboro. "Two of the coolest things I've discovered in the past couple years here in the Triangle are the Battle Creek trails in Chapel Hill, and the North Carolina Collection in the libraries at UNC. Anyone who lives in the Triangle should visit those at least once." Ilys says he plans to return to the area later in life, after finishing school and living abroad.
Asked what the most underappreciated thing in the Triangle is, he says it's the amount of diversity, "racial, religious, political, economic, social--the potential for dialogue is stunning, and we don't take advantage of that." --Fiona Morgan
By 6, he's read all the news his computer's collected for him overnight, pulling stories from every major publication around the world based on keyword searches on terms like "immigration patterns" and "offshoring jobs."
From 6 a.m. until the rest of the world joins him at work about three hours later, he writes, usually at his desk in UNC's Kenan-Flagler business school, where Johnson directs the Urban Investment Strategies Center.
An economic geographer by training, Johnson's specialties range far and wide.
His center conducts research on urban trends and patterns. Right now, for example, a study is under way examining annexation in the southeast U.S., which shows a pattern of minority communities being disenfranchised by governments that make decisions about land use but won't provide public services such as utilities. In the spotlight: Moore County, home of the upcoming PGA golf tour, where the luxury links have water and sewer service but the African-American neighborhood right next door doesn't.
"When that comes out, I won't be a 'geek;' I'll be a geek on wheels because they're going to run me out of town," Johnson says with a laugh.
He's an experienced expert witness for capital murder cases, where he testifies on the impacts of the defendants' socio-economic backgrounds. He helped create the Durham Scholars program, which provides college funds for economically disadvantaged students from NorthEast Central Durham, with 48 young people in college and about 70 in the high school pipeline. He runs an entrepreneurial boot camp focusing on women and minorities, studies the impacts of September 11 on U.S. employment trends, and writes reports about the economic impacts of the South's growing Latino population.
With a 38-page CV, it's impossible to sum up Johnson's academic and professional accomplishments briefly. It's been an evolution for the 50-year-old native of tiny Falkland, N.C., in Pitt County. His varied interests grow out of is voluminous reading material, starting with his daily pre-dawn routine.
"The flow of information goes by at a blinding speed--it's really a matter of competitive intelligence gathering," Johnson says. "I've always been interested in contemporary, leading-edge issues of an applied nature."
Anyway, the answer is Dr. Mike Williams, director of the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center at N.C. State University, the scientist we're counting on to tell us what the answer is. Williams is a zoologist and animal nutritionist by training, with the requisite yen for numbers. But he's got some good-ol' person moves, too, if not from necessity then by his raisin' days on a tobacco farm in Franklin County.
And if all else fails, he runs 25-30 miles a week with his fellow "Roads Scholars" at State. "It helps me deal with the stresses of the job."
Almost five years ago now, the state and the hog industry and the environmental community placed their faith in Williams to figure out the science and economics of hog--meaning, clean it up, but don't wipe out the economy of eastern North Carolina doing it.
Progress to date: Excellent on the science, improving on the economics. Leading a team of some 50 researchers from State, Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill, Williams has been assessing such disposal methods as "ambient temperature anaerobic digester and greenhouse," and "Super Soils" solids separation/nitrification-denitrification soluble phosphorus removal." Geek stuff.
But assessing them according to what? The General Assembly's legislation said only to "substantially eliminate" the pollution from hogs. Job one, then was to quantify the various odors and pathogens emitted into the air and heavy metals discharged into the ground from hog manure. Only then would it be possible to say, with numerical certainty, whether a method "worked" or not.
And it wasn't enough that Williams decide on the numbers; a 23-member advisory panel made up of hog industry folks, environmentalists and political types in addition to the other scholars, needed to agree. Not unanimously, and according to Williams they've never been unanimous. "But we really had good consensus," he adds.
Academics, meet politics.
"Quantifying the performance standards was a necessary step to get the investors, the scientific entrepreneurs and the technical experts interested," Williams says. "They all said that, before, we stayed away from the process because they didn't know what the target was."
With investors coming in, results are improving and costs are dropping. Two methods have passed the numbers test so far, with others showing promise: before long, it's possible a combination of better filtration up-front and burning the hog-waste gases for fuel will allow the industry to clean its act up and save a buck too.
That would pass the smell test, eh?
Shields teaches undergraduate courses about Islamic civilization and the Middle East and just finished a book on pre-Iraq Mosul. Last semester, she offered a new course about the Arab-Israeli conflict. While colleagues at other universities have said they do not enjoy teaching this course, it has quickly become her favorite class to teach.
"I try to complicate the picture so students understand it's not about a good-bad or good-evil dichotomy," she said. "People don't understand that there are many sides."
In an effort to push students to read critically, Shields often assigns primary documents that describe an event in two different ways. Sometimes, Shield said, both are accurate, other times only one is. Either way, the lesson is the same. You can't take everything you read at face value.
Outside of the classroom, Shields writes and speaks as an activist for the Palestinian cause.
"I got really involved because I am a Jew, and I grew up with a strong set of values and things I really believe are moral issues," Shield said. "When I see people who identify with me acting in ways I don't see as consistent with my moral values, I feel the need to speak out."
Her broad activism is visible on campus, participating in teach-ins about issues such as the Iraq War, the bombing in Afghanistan, free speech issues and the Arab-Israeli conflict. "I think it's really important that faculty are engaged in the type of conversation students really want to hear about."
Shields is doing just that.
Student participation is at the heart of Superfine's teaching style. When lecturing about magnetic levitation, for example, he had volunteers form a human train at the front of the lecture hall. Each student held an object representing a magnet. As the train moved around the classroom, students flipped their magnets to represent the process they were learning about.
Each semester, he packs a 150-seat lecture hall and has been recognized with a Johnson Teaching Award at UNC and a feature on a recent NPR series about popular collage courses.
As an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Superfine studies condensed-matter physics, biophysics and microscopy.
He also brings his complicated work into the hands of the community through collaborations with UNC's School of Education aimed at students in elementary, middle and high schools.
Superfine's love of physics is contagious. Perhaps there's a scientific law about that.
Fighting for the rivers: JoAnn Burkholder
It's easy to notice that Dr. JoAnn Burkholder is out of breath today, speaking into her cell phone about Pfisteria, the as-yet two-member genus she described over a decade ago, just three years after accepting a teaching post at N.C. State.
Years later, the organism, a tiny, toxic dinoflagellate that feeds off of bacteria and animal tissues, is still at the center of an academic and political firestorm that began after North Carolina's economically hefty tourism, fishing and agricultural industries cowered at the implications of her fish-killing microorganism.
"I was very fortunate then that I had just received tenure," she says, her voice muffled by the breeze blowing into her cell phone. "Industries can be very powerful, and people accept that as a matter of course. Things could have been a lot different for me."
Burkholder brings a special passion to her work. Ever since her part-Cherokee father took her on hikes at age 5, she's been obsessed with nature. And since reading a Life magazine article at 16 entitled "The Blighted Great Lakes," the Central Michigan native has been devoted to turning back the tides of water pollution.
In that quest, her contributions have been remarkable. Not only has she identified Pfisteria, she characterized it in a recent publication, redefining the ways that nutrient-rich industrial and municipal runoff threatens wildlife and human health. Even now, she's challenging the state's boastfulness of a cleaner Neuse, carefully substantiating her claims that the river's estuary is more polluted now than 12 years ago by showing its ammonia levels have increased by 700 percent.
Not quite a renegade, Burkholder is an inquisitive, challenging academic, a researcher who defies conventional wisdom by overturning it altogether. And North Carolina is fortunate to have her.
In addition to an uncanny ability to put extraordinary tales of ordinary objects to paper, he's also known for a certain brilliance on the lecture circuit.
The Kirkus Review has dubbed him "America's Poet Laureate of Engineering," and rightly so.
So what does the professor think is the biggest design challenge facing the Triangle?
"I think the biggest design issue facing the Triangle is planning for growth. The thoughtfulness and quality of design for the area rail system will determine whether it succeeds or fails."