Boleslaw K. Szymanski, Ph.D., distinguished professor of computer science and cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will be a guest lecturer at UAB on Friday, Oct. 9.Boleslaw K. Szymanski, Ph.D., distinguished professor of computer science and cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will be a guest lecturer at UAB on Friday, Oct. 9.
They come from different eras of UAB’s history, and they majored in different subjects, but they’ve all become leaders in Birmingham’s burgeoning, nationally acclaimed food and beverage scene.
Three arts and sciences alumni have built landmark brands—and enviable reputations—as trailblazers in Birmingham’s food and beverage scene.
By Cary Norton
Eric Meyer of Cahaba Brewing. Idie Hastings of Hot & Hot Fish Club. Maureen Holt of Little Savannah. They come from different eras of UAB’s history, and they majored in different subjects, but they’ve all become leaders in Birmingham’s burgeoning, nationally acclaimed food and beverage scene.
What impact did UAB have on their careers? What relationships, courses, and experiences shaped their success? And how do their roles as leaders in the community impact today’s arts and sciences students?
Read about their journeys from undergraduates to entrepreneurs, and raise a glass (or fork) to their accomplishments.
Eric MeyerCahaba Brewing
Individually Designed Major, 2001
Perhaps, in hindsight, it’s not surprising that Eric Meyer graduated with an individually designed major. After all, this is the guy who, along with his partners, built one of the area’s most successful breweries from his homebrew setup. The guy who is also a fulltime fireman in Mountain Brook. The guy who is embarking on a project to restore one of the city’s most rambling and historic properties. But let’s back up.
Meyer, a Huntsville native, came to UAB with dreams of medical school. But like many others with the same goal, he discovered that was not his path. “I liked science, but I gravitated toward natural history and botany,” he explains. He also was curious about the relatively new field of geographic information systems (GIS). By his junior year, this cobbled-together plan began to take shape, and his advisors pushed him along the unusual path, letting him pick the courses that fit while ensuring he met his degree requirements.
As a student, Meyer had interned with the Jefferson County Storm Water Management Authority. “In the summer of 2000, we mapped the entire Cahaba River with GPS,” he says. “We walked, then floated, from Springville all the way down and mapped everything that wasn’t natural.”
That internship led to GIS-work with the county after graduation. And Meyer’s interest in science had expanded to healthcare, which in turn led him to take Emergency Management Technician classes at UAB. “I was a fulltime fireman in Graysville for a year, and then I moved to the Mountain Brook Fire Department in 2003. I work 10 days a month, 24 hours on the days I’m there. It’s intense, but the schedule allows me to also focus on growing the brewery.”
At Cahaba, Meyer shares responsibilities with four other partners. He’s the managing partner and brew master, but as the company has taken off, he’s delegated some of his hands-on responsibilities to a growing staff. “I used to brew and do all the books, but now we’re bringing other people on so I can focus on growing the company in the right way.”
Looking back, Meyer can see patterns in both his educational and personal interests. “With my science background, and all those labs in college, I learned to research, test, and come to a conclusion,” he explains. “That has definitely influenced the way I make beer, first at home and now at Cahaba. Our goal is to produce a clean and consistent product.”
His UAB friendships were also instrumental in his success. “Back in 2010, I inherited a little money from my grandfather’s estate,” he says. “I went to some of my fraternity brothers and brokered a handshake deal, $100 and they could buy in.” Today, as Meyer and his partners embark on their biggest project yet—the restoration of the old Cottondale Gin in Avondale as the future home of Cahaba Brewing— he says the future is bright, for him, his business and the city.
“I have three healthy children, a wife who still loves me and two careers that I love,” he says. “I have absolutely no complaints about how my life turned out.”
Idie HastingsHot & Hot Fish Club and Oven Bird restaurants
Criminal Justice/Psychology, 1986
Like many of her fellow students in the mid-1980s, Idie Hastings chose UAB because its flexible class schedule ensured that she could work as a legal secretary and still graduate in only five years. “UAB allowed me to take classes in the early morning, in the evenings, and on weekends,” she says. “I felt like they really catered to people holding fulltime jobs.”
Majoring in Criminal Justice/Psychology (then in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences), Hastings was drawn to her area of study because she liked observing people. She’d always been told she was a good listener, and she considered a career in forensic psychology or in counseling abused children and the elderly. And her work at the law firm fueled her interest in law, civil liberties, justice, and people’s decision-making tendencies.
But it was her talent in the kitchen—throwing dinner parties with her college roommates—that set her on her career path. “We liked to do it, and it was a form of relaxation for me to cook,” Hastings says. “After graduation, I was deciding if I should try for my masters or go to culinary school. When I found a culinary school in San Francisco, I made a major decision to change my life completely.”
While her career may not have an obvious connection to her undergraduate major, Hastings says there are benefits to what she studied, even in the food business. “Both criminal justice and psychology can be of benefit when you work with a variety of people daily, especially when your job is based in customer service,” she says. “My psychology classes taught me to observe and listen to people. And my college experience taught me time management skills and perseverance. You learn how to start and finish your work, solve problems, and execute your goals.”
Along with her husband Chris, Idie has built an award-winning restaurant in Hot & Hot Fish Club. The landmark eatery is a frequent finalist in the prestigious James Beard Awards and other competitions. Hastings and her husband are soon to open a new venture—Oven Bird—in Birmingham’s Pepper Place. “Everything on the menu will be cooked over an open fire,” she says.
As for the food and beverage scene in Birmingham, Hastings says that it continues to grow and “sprout new ideas that will [continue to] make Birmingham an eclectic place to live,” she says. “In five years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the circuit from Downtown, Railroad Park, Pepper Place and Avondale connect to make a viable, progressive marketplace with independent entrepreneurs.”
Maureen HoltLittle Savannah restaurant
Maureen Holt had practical reasons for transferring from Birmingham-Southern College to UAB, and she has retained a practical view about work and education since she graduated with a major in psychology and a minor in French. “I’m from a big family and I have two brothers with Down syndrome, and I needed to be there on the weekend to help my mother,” Holt says. “I worked fulltime waiting tables, bartending, even doing some management, and I would pay my mom back at the end of each semester. That flexibility with classes was so important for me.”
She chose psychology with an eye on a career in physical therapy, an interest that stemmed from her brothers, and thought that UAB would give her a path to physical therapy school. But as she worked in restaurants around the city to help pay her tuition, she discovered a love for the food business. When graduation came, “I wasn’t mentally prepared to continue with school then,” she says. “I had a lot of job offers from restaurants in town, so that’s what I decided to do.”
Holt worked in a number of well-known Birmingham restaurants, from her first job at Mauby’s at age 15 to working side-by-side with her sister at PT’s. She met her husband Clif when she was the maître d at Bottega’s main dining room and he was a chef at Highlands Bar and Grill. The couple married in 2002 and the next year they opened Little Savannah, now a Forest Park landmark. Daughter Jamie Jean, who just started kindergarten, is also a point of pride. “She’s grown up in the kitchen,” Holt says.
Thirteen years after opening Little Savannah, the Holts have built a reputation as an efficient team with a creative flair and a dedication to locally sourced ingredients. They’ve also been leaders in the local food community, always looking for ways to grow not only their own business but help develop culinary talent in others.
“I went through culinary school to learn that curriculum, but also so I could learn to teach others,” Holt says. “I started teaching our cooking classes here at Little Savannah and I’ve loved it. We’ve also had some incredible chefs come through our restaurant and it’s been wonderful to see them spawn new ideas and open new restaurants of their own.”
“But the problem I’m seeing is that there aren’t enough trained people in the city to staff all of these new restaurants that are opening,” she continues. “The food scene in Birmingham has grown so quickly, we’re all struggling to catch up with trained staff.”
To that end, Holt has ideas on ways to provide students with a fast track, six-month culinary program that would expedite the training process. She’s also working with Jones Valley Teaching Farm to allow high school students to come to the restaurant after school and learn some front- and back-of-house skills.
Always practically minded, Holt knows that not only local restaurants need the help, but the students will need marketable skills beyond fast food or retail jobs. “When I was in school, my teachers were supportive and available when I needed them.”
Which sounds a lot like Holt’s own experience—proof that an investment in talented young people will always pay off.
What makes a student successful? Often it’s a faculty member, like Dr. David Hilton in the Department of Physics, who has guided undergraduates and graduate students to some prestigious awards and academic accomplishments.
What makes a student successful? Often it’s a faculty member, like Dr. David Hilton in the Department of Physics, who has guided undergraduates and graduate students to some prestigious awards and academic accomplishments.Photos by Jared Bash
“Mentorship” is a term that’s often heard in higher education, particularly in the last decade.
Senior faculty mentoring junior faculty, faculty members mentoring graduate students, graduate students mentoring undergraduates, the trend has been to encourage—through institutional policies, unofficial motivation, or both— a system by which the more educated and experienced senior person can guide the less experienced, less educated junior person.
And by many accounts, it has been a successful endeavor. A Hanover Research study from January 2014 cites a number of takeaways for administrators looking to develop these kinds of programs. “Although the particular format of successful mentoring models sometimes varies, all programs share certain characteristics,” the study reports. “These include support from top-level administrators, integration within a more comprehensive strategy for faculty development, a voluntary participation policy, participant involvement in the pairing process, the availability or resources to assist mentorship relationships, and the establishment of clear mentorship goals and expectations.”
Within the College of Arts and Sciences, several relatively new mentorship programs have proven to be successful for participants. Our National Science Foundation CAREER Training Program pairs senior research faculty with junior faculty to guide them through the rigorous application process for an NSF CAREER Award; in the eight years of the program, the College has had six faculty members receive the prestigious designation, bringing in more than $3 million dollars to our departments for research.
In addition, our work with graduate students, including the Graduate Fellows Program that supports incoming doctoral students with stipends, has led to an increase in research productivity within the College.
But what about our undergraduates?
It turns out that here at UAB, undergraduates not only benefit from the relationships they have with older students, but from faculty members as well. In the College of Arts and Sciences we want everyone to succeed and attain their personal goals. Along with the formal instruction and evaluation processes expected for students, faculty, and staff, we strive to provide additional opportunities for personal growth and the development of leadership skills. Our mentoring programs reach all members of our College. In the case of our students, College of Arts and Sciences faculty often develop more informal, personal, relationships with students to provide guidance, feedback, and growth opportunities. The result is the incredible success our students enjoy in national award competitions, entrance to top graduate schools, and success in garnering their first position after graduation.
Many of these relationships happen organically, as professors and students bond over projects and assignments. And often, those relationships continue outside of the particular class in which the student and instructor met. Within the College, numerous faculty members stay in touch with their students, guiding them in everything from course decisions to research and papers, to internship and job opportunities.
In some cases, however, the faculty member is so adept at fostering confidence, academic success, and work quality in an undergraduate that he or she has mastered the art of mentoring.
What Makes a Mentor?Dr. David Hilton is one such professor. A member of the faculty in the Department of Physics since 2007, he says he has learned over the years what makes a good mentor and what is fulfilling to both the faculty member and student. “First off, you need a big enough project that you can pull a smaller piece off, and you have to be sure that doing so isn’t going to affect the timeframe of the project,” he says. “Next, you have to identify something that the student is interested in doing, that will give them a better understanding of the subject right away, and doesn’t create a system where they’re just doing the grunt work for a graduate student. It has to be their own work, and real work.”
Hilton works with spectrometers, measuring light reflection to assess the conductivity of new materials that could one day replace silicon in microprocessors. His lab features an elaborate array of lasers that validate his test models, with the ultimate goal of showing manufacturers what options would be faster and more sustainable than silicon.
When Hilton sees positive results in his lab, he can scale up the project by taking it to the National High Magnetic Laboratory at Florida State University, one of only three magnet labs in the country. There, the powerful magnets can test the viability of the new materials Hilton and his students have experimented with on a smaller scale at UAB. “Post docs, graduate students, and undergraduates have been able to go to Florida State to continue their work,” he says. “Once they reach a certain level, they can even go on their own.”
Catalyzing Student SuccessSenior Luke McClintock, who earned a Goldwater Scholarship honorable mention in 2014, is one of Hilton’s high-performing undergraduates who made the trip to FSU, and with whom Hilton has built as strong relationship. McClintock says he was drawn to Hilton’s work even as a chemistry major. “I joined the Physics track because my first two general physics classes had interested me, but mostly because of my experience working for Dr. Hilton in the physics summer REU program,” he says. “I really enjoyed the science and got along with Dr. Hilton splendidly. He basically convinced me to do the double major, and then later I decided to get two full degrees.”
McClintock found himself empowered by his faculty mentor early on. “When I first met with Dr. Hilton and asked him about my project, he said, ‘Your project resembles trying to hit a bullet with a bullet and both bullets are invisible.’ He is absurdly intelligent, but knows how to break things down for inexperienced people to understand. That is absolutely the most important part of good teaching. He is also good at making topics interesting, even to people who aren’t of the nerd bloodline like me.”
Hilton has pushed McClintock hard, but McClintock says that has paid off. “He is great at involving students in his work and ideas, but he expects results, which has been a good atmosphere for me,” McClintock says. “The pressure to prove I can get something done has been stressful at times, but I wouldn’t be successful without it.”
Hilton’s connections at Los Alamos National Laboratory have also been valuable to McClintock and other students, as has his own example of hard work and focus. “Good faculty mentors motivate students through examples of direct application of their work to the real world. Nobody wants to feel like their work is pointless,” McClintock says. “My work in Dr. Hilton’s lab has definitely prepared me, and I already have experience out of his lab to compare with. In no way have I been spoiled. Dr. Hilton treats me like a researcher and expects me to get things done. It is because of my training in his lab that I have been successful elsewhere and will be successful in the future.”
And, like most good investments, the returns Hilton has made in his students keep coming back. Aidan O’Beirne, a junior majoring in Physics, is following behind McClintock, working long hours in Hilton’s lab and absorbing everything he can from his professor, the graduate students, and from his friend Luke. “I’ve worked in other labs on campus, and it wasn’t the same as working with Dr. Hilton,” O’Beirne says. “I didn’t have a lot of face time with faculty; I didn’t feel comfortable asking questions. But Dr. Hilton is happy to answer questions—repeatedly. His door is always open and he’s always available.”
Peer to PeerO’Beirne says that Hilton’s primary concern is helping people succeed. “He has this attitude of ‘We’re gonna do it,’” he says. “That can be helping me chart the step-by-step course I need to follow to win an award, or figuring something out in the lab. He wants to give people opportunities, and he makes it okay to fail. He prepares you and lets you know it’s okay when something doesn’t work out.”
O’Beirne says that, of Hilton’s many good qualities, it’s his respectful approach to students that may be his most meaningful. “He doesn’t value hierarchy; he values the people who are doing the work,” he says. McClintock agrees. “He treats me like I am a fellow researcher, as opposed to just some temporary undergrad student,” he says.
For his part, Hilton is clearly proud of his students. “They’re doing really great stuff,” he says. “They’re the real deal.”