Category Archives: Pay It Forward

Pay It Forward is a section dedicated to inspirational, intriguing individuals I have crossed paths with. It was created with the intention of spotlighting the Average Janes and Joes of the world–those long lost friends and fleeting encounters that, in hindsight, have made a difference.

I believe strongly in giving words of affirmation, even to strangers. As Mark Twain wrote, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.”

Andrew Rossi: Fossils, Dinosaurs and Funny Bones

Andrew Rossi had his fair share of plastic dinosaurs growing up. Like many kids, he dreamt of fossil digs and seeing T-rex in the flesh from a safe and secure distance. While Andrew went on to follow those childhood dreams, he also discovered many other passions along the way.

The beauty of writing is that it can be done anywhere at any time.  -Andrew Rossi

It was comedy that brought Andrew and I together. We met in college at Ohio Wesleyan University. Similar to David Reitan, the other “funny guy” I interviewed, Andrew and I were members of OWU’s Babbling Bishops Improv Comedy Troupe. While we were not in the troupe at the same time, we have had our fair share of moments improvising together on-stage. One thing about the Babbling Bishops: any and all of us are family for life.

I live each day knowing the greatest accomplishments of my life are still ahead of me. -Andrew Rossi

A Euclid, OH native and 2013 Geology and Theatre graduate of OWU, Andrew now lives in the beautiful mountain west boonies. He works at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, where he is actively combining his acting prowess and scientific knowledge. When Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” came out, the cinematic crew wanted to have an exclusive interview with a geology professional. With Andrew’s theatre background, he was the perfect candidate.

The real world is chaotic; try as you might, you’ll never be able to anticipate everything, or even most things. -Andrew Rossi

In the DVD extra of “The Good Dinosaur,” you can catch Andrew’s impressive, educational and, as always, entertaining video talking about all things dinosaur.

I’ll light my candle from the flame, and spread it as far as I can. -Andrew Rossi

After watching the video, I learned from Andrew that it was all on the spot improv due to a glitch. As an actor, I know all too well about the mishaps that go on behind the scenes.


Those setbacks often create the most memorable on-screen moments. And Andrew pulled it off like a champ! But really, I’m not surprised. He is David Attenborough reincarnated.

I like being spontaneous, and at times I’d rather see a group or institution share more glory than myself. -Andrew Rossi

I think one of the reasons Andrew and I have reconnected of late is because we have a lot of similarities. We are both chasing our dreams and merging our passions–which also happen to be the same: science, acting and writing! Plus, the man makes me laugh and inspires me on the daily.

The world needs scientists; it needs experts to learn more about their fields and increase our understanding of our dynamic world. -Andrew Rossi

We can all learn a thing or two from this brilliant and hilarious man. Check out the interview below for some insight (and chuckles) into the life of Andrew Rossi.

S: What is your most rewarding accomplishment?

A: Only one? No singular accomplishment comes to mind. I live each day knowing the greatest accomplishments of my life are still ahead of me. There are certainly big ones that immediately pop up–the Pixar interview, graduating college, having the job I’ve always dreamed of.  But there are smaller ones that give me just as much pride, like being best man at my friend’s wedding, a friend I’ve known since I was twelve years old. I feel it’s the small, intimate moments that make the greatest impacts on our lives. Too profound to start?


S: You work with fossils which is like, woah, super cool. A lot of kids dream of doing that. Have you been on a path towards working with fossils since childhood or what sparked your interest?

A: Yes and no. I’ve been into dinosaurs since before I can remember; it was my second or third word as a toddler. And I eagerly read or watched everything dinosaur-related I could get my hands on as I was growing up. I suppose it has been a fairly linear path, but one with a lot of diversions and more than a few doubts. I don’t know what caused the spark, but that spark lit a fire that’s only gotten stronger as time has gone by.  

S: You are an alumnus of the Babbling Bishops, Ohio Wesleyan University’s improv comedy troupe. How did college improv prepare you for “the real world?”

A: The real world is chaotic; try as you might, you’ll never be able to anticipate everything, or even most things. Or some of the things. I’ve always lived in the moment, to my benefit and detriment. Thanks to improv, I am a lot more comfortable with chaos.

A lot of people tend to buckle under pressure, especially when they’ve developed a plan to get them through it. But that goes against every doctrine of improv. You have to let go and trust that you’ll get by. It’s not easy, and there’s always the latent desire to plan. But to no avail! Once you accept the fact that nothing is controllable and you let your mind roam freely and spontaneously, you become better. And you get funnier!

But improv isn’t a personal pedestal either; it’s all about the group dynamic. Good improv troupes work well as a single entity, rather than a collection of personalities. You can bring your personal quirks and talents to the troupe, by all means! But personal showboating makes everyone look bad. You rise and fall based on the strengths of everyone around you, and how they–and you–support everyone else. Again, not an easy lesson to learn, but one of the most important things to learn, regardless of where you go.

I like being spontaneous, and at times I’d rather see a group or institution share more glory than myself. I learned these things with the Babblers; easily one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. And it was so damn fun too! So, three things I learned, actually: spontaneity, selflessness, and just having a good time with incredible people.

S: Your interview for “The Good Dinosaur” combines your degrees in theatre and science. And, cool beans, it features you and only you! How did this opportunity come about? What was your reaction when you found out about it?

A: Well, so much for the selflessness . . .

The Good Dinosaur was a dinosaur movie (GASP!) based on the landscapes of Wyoming. The State of Wyoming wanted to capitalize on the movie as part of their new ad campaign: That’s WY! So when they wanted to talk about dinosaurs in Wyoming, there was really only one place to go. (That would be the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, where I work.) That’s when they reached out to my boss for an interview. She was out of town on those dates, but by this point she knew I was not only capable of being a “personality” in front of a camera, but that I would professionally represent our museum. My initial reaction wasn’t one of immense pride or joy, but not nervousness either. I was definitely excited to be a minor DVD extra celebrity, but I immediately planned to use the interview as a platform to show the world how great the WDC is and what kind of opportunities we offer for kids and adults to partake in the world of paleontology.


S: What was it like working with the Pixar crew?

A: Quick and painless. They arrived with a convoy of vans and trucks, full of camera equipment and an army of technicians. This is where the improv training REALLY comes into its own. A few pages of questions sent a week before the filming failed to reach me, so the entire interview was unrehearsed and unplanned. I had only a few seconds to process each question and provide a detailed, informative, and–yes–entertaining answer. And, thanks to my background in theatre and improv and their editing skills, it sounds pretty well-rehearsed and coherent. They were thrilled and relieved to work with someone with a background in theatre, as it made all of our jobs easier.

All in all, I had a great time doing it and they had a great time filming it . . . although I wish I had said “impressions” instead of “suppressions” . . . I totally did. Go watch the interview again, when I’m talking about the dinosaur trackway. Suppressions in the mud? The footprints aren’t suppressing anything!

S: Do you think you’ll seek out more film/stage gigs or will you kind of just check them out if something good comes along?

A: Hmm, that’s tricky. I would definitely like to try my hand at professional acting someday, since I know I’ll regret not trying while I’m still young. There’s a lot of uncertainty in my future, which I know is true for most people our age. A lot of opportunities have presented themselves, in a bunch of different areas–all I have to decide is where to go, and it isn’t easy. The reassuring fact is that I know I’ll succeed, wherever I choose to go. It’s not so much a confidence in my talents as it is knowing that I’ll give it my all. In the meantime, I get my theatrical kicks by writing . . .  not dancing, despite the use of the word “kicks.” (I’m as graceful as a hippopotamus on roller blades.)


I discovered playwriting in college, and I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of plays performed as an undergraduate. The beauty of writing is that it can be done anywhere at any time, so it gives me a more ludicrously creative output to channel my theatricality.

UPDATE: Andrew can be seen online hosting Fossil Fridays live at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Andrew will be Lumiere in Cody Community Theatre’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.” I can’t think of a role more fitting!

S: It seems like your heart is in more than once place, science and theatre. I think a lot of people can relate to that, but perhaps feel like society forces us to choose one career path and nurture it for the rest of our lives. Do you have an opinion on that? Do you think it’s important to remain well-rounded or would you rather become an expert in one field?

A: Yes.

Okay, serious time.

I don’t know if I’ll ever become a full-fledged paleontologist (aka get a Ph.D.). To tell the truth, I’ve always had difficulty with “hard science.” Writing papers, doing research . . . it’s all very tedious, and I struggle. It was heartbreaking to finally realize this about myself, as it was my aspiration since I was a child.

But I know science, and I know paleontology! I also know theatre. Then came the epiphany: I can teach, I can interpret, and I can inspire! Now, it’s what I do on a daily basis. I know dinosaurs, but I can also communicate dinosaurs, in ways that simultaneously entertain and educate. It seems trivial, but being able to speak with crowds is a skill a lot of scientists either fear or deliberately avoid.


The world needs scientists; it needs experts to learn more about their fields and increase our understanding of our dynamic world. But our world also needs to engage in and share science, and somebody has to light the sparks of future scientists. And with the current climate of our world (pun somewhat intended), we need communication more than ever before. I will probably write peer-reviewed papers and give technical talks in the future–no doubt–but I don’t think I’ll discover the next new species of dinosaur – but I’ll tell its story, and the story of the scientists who found it. And I’ll do whatever I can to make the world understand “this matters.”

And now I have the opportunity of a lifetime to make that happen. The Wyoming Dinosaur Center is planning a major expansion in the next few years. Tripling our exhibit space, re-imaging our programs and mission, trying to create a world-class museum that encourages hands-on learning and unforgettable experiences.

Because of my background, my passion, and my imagination, I am one of the visionaries of this project: I get to build the dinosaur museum I’ve always dreamed about. This comes hand in hand with becoming the public face of our new vision; when the world wants to know more about the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, they come to me. And that’s when the work really begins. This might be my biggest mark in the world. It’s daunting. I can’t wait to show the world what we’re planning.

I’m not aspiring to be the torchbearer; I’ll light my candle from the flame, and spread it as far as I can.

Now reread this entire statement in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s voice. It’s that much more epic.

S: What do you do in your free time?

A: Free time?

That’s all I got.

Thank you, Andrew, for your insight, comedy and honesty. And for reminding us all that science is vital to the betterment of this world’s future.

All photos via Andrew Rossi, aka Sir David Attenborough (reincarnated).


Baboons and Backbone

Today’s article is a guest post coming at you from Norwegian adventurer Ragnhild, a fellow animal lover and global nomad. Ragnhild’s blog features some hard truths about animal voluntourism, but more importantly, sheds light on the life lessons we can learn from such experiences.


Greetings everyone! My name is Ragnhild and I run the travel blog Green Lights Ahead. I’m from freezing Norway and like to share my adventures from both there and everywhere else my passport might take me. Last year it brought me to Namibia, Africa, where I volunteered for two months with animals. Soon it will take me to Australia, to do a similar project, which will undoubtedly end with me being eaten by sharks. Today I’m going to share with you my experience with my frenemies that I left behind in Namibia – the hairy, dangerous and incredible baboons.

I faced many challenges as a first-time volunteer. Culture shock and sunburns were topping the list until I was put in Snoobab (read it backwards); the team that handled the baboons on a daily basis. From afar, to a newcomer, they seemed cute and playful; innocent. I was soon going to learn that they are much, much more than that.

My first lesson was about their weapons. I suddenly understood why a group of baboons are called a troop. They picked up on my nervousness immediately when I entered their enclosure. Watching me with piercing eyes, they kept at a distance until help from outside couldn’t reach me. Then they attacked. Their ears backwards, slick against their heads, screeching until they bit down on – my legs, arms, stomach, and one even got a piece of my butt. They clawed at me with nails so sharp that I still have scars.

The explanation for their behavior is the strict hierarchy baboons live in. They have a dominant male or female, who is strongest, that leads the troop. She protects them from dangers and takes care of the youngest. She also bites and chases the ones that fall out of line. No one likes to be at the bottom of a class system. The lower ones therefore always looks for someone they can put under themselves, and that day they found one – me.

“You lack true dominance,” said one of my coordinators. “You have to be able to stare them down. You have to project that if they hurt you, you will hurt them.”
“I can’t hurt them,” I responded, surprised. He sighed, loudly, “you white women are all the same – clueless to reality. This is Africa.”

From that day forward, I worked on my backbone. I straightened my shoulders. I kept my head high. And I got bitten and scratched – again and again. Until the day I realized that if I wanted to stop being prey, I would have to stop acting like it. Not a word escaped my lips as they came towards me. My heart was beating faster than the wings of a hummingbird. The first one bit me. I didn’t move an inch until the dominant female scratched my legs, and I turned my head to her and our eyes locked – she saw that I had changed, but saw it too late. I grabbed her by the neck and flung her as hard as I could. She got up seconds later – but didn’t come for me again. I was stronger than her, she knew that now. The rest of the troop stopped as well: there was a new leader in the enclosure. Me.

Thank you, Ragnhild, for this anecdote that teaches us about being confident. Not only did you stare fear in the face, but you showed it who is boss!

Have you ever had a similar experience in which you had to put on your big girl pants and do something you weren’t completely comfortable with? The few times I’ve ridden horses, I wanted to let them do their own thing, but that usually left me stranded yards behind the rest of the group. In the end, I learned you can cultivate a nurturing relationship with them while still kindly showing them who is boss. With kinkajous, though… it’s another story.

Be sure to follow Green Lights Ahead for updates on more animal + travel stories!

Interested in having a guest post on my blog? Shoot me an email: Blogging is all about being connected!

All photos for this post are copyright of Ragnhild S., Green Lights Ahead.


Museo Viviente: A Reptile, Amphibian & Insect Museum in Puebla, Mexico

Staff and attendees at the vet conference pictured in the atrium of Museo Viviente. Pictured L to R: Ra Gala, Maria Elena Barragan Paladines, Orlando Reina, Douglas Mader, Edgar Reina, Juan Carlos Gomez, conference attendee Isabel, Stacey Venzel.

((Please note: Spanish translations are in italics. Sidenote: It is not easy typing Spanish on an English keyboard! // Una cuenta: Traducciones al inglés no están en cursiva. Nota al margen: No es fácil escribir español en un teclado inglés!))

Back in June 2014, I had the pleasure and honor to assist renowned herpetologist Dr. Douglas Mader at the Congreso de Medicina Veterinaria de Reptiles y Anfibios, an annual, international veterinary conference on reptiles and amphibians. The symposium, sponsored by Museo Viviente with the assistance of various other Latin American wildlife institutions, takes place in Puebla, Mexico, a town famous for its food and pottery and nestled between two active volcanoes. But more on Puebla another day.

Wrangling a Gaboon viper at Museo Viviente. Native to Africa, this viper has the largest fangs and can produce more venom than any other snake. And while it looks fat, that’s actually all muscle. Watch out! (Mom and Dad, I was careful…)

Today’s post is an interview with brothers Edgar and Orlando Reina, two of the founders of Museo Viviente (literally: Living Museum). These two might not look alike but they certainly share a common love of scaly and creepy crawly creatures! All of the conference board members went out of their way to welcome us two foreigners and give us a glimpse of what the reptile museum and the city of Puebla have to offer.

En junio de 2014, tuve el placer y el honor de ayudar renombrado herpetólogo M.V.Z. Douglas Mader en el Congreso de Medicina Veterinaria de Reptiles y Anfibios. El simposio, patrocinado por el Museo Viviente con la ayuda de otras instituciones de la fauna de América Latina, se lleva a cabo en Puebla, México, una ciudad famosa por su comida y la cerámica y situado entre dos volcanes activos. Pero más en Puebla otro día.

La escritura de hoy es una entrevista con los hermanos Edgar y Orlando Reina, dos de los fundadores del Museo Viviente. Estos no parecen iguales pero sin duda compartir un amor común de escamosa y criaturas espeluznantes! Todos los miembros del congreso hicieron todo lo posible para dar la bienvenida a dos extranjeros y nos dan una idea de lo que ofrecen el museo de reptiles y la ciudad de Puebla.

How was Museo Viviente started? // ¿Cómo se inició Museo Viviente?

It is the brainchild of the Veterinary Association of Reptiles and Amphibians who decided to set Museo Viviente in the city of Puebla in 2011 based on the need to inform the public about the existence and importance of the reptiles, amphibians and insects of Mexico and other parts of the world in order to generate a deeper appreciation of these fantastic animals.

Es una idea original de la Asociación Veterinaria de Reptiles y Anfibios A.C. que decide establecer el Museo Viviente en la ciudad de Puebla en el año 2011 por la necesidad de dar a conocer a la población sobre la existencia y la importancia de los reptiles, anfibios e insectos de México y otras partes del Mundo con la finalidad de generar una apreciación diferente sobre estos fantásticos animales.

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Dr. Doug Mader and I taking a break from fielding questions after one of his lectures.

What is the mission of Museo Viviente? // ¿Cuál es la misión del Museo Viviente?

Our mission is wildlife conservation through education, training and live specimen exhibits.

Nuestra Misión es la conservación de la fauna por medio de la educación, capacitación y exhibición de ejemplares vivos.

Describe a typical work day. // Describe un día típico en Museo Viviente.

Museo Viviente is open from Monday to Sunday from 9am to 8pm where guided tours are offered to visitors of all ages lasting 50 minutes. We show them more than 60 species divided between 7 rooms and  fitting into 1 of 3 categories: snakes, nocturnal animals and insects. The tour guides explain information on each animal such as food, habitat, characteristics, fun facts and, in some cases, their type of poison.

We also welcome school groups of all educational levels and even specialized tours for students of Veterinary Medicine and Biology. They are shown clinical management techniques, how to maintain animals in captivity and how to practice medicine in reptiles. We offer education courses and Continuing Education (CE) in the area of ​​herpetofauna in our auditorium.

The Museum consists of the General Director Edgar Reina, DVM, Managing Director Orlando Reina, C.W.R, Luis Munguia, DVM and technical staff. A member of the technical staff, Juan Carlos Gomez, C.W.R., is responsible for directing and training area managers to keep the exhibition, vivarium and quarantine area in optimum conditions.  Daily activities also include individual animal assessments (SOAPs in the veterinary world), cage cleaning and sample collection. The treatment of sick animals is also performed by the Technical Manager and team of technicians supervised by a veterinarian. We also have a ​​clinic where we see patients from other public collections as well as reptile, amphibian and insect pets from the public. We have an educational department led by Lorena Garcia, C.W.R.  The department is responsible for conducting educational programs for school groups, offering specialized and general visits and doing different activities to show an educational element that is both fun and informative.

Museo Viviente Puebla abre sus puertas de lunes a domingo de 9 a.m. a 8 p.m. donde se dan recorridos guiados a los visitantes de todas las edades con una duración aproximada a los 50 minutos donde se muestran más 60 especies en 7 salas divididas en 3 áreas: Serpentario, nocturnario e insectario. Se les explican los datos más relevantes sobre cada animal tales como alimentación, hábitos, características particulares, datos curiosos y en su caso el tipo de veneno.

También recibimos grupos escolares de todos los niveles educativos e incluso recorridos especializados a estudiantes de Medicina Veterinaria y Biología donde se les muestran técnicas de manejo clínico, mantenimiento en cautiverio y medicina en reptiles. Se realizan cursos de educación y capacitación continua a interesados en el área de la herpetofauna en el auditorio de nuestras instalaciones.

El Museo está formado por el Director General M.V.Z. Edgar Reina, Director Administrativo L.A.F.S. Orlando Reina, Director Operativo M.V.Z. Luis Munguía y un área técnica. El área técnica cuenta con un responsable L.A.F.S. Juan Carlos Gómez que se encarga de dirigir y capacitar a encargados de áreas para mantener en óptimas condiciones el área de exhibición, bioterio y cuarentena. Dentro de las actividades diarias esta la revisión del individuo, limpieza del bebedero, recolección de excretas y limpieza de sustratos. La aplicación de tratamientos de animales enfermos de exhibición también son aplicados por el Técnico Responsable y equipo de técnicos, supervisados por el Médico Veterinario. Se tiene el área de Clínica donde atendemos pacientes de otras colecciones y del público que tiene reptiles, anfibios e insectos. Contamos con un departamento Educativo responsable L.A.F.S Lorena García encargada de hacer los programas educativos para la atención de grupos escolares, visitas especiales y visitantes en general, realizando diferentes actividades para mostrar un elemento educativo que sea al mismo tiempo un elemento de diversión y logrando el objetivo principal en los visitantes.

Touring around Puebla with Orlando and Maria Elena!

Does Museo Viviente breed any animals? // ¿Se reproduce animales en Museo Viviente?

Yes, we have bred some specimens of Crotalus ravus (Mexican pitviper/pygmy snake), Crotalus atrox (Western diamondback rattlesnake) and Lampropeltis triangulum (milk snake).

Si hemos logrado reproducir. Algunos ejemplares de Crotalus ravus, Crotalus atrox y Lampropeltis triagulum.

Have you ever assisted or performed research through Museo Viviente? // ¿Has asistido o realizado investigaciones a través de Museo Viviente?

We have participated in local and regional reptile conservation programs as well as in research development theses for veterinary students.  We collaborate and advise various universities in training and research development in the field of herpetology.

Hemos participado en programas de conservación de reptiles a nivel local y regional, así como el desarrollo de tesis de investigación para obtener títulos de Médicos Veterinarios. Colaboramos y asesoramos a diferentes Universidades para la capacitación y desarrollo de investigaciones en el área de herpetología.

I HATE tarantulas. This was Fear Factor 101. I did it, and I’m glad I did it, but Jesus, I can’t believe I did this… in case that’s not written on my face.

Where or who does Museo Viviente get the animals from? // ¿De dónde o quien son los animales de Museo Viviente?

We have animals from around the world including Africa, Asia, the Americas and particularly Mexico.  Among those from Asia are the Monocle Cobra (Naja kaouthia) and reticulated Python (Malayopython reticulatus); from Africa the Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica), spitting cobra (Naja nigricolis) and Angonoka tortoise (Centrochelys sulcata); from South America the Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus), cook Boa (Corallus hortalanus) and Emerald Boa (Corallus caninus);  from Mexico the diamond rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), Arrow snake (Oxibelis fulgidus), Boa constrictor (Boa constrictor) and Green Iguana (Iguana iguana). In our collection of amphibians, we have dart frogs from South America, the red-eyed frog from Mexico, the African bullfrog and tarantulas from around the world. We also have scorpions, whip spiders and more.

Contamos con animales de varias partes del mundo incluyendo África, Asia, América y en particular de México; entre los que destacan de Asia son la Cobra de Monóculo (Naja kaouthia) y Piton reticulado (Malayopython reticulatus); de África Víbora de Gabón (Bitis gabonica), Cobra Escupidora (Naja nigricolis), Tortuga de espolones (Centrochelys sulcata); de Sudamérica la Anaconda verde (Eunectes murinus), Boa cook (Corallus hortalanus), Boa esmeralda (Corallus caninus); de México la Cascabel diamantada (Crotalus atrox), Serpiente flecha (Oxibelis fulgidus), Boa constrictora (Boa constrictor), Iguana verde (Iguana iguana). En nuestra colección de anfibios contamos con ranas dardo de Sudamérica, rana de ojos rojos de México y la rana toro de África, así como tarántulas de diferentes partes del mundo, escorpiones, arañas látigo entre otros.

What reptile do you think is most unique to Museo Viviente? // ¿Cuál es el reptil crees que es más singular de Museo Viviente?

We have several unique animals. Ruperto is our Burmese python measuring 4.5 meters. Mordelón the crocodile (Crocodylus moreletii) is also unique because he is a native Mexican species and is featured in our logo. Our Mexican red-eyed frog (Agalychnis callidryas)  is also fascinating for our visitors.

Tenemos varios animales singulares. Ruperto es nuestro Pitón birmano de 4.5 metros.

También de unicidad es Mordelón el cocodrilo (Crocodylus moreletii) ya que es una especie mexicana de gran importancia icono y es del logotipo de Museo Viviente Puebla. También la rana de ojos rojos (Agalychnis callidryas) de México es un animal carismático para los visitantes.

What separates Museo Viviente from similar facilities in Mexico? // ¿Cómo se separa a Museo Viviente de lugares similares en México?

We are different from other animal facilities because we specialize in reptiles and were formed by herpetology experts with a career spanning more than 10 years.  We offer the complete package, teaching about reptiles but also managing to offer an element of fun.

Somos un lugar diferente de los demás porque estamos especializado en la herpetofauna y formado por especialistas en el área con una trayectoria de más de 10 años. Ofrecemos servicios integrales en el que mostramos un elemento 100% educativo y al mismo tiempo es un elemento de diversión.

congreso group
El Congreso de Medicina Veterinaria de Reptiles y Anfibios in Puebla, Mexico, June 2014.

Thank you Edgar, Orlando and all the staff at Museo Viviente and the conference for your insight—and enjoyable company on our Puebla adventure! // Gracias a Edgar, Orlando y todo el personal de Museo Viviente y el congreso por su visión de inteligencia—y acompañamiento agradable en nuestra aventura de Puebla!

David Reitan: Cyclist, Grad Student and Funny Guy with a Prosthetic Eye

David and his ocularist, Dori. The ocularist uses oil pains with an acrylic topcoat to paint the artificial eye.
David and his ocularist, Dori. The ocularist makes the eye using paints and molds. Then, the eye is surgically implanted into the socket, attached with muscles and nerves. Photo: D. Reitan.

I think it’s safe to say most of us with two functional eyes—corrective vision or not—take eyesight for granted. It is hard to fathom irreparably losing sight in either let alone both eyes. But some of us are dealt an unlucky hand, and at age 5, David Reitan was one such individual, developing primary congenital glaucoma in his right eye. A degenerative disease, PCG affects 1 in 10,000 infants. In May this year, David was an artificial eye recipient—and the process is nothing short of impressive.

But what David reminds the lucky or unlucky individuals in this world is that disabilities and hardships shouldn’t consume us. In his words, “It has been a challenge, but I will never let it define me.” A cycling aficionado, he has gone on cross-country biking trips abroad with his brother, pedaling around Germany and France with camping pit stops along the way. And for any curious Georges out there, he does have a driver’s license.

Having a mutual love of comedy—he and I were both members of the Babbling Bishops, a college improv troupe—David has a sort of self-deprecating humor that shines through when he talks about his eye. I mean, he even named his bad eye, referring to it as Trent in conversation. (I’m eager to learn what he decides to call his new eye.)

David is a funny but reflective individual (case and point: most of his responses to my Q&A were in outline format). He often spreads awareness on his social media pages about the art and science behind prosthetic eyes or what we can learn about white privilege through bicycling.

Originally hailing from Green Bay, WI, David is currently attending grad school at Bowling Green State University in Ohio where he studies Higher Education and Student Affairs (HESA). And this kid will be turning 25 in just a few weeks, so we best wish him a Happy Birthday!

david biking offenburg
David, his brother and a friend biked around Germany, camping along the way. They ended their cycling trip in Offenburg. Photo: D. Reitan.

Q&A with David Reitan

What is your most rewarding accomplishment?

Wow. This is a tough one.  Sometimes I feel that given my privilege (white, straight, cis-gendered male from a middle class family) I have gotten a lot of things but have not had to work as hard for them as someone else has.  I’m not sure if that would discount any accomplishments I’ve earned, but I feel that it should be recognized.

I guess what I feel most accomplished about—when I stop to remind myself—is that I have many different interests and I’ve been able to explore them.  I haven’t given up on trying to find that special *thing* (passion, if you want to use that word) and that’s something I’m proud of.

Why did you choose Higher Education and Student Affairs as your field of interest?

Those who go through this type of program usually end up working in a variety of areas of a university, e.g. academic advising, career services, fraternity and sorority life, residence life, student activities/organizations, disabilities services, etc.

I chose to attend this program for a variety of reasons. One being, I had a great time in college and did a lot of networking in that industry prior to and after graduating.  It’s dynamic and exciting work and everyone whom I talked to about their work in student affairs and higher education in general really enjoyed what they were doing.

You are an alumnus of the Babbling Bishops, Ohio Wesleyan University’s improv comedy troupe. How did college improv prepare you for “the real world”?

Joining the Babbling Bishops was one of the best decisions I have ever made.  There is pure magic when you are on stage with a group of people who are just as weird and creative as you are, who support you in every way in any decision you make.  I don’t know if I will ever again experience that same kind of community, but by glorb I hope I do.

babbling bishops alumni show
David “Pop Fly” Reitan participated in a 21-year reunion show with current and alumni Babbling Bishops improv troupe members at Ohio Wesleyan University. This is one funny group of people who you would want to be stuck in a traffic jam with, trust me. Photo: S. Venzel.

The Babblers prepared me for “the real world” in a variety of ways. 

  1. Improv has taught me to be open to opportunities.  There is no reason to stop exploring, to stop trying new things.
  2. Be open to suggestion.  Some of our best growing happens when we are given constructive feedback.  Don’t take it personally.
  3. Failure is good. (Of course there are limits to how much one might want to experience, but generally speaking it’s OK to fail or—at the very least—have plans change.)
  4. Being silly is good for your health.  I have learned this lesson very recently.  Being in a graduate program means that there is a certain amount of professionalism that is expected from you (as well there should be), but sometimes I feel that this comes at a price of being my authentic self.  There are instances where I want to cackle like a hyena and run sideways across the lawn and you can’t do that when you’re wearing a professional name tag.  So when I can’t do those things, I feel a little less like myself.  Luckily, I have been able to find at least a few friends who will accept me when I do those things—one of them did improv as well, which goes to show just how deep these nutty waters run.
  5. Most importantly, the Babblers have given me a fantastic community of friends.  As I am writing this, I am in the Harold Washington Library in Chicago.  I’m killing time between flights and will soon be reunited with Mike “Feartrain” Granzow.  I can’t wait to lick his face and tell him how much I’ve missed him.                         a. But really, it’s so important to have friends in your life.  This               becomes more and more true the older I get and I am forever           grateful that I have a community like the Babblers in my life.
The ocularist uses oil paint and an acrylic topcoat to design the artificial eye to look nearly identical to the existing eye.
The ocularist uses oil paint and an acrylic topcoat to design the artificial eye to look nearly identical to the existing eye. Photo: D. Reitan.

What history can you shed light on about prosthetic eyes?

My prosthetic is made out of acrylic.  Glass eyes are still made, but are more popular in other places, e.g. Germany.  During WW2, glass was conserved for the war effort.  Military dentists suggested to eye surgeons they just make an eye like a fake tooth, by using a mold and fitting it to the patient’s socket.  Although they take longer to make, the eyes will last about 5-7 years as oppose to the glass eyes.  Plus, they are, in my opinion, safer for the patient.  God forbid you have a glass eye and miss a ball playing catch. You basically have a light bulb in your head.

This is David post-surgery, all healed with his prosthetic eye implant. Can you tell which is which?
This is David post-surgery, all healed with his prosthetic eye implant. Can you tell which is which? Photo: D. Reitan.

Recently, you received a prosthetic eye. What was the process like—the before, during and after? And, the big question, are you happy with the end result?

My eye was in particularly bad shape so I had a consultation with my ophthalmologist and Dori, my occularist (she’s the one who actually makes the eye).  My dad also worked with a man, named Dan, who has had a prosthetic and went through the same procedure (an enucleation, the operation wherein the eye is removed) as I did about six years ago.  I had one or two phone calls with Dan and that really helped me get an idea as to what to expect and made the process seem a lot less scary. I sat right across a small table from Dori as she made my eye.  I met with her to form a mold (the most uncomfortable part of the whole process) for three hours one day, came back the next morning for about two hours, and finished that same afternoon in about another hour (they call it the 3-2-1 scheme).  So in total I was in the office for about 6-7 hours as she made my eye.

The day of surgery I made two lists.  The first list I made was all the cool stuff I got to do when I had my bad eye.  The second was the things I wanted to keep doing after my procedure.  That really helped me—and my dad especially, the big softy—put things in perspective.  It has been a challenge, but it has not, nor will it ever, define me.

At the hospital I did a dance to help me relax.  Then the anesthesiologist gave me “something to help me relax” and I woke up about 2 hrs. later with a big bandage on my head. 

There is a small silicon ball behind my prosthetic that gives shape to my socket, fills the void where my eye was and allows the prosthetic to move about.  The surgeon had to attach muscles to that silicon ball and they needed time to heal so anytime I tried to move my eyes it really hurt.  I learned pretty quickly that I needed to turn my head fully to look around at anything.

I’m very happy with the procedure.  Prior to my surgery, I was taking six eye drops from three different medications just to control the pressure in my eye.  This is the first time in my conscious life that I haven’t had to do that.

eye implant painting
The ocularist methodically paints the colored iris atop an acrylic mold, similar to that used in dentistry for fake teeth. Photo: D. Reitan.

How has being vision impaired affected your life? Was your daily living affected in any way after your eye surgery?

Absolutely.  Even when I had my old eye, Trent*, I was still receiving bits of light which helped with my depth perception and peripheral vision.  Now my vision has become much more centered and I can’t see what’s on my right as well as I used to, or someone with two eyes.  However, I think I’m in a better situation.  I’ve always had a bad eye, so it’s not like I lost a perfectly healthy eye to a freak accident and had to make a mental/psychological recovery on top of a physical one.

reitan abroad bike trip
David and friends made sure to stop for sight-seeing and, apparently, rock climbing during cycling tours of France and Germany. Photo: D. Reitan.

What do you like to do in your free time?

  1. Exercise or do some sort of physical movement.  My body is still a happy puppy that needs to run around. I usually ride a bike around Bowling Green as my main form of transportation.                        a. Bikes are way cool, dude.
  2. Contemplate getting a tattoo and then not get one…yet…
  3. Write letters.  I’ve really come to enjoy writing letters to friends.
  4. Traveling, especially to large cities.  I really like urban design and would be doing that if I wasn’t in higher ed. At the moment.
  5. Catch up with friends and family.  Hello, holidays!
  6. I’ll be applying for summer positions while I’m home so not really anything that I “enjoy” doing but is certainly important to do.
  8. Most importantly, nothing I am currently doing or want to do has changed because of my eye.  I am so thankful it hasn’t.

There you have it, folks. A quick Q&A with David Reitan, an incredibly lovable, laughable, grateful, insightful guy.