June 2009 -


Nobel Laureates on Your Bus

One of the things I've really enjoyed about living in Seattle is running into my Uncle Steve on the bus. I grew up in Topeka, Kan., and Steve Emerson—a longtime professor of oceanography at the UW—was one of those cool, fun uncles who would make delightful but infrequent cameos in my childhood. So sharing a city (and a bus route) with him has been a real privilege.

Steve is also a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He'd never call himself that, but it's technically true. He was a co-author of one of the reports for which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change received the prize in 2007. Of course, so were several of his UW colleagues. For all I know, I run into some of them around town, too. To be in Seattle is to have Nobel laureates on your bus.

Working at the UW, particularly, it's easy to forget how much of the day one spends surrounded by geniuses. And I don't use that word casually. Off the top of my head, I can think of two MacArthur "genius grant" winners I've seen eating at Schultzy's on the Ave. I may have seen more—they don't wear signs.

More impressive than their prizes, though, is the work UW faculty are doing. This issue of Columns includes a conversation with Jackie McMurtrie, founding director of the Innocence Project Northwest—an interview that required me to walk across one street and one parking lot, from the Alumni House to the Gates law building. Since 1997, McMurtrie and her students have gotten 13 wrongful convictions overturned, a fact that humbles me when I stop to think about it: While I answer my e-mail or eat my lunch or write this column, prisoners are having their innocence proven just a few hundred yards away.

This is my last issue as co-editor of Columns. I'm returning to my hometown, Topeka, to teach creative writing at Washburn University. There's a lot that I'm looking forward to—a low mortgage payment, being closer to my family and not having to take a Vitamin D supplement. And of course there's much that I'll miss—good coffee, small-plate restaurants, the smell of flowering trees in the spring and the companionship of my UWAA colleagues. But the thing I'll miss most, I'm sure, is the intellectual vibrancy of the UW community. It is a rare privilege to be surrounded by so much brilliance. Don't forget to cherish it.


Publisher's Note: On behalf of the UWAA and the University, a BIG thank you to Eric McHenry for his four distinguished years as associate editor and co-editor of Columns. His wit, creativity and excellence will be greatly missed. We wish him all the best in his new endeavor.