Professor Chris Parkinson is an interesting guy. He likes to chase snakes. It was a childhood pastime that he turned into a profession. "I liked chasing snakes as a kid and didn't know I could do it for a living," says Parkinson. His early snake- chasing years were spent in Ravenna, Ohio, where he was born. The research he has conducted since then has taken him (and his students) all over the world, including Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, and many other places.
He earned his undergraduate degree from Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio. "Some professors at Ohio University inspired me about academics and science. They are the reason I sit here today. They gave me opportunities to work on sciences, which brought me to this point. It started with undergraduate research."
His undergraduate advisor moved from Ohio University to the University of Louisville, and wanted Parkinson to go with him. Parkinson refused; he had lined up an opportunity to pursue his Ph.D. at Texas Tech. "My advisor made me an offer I could not refuse, so I went to Louisville." He earned his Ph.D. in Environmental Biology from the University of Louisville in 1996.
So what's with all the snakes? Parkinson's research is on the evolution of biodiversity. That is, the evolution of plants and animals. Specifically, he focuses his work on the evolution of venomous snakes - to understand their venom components, where the snakes are found and how they got there. About this work, Parkinson is emphatic: "I believe this is research that needs to be done - to understand how organisms evolve. It helps us to understand how the continents were once connected, how snakes and other animals have migrated and where they originated."
Parkinson was hired by UCF in 2000; however he delayed the start until 2001, in order to complete a post-doctoral project. "I had a few offers," says Parkinson; "but UCF put the best offer on the table. I'm glad they did." Parkinson mentors four Ph.D. candidates, 3 Master's candidates, and six undergraduates in his lab.
His research work has brought in over $2.5million in grants thus far; and, UCF has given a little something back to Parkinson: A year or so after he began working at UCF, he met his wife. Mathematics Professor (and EXCEL co-founder) Cynthia Young and Parkinson were married in 2005.
Parkinson has won a number of awards. The teaching awards are the ones that make him most proud. "I enjoy research, but I get more fulfillment out of teaching," says Parkinson.
Parkinson has helped with EXCEL since the program's inception. He is the director of the undergraduate research experience for EXCEL. "Undergraduate research is how I got here, so I take much care and pride in the program," he says.
"We set it up so that EXCEL students can do one semester of research with a faculty member in the spring of their sophomore year. Some students continue on and get to work for multiple years with the faculty. Others get opportunities externally, because of the undergraduate research they do," he adds.
The students reside together, building a community where they work together, and conduct research together. EXCEL has facilitated a lot of students to stay in STEM, who might have otherwise lost interest.
The Recurring Question
In case you're wondering, Parkinson has never been bitten by a venomous snake. "I work very hard to keep that from happening; I came close a couple of times, but it hasn't happened." Knock on wood.