The last few days have been a whirlwind of excitement, nerves, and smiles. On Thursday morning, we left in two vans and drove four and a half hours down to the land of the Gateway Arch, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals, and birthplace of Ted Drewes’ concrete. It is also where our generous donors, John and Cassandra McKearn, live. For many months we have heard many things about them but have never been able to meet them face to face–until now. When we arrived, we had a couple hours to decompress at the hotel after our long drive and to also freshen up before heading to their home. When we got out of the car, all of us marveled at their beautiful home, which was reminiscent of a ski lodge from Colorado, with influences from the McKearns’ time in California evident in the design. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t nervous about meeting Dr. and Mrs. McKearn at this point, with my heart going a mile a minute.
I had no reason to be so nervous. Both John and Cassandra McKearn greeted us at the door with smiles and plates of food in their spacious kitchen. All the Fellows, careful to remember the etiquette that was taught to us at the end of the spring semester, made a beeline for it. There were St. Louis specialties that Cassandra was kind enough to lay out for us–Fitz’ root beer and orange soda, gooey cake, concrete, and other St. Louis specialties. We were able to put our well-rehearsed (at this point) elevator pitches to the test in front of the McKearns, speak with them personally and individually, and finally meet the man and woman behind the name. They told us about their experience at NIU, which looked remarkably, in many aspects, like our current experience. We went back to the hotel enlightened, inspired, and with gift bags from the McKearns in hand.
The next day, we were up early to go to the Danforth Science Center, one of the leading centers of agriculture and plant life in the world. We got to have a tour of the facility, accompanied by members of the McKearn Team, John McKearn himself, and several of his associates. Although I myself was not a biology major and couldn’t follow half the information given, I found the presentations fascinating nevertheless. It was amazing to see that the efforts of these incredible scientists, engineers, businessmen, and donors were being put to use in order to give those less fortunate than us a chance at a better life.
We also got to have lunch at the Danforth Science Center, and I was fortunate enough to have Dr. McKearn himself sit at my table. He told us his experience in research, from his first years in college all the way to where he was now–managing director and venture partner of RiverVest. It was amazing to hear him speak about his life so candidly, and with such vibrant detail.
After our experience at the Danforth Science Center was over, we had the privilege of going to BioGenerator, a company that specializes in helping to create, grow, and invest in up-and-coming companies and entrepreneurs. We were able to have a presentation by Anton Gimmel from RiverVest and Charlie Bolten, Vice President of BioGenerator. There, they gave us advice on how to be successful in life–what professionals look like, what they do, and how they become successful. They also gave us some information on how venture capitalism works and why it is so important to early companies.
After this presentation, the long (yet enlightening) day wasn’t over yet. We headed back to the hotel and had just enough time to change and decompress a little before heading to the baseball game that was hosted by the NIU Alumni Association at Busch Stadium. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the New York Mets, but before the game began, we were able to network with some alumni and with John and Cassandra McKearn. I had some interesting conversations with them, and was also able to tell Mrs. McKearn how rewarding it was to volunteer at Camp Power. After the reception, we watched the game–the Cardinals won, 2-3!
This entire experience was amazing and was the culmination of several years of hard work by the McKearns and the McKearn faculty (old and new). The experiences we had while in St. Louis would not have been possible without the support of the NIU Alumni Association or the contacts that the McKearns had in the Danforth Science Center and at BioGenerator. We have all grown so much as a cohort, and individually as researchers, as local community members, as students, and as leaders in a professional world. No words can ever express how grateful I am for these opportunities.