Nerds of Mizzou
Evans campaigns for Nerd title. Really.
With enthusiasm reaching beyond the classroom, Assistant Professor Tim Evans dresses as a superhero nerd to teach toxicology to veterinary students. Photo illustration by Josh Nichols.
How nerdy is that?
Turns out, Evans’ students — daily witnesses to his geekiest attributes — didn’t need much coaching. Nine of them submitted nominations. “He uses humor to catch our attention, and then his passion for the subject inspires us to learn,” Kelvin Urday says.
Evans specializes in a rare combination of interests — animal reproduction (theriogenology) and poisonous plants (toxicology) — and is one of a very few veterinarians, if not the only one, to be board certified in both specialties. Because of his national reputation, he works as a consultant on difficult diagnostic cases, says veterinary pathologist Margaret Miller of Purdue University.
Evans discovered humor as a way to deal with some of his social ineptitude in junior high school. Now he uses it to reduce stress in himself and others, so his explanation for coveting the nerd title seems reasonable.
“I saw the overachievers already named Mizzou Nerds and thought what an honor that would be,” he says. “You have to accept who you are; college professors are all nerds to some degree. Besides, I’m up for tenure soon, and any honor might help.”
Warning: Parts of this story are intended for audiences mature enough to handle animal-reproduction vocabulary without blushing. For the interview, Evans had removed from his office several framed artistic renderings of equine reproductive parts but fished in a desk drawer for some “gorgeous electron micrographs of mare uteri.” He forgot the dried bull scrotum on display.
Evans doesn’t speak. He effervesces. When his mind races, he finishes only 40 percent of his sentences and squeezes in extra ideas by assuming listeners understand the conclusion of his sentence-in-progress then charging full tilt into the next thought.
Associate Dean Robert Youngquist describes Evans as intimidatingly enthusiastic and liked by students, who honored him with a teaching award through the Student American Veterinary Medical Association. Dean Neil Olson notes that Evans collected 65 hugs at graduation last year to his one. But who’s counting?
It’s common knowledge that Fridays are Evans’ Hawaiian-shirt days. “I have no problems celebrating certain aspects of my eccentricity if it helps students be engaged and pay attention to the material,” he says. Reciprocation came on his 50th birthday, when students, faculty and staff wore Hawaiian shirts to mark the occasion.
Because teaching about poisonous plants can seem a bit dry, Evans shows examples from 700 slides, and he throws in some fun surprises with his Toxessentials presentation (sample PDF) of critical concepts. But his over-the-top teaching technique involves a cape, a mask and transformation into his alter ego — The Antidote — who appears on slides and in person to promote the study of toxic-plant principles.
Evans donned his first superhero costume years ago while speaking to a kids’ club about colic. With an appropriate superhero introduction, he ran into the room as “Captain Colic,” dressed in tights, mask, cape and a shirt with a prominent “CC” on the front. The colic frolic held the kids’ attention for 30 minutes — a long time for youngsters.
To a degree
The Antidote is just one of Evans' alter egos. The professor also has been known to dress as Captain Colic to teach children about horse health.
Evans loves to learn, which is apparent by the degrees behind his name: BS ’80, DVM, MS, PhD ’02 and two diplomates, DACT, DABVT — the board certifications for theriogenology and toxicology. His wife has forbidden him to acquire any more degrees, he says.
As a toxicologist who understands the clinical side of veterinary medicine, Evans is working to develop porcine models to predict dosages of chemicals likely to adversely affect the reproductive function of domestic animals and, potentially, of humans.
Evans may be positioned in the perfect spot for his work. MU is a hub of biomedical and agricultural research involving swine and long has been recognized as a leader in fescue toxicosis research, one of his specialties. Evans can collaborate, as well, with researchers in several divisions who study endocrine disruption and the chemicals potentially capable of causing decreased fertility.
There are supply advantages, too: The veterinary college houses the National Swine Research and Resource Center, which provides genetic material and swine for research globally; and Missouri grows abundant grass for Evans’ study of fescue toxicosis.
He says; she says
Evan’s wife, Debbie, is a good sport; she’s used to playing straight man to her mate. Years ago while he was in Poland, she sent Evans’ old plaid pants and corduroy jacket to Goodwill. He claims he’s still miffed; she says the clothes were from high school. He bought another pair of pants from Goodwill and a yellow polyester jacket to wear with them. Yes, he actually wears them.
Debbie tries in vain to hold Evans in check. Driving the car, she once threatened to leave him behind when, as traffic came to a standstill on I-55 near Chicago, he roamed the roadside to collect poisonous weeds. (Remember those 700 slides?)
Evans’ route to academia was fairly circuitous. After 11 years as an equine veterinarian in California and Texas, he wanted to study other species. So he moved to a life in teaching and research that doesn’t require giving mouth-to-nose resuscitation to horses.
Evans has been involved in various aspects of the reproduction of most domestic animals. “My areas of interest are somewhat eclectic, if not somewhat awkward to discuss in mixed company,” he says. “That usually doesn't stop me, but it can be of some concern to my children.”
He used to keep the book Pathways to Pregnancy and Parturition in his car, until his teenage son, Will, started reading it to friends.
Celebrate eccentricity? Why not?
Evans is a collector, and visitors to his Mizzou office note that nearly every square inch is covered with papers or stuff. Every collectable has a story — a Noah’s Ark, a bobble-head doll of MU wrestler-Olympian Ben Askren, a stuffed penguin in mating stance and a passel of pig statues. Evans points to a barking-dog cookie jar and asks: “Can you believe someone was throwing this away?”
Among his favorite treasures is Where Willie Went, a child’s book on the “big story of a little sperm.” Daughter Andreya gave it to him, and he loves the fact that she “gets” his humor. The two share a special appreciation of animals and soccer. For a time, he helped coach her soccer team — despite having no knowledge of the game.
Evans earned high school letters in varsity football, wrestling and baseball — as team statistician — but easily made the math and chemistry teams. He takes credit for passing on his non-athletic genes to son Will, a high school wrestler who strives to succeed nonetheless.
“Nerds can accomplish great things,” he says. “I am not the kind of person you would ever consider cloning, but I add a little color into, what could be for some, a relatively bland life.”