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Surprise Chef: Suzanne Paraiso Cupps ’02

Suzanne Paraiso Cupps '02

No one is more surprised than Suzanne Cupps that she has ended up becoming a chef. She didn’t grow up watching “Iron Chef” or “Chopped” or “Top Chef,” dreaming of being head chef at a high-profile restaurant.

“It wasn’t something I dreamed of doing or something that had even crossed my mind,” says Cupps, who took over last April as executive chef at Untitled, a contemporary American restaurant located on the first floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Cupps is the only female executive chef with Union Square Hospitality Group, which operates Untitled and 14 other New York restaurants. Her name and title is blind-embossed on the bottom left of the menu, an understated claim that fits her calm, understated demeanor. She hasn’t gotten where she is by being loud and overbearing, but by being precise and detailed and thorough.

And she’s gotten there by being a mentor and a teacher, which is somewhat humorous given that was her original career goal. A math major at Clemson, Cupps was dreading student teaching her senior year enough to know that wasn’t the right direction. So she moved to New York and eventually landed at the famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel, working in human re­sources. When they needed extra help in the steak house, she pitched in and discovered a love of food preparation.

She didn’t know the difference between cilantro and parsley and had never held a knife properly, but she forged ahead and began classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. A lover of precision (a part of her math background, she says), she would take potatoes home every night and practice slicing and dicing until she got them perfect.

A series of kitchen jobs followed, and she landed at Gramercy Tavern (also part of Union Square Hospitality Group), learning from chef Michael Anthony. She moved to Untitled as chef de cuisine before taking the reins as executive chef.

She loves sourcing local seasonal ingredients and creating plates that are works of art. And she loves teaching, though in a very different type classroom than she initially envisioned. “My style is very much teaching,” she says, “and it’s funny that I didn’t become a math teacher, but I teach all day in the kitchen.

“I show cooks how to get better.”

Watch Cupps make an appearance in a New York Times Style Magazine video from 2015 that explores Untitled at the Whitney and really captures the restaurant’s style and appeal.

Here’s a more recent article from StarChefs that features Cupps as a rising star chef in New York City.

A Beautiful, Terrible Problem: John Skardon ’76, Ph.D. ’11

A Beautiful, Terrible Problem: John Skardon '76, Ph.D. '11

John Skardon is a problem solver. It’s why he earned a degree in engineering from Clemson. It’s why he returned for a Ph.D. in policy studies after decades leading manufacturing companies and various startups. And it’s what he teaches his students at Cal State University where he is a lecturer.

Skardon saw a problem in his home city of Monterey, California, where nearly 80 years of expanding agriculture had contaminated wells and ground water with nitrates, primarily from the constant use of fertilizer. This issue isn’t exclusive to California, as the resulting unsightly algae slicks cause ecological and economic impacts across the world. Many farmers are now required to clean up runoff but don’t have an affordable way to do so. When told there was no solution to remove these nitrates, Skardon just saw an opportunity for problem-solving with students.

“Removing nitrates is not a science problem because it’s done all the time in aquariums and fish farms,” explains Skardon. “The real issue is doing it in an agricultural environment without labs and in some cases without power.” He looked to large-scale denitrifying filters in water and waste treatment systems along the Mississippi River. The challenge was clear: take big technology and scale it down.

Skardon and his team of students built five small biofilm reactors, but Skardon tempered his expectations. Drastically downsizing technology usually results in reduced effectiveness. “The last one worked so well we were stunned,” Skardon says. “The reactor was 90 percent as efficient as a large-scale reactor, which is amazing. So we said, ‘We think we’re done.’”

The research was moved into practical application through Skardon’s business, Tailwater Systems, where he’s now demonstrating what he studied in his doctoral program — the role of institutions in perpetuating or solving problems through innovation. The company is providing an affordable, scalable solution for farmers dealing with fertilizer runoff.

“When I realized how big the problem was, I said, ‘This is a great, terrible problem to work on!’” Skardon says, laughing. “I guess there aren’t many people who get so excited about a ‘terrible’ problem to solve, but that’s just me.”

King Bee: Buddy May ’62

Buddy May amidst his many beehives on May Farms. The smoker in his hand is used to produce a kind of fire alarm in the hive, keeping the bees busy while May checks up on them.

Buddy May ’62 amidst his many beehives on May Farms. The smoker in his hand is used to produce a kind of fire alarm in the hive, keeping the bees busy while May checks up on them.

May Farms is an earthy plot of 65 acres nestled in the backroads of northeast Greenville complete with small groves of growing fruits, a three-acre lake and around 40 buzzing beehives. “This is my sand pile,” chuckles Buddy May.

May, owner and operator of May Farms and a 1962 industrial management graduate, spent most of his career in textiles management. When it came time to retire, a friend from church gifted May with his first beehive in 2003. Since then, he has been harvesting and selling the honey gathered from his hives along with homemade propolis salve. Propolis is a wax-like material made with resins from tree trunks, limbs and bark and used by bees to patch small holes in the comb. May touts its excellent medicinal qualities when used to heal wounds and cuts. Honey also boasts significant health benefits, and according to May, allergies can be virtually cleared by eating honey produced in local flora regions. “The honey has pollen in it, and that’s where it is beneficial for an allergy. So, you can say local, but the best thing to say is if it’s similar to the plants in your area,” he explains.

At 83 years old, May is a double master beekeeper and master craftsman beekeeper, holding certifications from the Eastern Apiculture Society (EAS) and the S.C. Beekeepers Association. May is the first person in South Carolina to receive the EAS master beekeeper title as well as the first to achieve master craftsman status from South Carolina. The tests and requirements for these accomplishments are extensive. For example, May studied three years for his EAS master beekeeper test, which is given over three days and consists of a written, practical, laboratory and oral sections. “I studied anything and everything and for years because any question about beekeeping — and there must be a blue bazillion of them — is fair game.”

Caring for bees is just as important to May as keeping them. On the road to becoming a master craftsman beekeeper, he investigated the ways oxalic acid could improve the conditions of the hive, specifically how the acid could address nosema disease, which affects the gut of the bee, and the varroa destructor, a devastating mite. After compiling his findings into a research paper, May published “Continuous Treatment of Bee Colonies with Oxalic Acid” in the American Bee Journal in October 2017.

Concern for these honey-producing insects stems from deep-seated admiration and respect. “The bee is blessed with a lot of things that I could talk to you for hours and days about. It’s the vastness of the bee itself that caught my interest.” May muses about the bee’s amazing and equally puzzling abilities. In order to produce honey, bees reduce nectar (which is about 90 percent water) to 18.6 percent moisture. That process never ceases to impress him: “How do they know when it’s 18.6? No one’s given me an answer for that, but I think it’s the antennae because the antennae can pick up moisture level.” According to May, the queen bee can lay more than 1500 eggs a day. “The mysterious part about that is that she can decide whether it’s going to be a female or a male,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling.”

His desire to know more about the bee inspires him to educate others and hopefully shed light on the bee’s current, disturbing situation. Increasing amounts of mites and viruses along with decreasing amounts of agricultural land and the misuse of insecticides have resulted in a reduction in the number of feral bees. “They can’t be treated in trees, so they die,” he says. “The feral bees are just about gone. If we ever get to the point where we have to pollinate, we’re going to have a whole lot less to eat.”

As the current vice president (and soon-to-be president) of the Eastern Apiculture Society, May is working on scheduling its first conference in South Carolina in 2019. Having lived in the Carolinas most of his life and with two sons and two grandsons as Clemson alumni, May is excited to show South Carolina off to the beekeeping community.

When asked about his motivation behind becoming an expert beekeeper in retirement, May credits the support of his late wife of 55 years, Pat Pressley, and adds with a smile, “I didn’t have anything else to do.”

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Working with Walt: Marc Bryant ’99, M ’03

Marc Bryant at Walt Disney Animation Studios in California.

Marc Bryant specializes in fire, smoke and destruction — as far as animation goes, at least. Bryant, who earned both an undergraduate and graduate degree at Clemson, is living the dream as a member of Disney’s effects department, creating and animating film at Walt Disney Animation Studios in California.

Wielding his background in Clemson’s computer science and digital production arts (DPA) programs and his previous experience in live-action visual effects, Marc Bryant eagerly transitioned into animation when he accepted the opportunity to work for Disney Animation in 2013. As an effects animator, Bryant works on the animation for things like water, electricity, smoke, magic and fire, and he relishes the different challenges that each project presents. “You might be animating magical storms in one movie and blowing up a city in the next. There’s always some new challenge to keep you engaged.”

Throughout his work, Bryant often relies on the strong technical foundation he acquired as a graduate student in Clemson’s DPA program. Along with the necessary technical coursework, the diversity and customization of the program’s curriculum allowed Bryant to pursue valuable creative courses, like photography, that he believes have served him well in the imaginative aspects of animation work.

Those skills helped Bryant play an integral part in the development of one of Disney Animation’s most recent projects, “Moana,” a colorful tale surrounding an ancient Polynesian heroine on a seafaring mission to save her island village. As the effects lead for Te Kā, the movie’s angry, volcanic antagonist, Bryant researched volcanoes and lava types as well as lava and smoke movement in order to perfect Te Kā’s fiery temper. Working with a character as heavily featured and complex as Te Kā compelled Bryant and the rest of the department to build an FX rig with many different elements, like pyroclastic plumes and lava, in order to easily simulate her movements.

“We needed a solution that would allow us to iterate quickly and to closely collaborate with multiple departments,” he explains. The effects department decided to take a layered approach to constructing Te Kā by using a mixture of pre-simulated elements and custom per-shot simulations to modify the character’s movements quickly and effectively.

“Layout would start this process by placing pre-simmed elements, allowing the directors to evaluate the framing and timing of volcanic events at a very early stage. Animation could also adjust these elements to suit their purposes as they worked on Te Kā’s character performance,” explains Bryant.

Then the effects department layered in the “hero” FX, which consists of custom sims that react to the character’s movements. Bryant describes these hero rigs as “modular, with basic components, such as smoke, fire and lava, saved into individual Houdini galleries.” Breaking down the rig allowed research and development artists to simultaneously work on its different parts. “The individual galleries would then be assembled at shot time, providing the artist with a solid starting point for their custom simulations,” informs Bryant. Disney’s effects department uses Houdini as their animation application software, which provided the built-in solvers for Te Kā’s fire and pyroclastic smoke simulations. Animating the more liquid lava required a combination of Houdini’s FLIP solver and Disney Animation’s Splash solver, which was developed for the breathtaking water in “Moana.”

After all of the work put into “Moana,” Bryant is on to the next project, specifically focused on improving tools for Disney Animation’s upcoming sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2.” As his work with Disney Animation continues, Bryant is soaking up every magical moment: “It’s the best job I’ve had. Walt Disney Animation Studios provides a fantastic environment and the chance to collaborate with people who created the classics from my childhood. It’s pretty humbling.”

A Passion for Service: Kim Gray Evans ’98

A Passion for Service: Kim Gray Evans '98

Kim Evans’ involvement with the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Central Savannah River Area in Augusta, Ga., began with volunteering five hours a week.

Evans, an accounting major at Clemson, had worked in management accounting in the manufacturing and health care sectors. With the birth of two sons, Jacob and Jared, she wanted to be home more and started a small accounting firm. It was one of her clients, a Boys and Girls Club board member, who recruited her to work with the organization.

“I’ve always been someone who just never sits down — within six months to a year I was probably working for them 30 hours a week,” she says. Within 2½ years, she was part of helping the organization grow from three to eight area clubs serving more than 3,000 youth. By 2011, she was the chief financial officer, managing a $3.5 million budget and overseeing grants and federal funding.

Then the CEO was promoted to the national level, and Evans became interim CEO. It didn’t take the board long to remove “interim” from her title.

It was the Boys and Girls Clubs’ mission to “inspire and enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens” that ignited Evans’ passion. “I didn’t have a Boys and Girls Club growing up, so I had no idea about the mission when I started,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be involved in the community and giving back. All the things I wanted to do with my life’s work aligned very quickly with what was happening here.”

This past spring Evans was invited as one of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America CEOs to attend a year-long Harvard
Business School executive education program, studying companies and organizations and the ways CEOs make decisions, and translating that to the nonprofit sector.

“Sometimes in the nonprofit arena we don’t have a product that we sell,” she says. “We have to go out and make the case to individuals and corporations and foundations that we’re worth the investment.”

Back home, Evans’ priority is convincing folks that the mission of helping kids reach their potential is worth an investment. “I focus on building a better community. These kids are the future. This is your future workforce, your kids’ future neighbors. This is worth the investment.”

Expertise, Heart and Passion: Lisa Bennett ’05

Lisa Bennett '05

Back in the early 2000s, Lisa Bennett was a secondary education major at Clemson who had no way of knowing that one of her coworkers at a video rental store would go on to found one of the most successful educator development organizations in Zambia. Lusungu Sibande was just another employee in the trenches with Bennett, restocking DVDs and keeping a “naughty” list of late video returners.

Lusungu and her sister, Kondi, started A to Zed in 2006 and immediately invited Bennett to travel to Zambia with them. In 2016 Bennett was finally able to join the sisters, offering her abilities as an educator to help teachers in Zambia through professional development workshops. She became an instant believer, making plans to return in summer 2018.

“I enjoyed helping teachers address what they may be lacking in classrooms,” Bennett said. “It’s very fulfilling to help them put proven methods into practice, and we can’t wait to go back.” And, she adds, “Lusungu and Kondi made me part of their family and an honorary Zambian citizen.”

Bennett worked with teachers and students in grades 5-9, but her work wasn’t confined to the classroom. A to Zed also tackles service-learning projects, such as helping teachers and students raise and sell crops, the proceeds of which get put back into schools. Members of A to Zed also found time to host a field day for Matthew 25, a local orphanage.

Bennett said the experience made her realize just how much the hardworking people of Zambia accomplish with limited resources. One teacher she observed used a single book and no other reading or writing materials to effectively teach a class of 40 students.

That experience taught Bennett an important lesson about the role of teachers: “In the end, it’s about me and what I have to give, and that’s expertise, heart and passion,” she said. This summer, she’ll take these talents back to teach — and learn — from the educators of Zambia.