Computer science meets engineering: USC Beaufort professor builds robust program for students

In the spring of 2018, I interviewed three University of South Carolina professors who were being recognized for their scholarly excellence and wrote profile pieces to be featured in print publications and on the University of South Carolina website.

Yiming Ji was recognized with a Breakthrough Leadership in Research Award for his progressive computer science program.


Computer science meets engineering: USC Beaufort professor builds robust program for students

Trained as an aerospace engineer, Yiming Ji worked in the aerospace industry for several years before returning to school to study computer science.

Inspired by the idea of training others to integrate computer science and engineering as he had done, Ji founded the computational science program at USC Beaufort, the only one of its kind in South Carolina.

What began as a modest assembly of seven students in 2010 has grown into a robust program with more than 100 students and a full-time faculty.

“We have formed a strong faculty team,” Ji says. “They all work hard in their fields and two of them have already promoted and received tenure.”

Students have fertile ground for discovery in this unique field in large part because of Ji’s dedication. Indefatigable in his pursuit of funding, he has secured more than $2.6 million to support the program.

In 2016, he was presented with the S.C. Governor’s Award for Excellence in Scientific Research at a Predominantly Undergraduate Institution. He also received USC Beaufort’s academic adviser award.

“The real winners are the students,” says Joseph Staton, dean of the School of Science and Mathematics at USC Beaufort.

Ji is involved with many regional efforts to strengthen teaching, research and educational initiatives. His strong ties to the larger educational community enhance the value of USC Beaufort’s program and create “an experience worth much more to these graduate’s futures than a mere diploma,” Staton says.

Ji is equally diligent in his support of students outside the classroom. In addition to providing career training, Ji and his team regularly contact local companies for internship and employment opportunities and pursue connections for students to collaborate with community groups on real-world problems.

It’s not uncommon for a student to enter USC Beaufort’s computational science program with minimal college preparatory experience or a rudimentary understanding of computer science.

“We have students who used to work in grocery stores or as house painters,” Ji says.

But students who find the program challenging don’t face the challenges alone. Many have gone on to achieve their goals and become software engineers at companies like Oracle, Gulfstream, Fidelity and United Healthcare.

“This means so much to me and to all my colleagues,” says Ji, noting that nearly all of the program’s graduates find jobs, attracting more industries to take notice.

Ji considers himself a typical faculty member in the USC system “who cares about student and higher education.” The way he sees it, the accolades and awards simply summarize his work up to this point.

Research takes time, and it can take even longer to publish the results, he explains. It is even more difficult to get grant funding.

“It just takes time,” he says. “The most important thing for me is to see how our students can grow and, eventually, transform their lives.”



Breakthrough awards, presented each year by the Office of the Vice President for Research, recognize faculty and graduate students for their research and scholarly excellence. The Breakthrough Leadership in Research award recognizes the university’s distinguished senior faculty; the Breakthrough Star award honors outstanding early-career faculty; and the Breakthrough Graduate Scholar award acclaims exceptional graduate students. Learn more in Breakthrough publications.


New tools for old problems: Professor develops new methods for tackling mathematical challenges

In the spring of 2018, I interviewed three University of South Carolina professors who were being recognized for their scholarly excellence and wrote profile pieces to be featured in print publications and on the University of South Carolina website.

Matthew Ballard was recognized with a Breakthrough Star award for his work in mathematics, particularly string theory


New tools for old problems: Professor develops new methods for tackling mathematical challenges

Matthew Ballard would like people to be a little less afraid of math.

“Math, in itself, is a singular enterprise by which you can speak the language of the universe,” he says, “but still have room for beauty and art. Everyone lives math one way or another.”

Imagine a pure tone of music emanating from the vibrating string of a violin. The tone changes based on where the violin player’s fingers are placed. In string theory, every particle in the universe is considered a string with a unique vibration. Limits must be applied to the ends of a string to avoid quantum noise. How rich and varied can those limits, and, consequently, those tones be? This question motivates much of Ballard’s work.

“Math describes the universe, but not all math describes our universe,” says Ballard, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics. “When you find the true statement, it ends up being the most elegant.”

An expert in the field of algebraic geometry, Ballard has built a reputation as a world leader in the field of derived categories and string theory.

“Ballard is clearly at the forefront of the new generation of algebraic geometers using categorical tools to forge new directions of research,” says Anton Schep, professor and chair of the mathematics department at Carolina.

Ballard’s work has appeared in some of the most prestigious journals in mathematics, and he has presented at workshops and conferences around the world. He was invited to be a member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 2016-17, an honor accorded to very few mathematicians.

“It was a joyous experience,” Ballard says, thrilled that he was able to focus entirely on his work among some of the greatest minds in mathematics. “At one point, my wife ended up in a doubles tennis match against Enrico Bombieri (a Fields medalist and professor emeritus at the IAS).”

His residence at the institute yielded breakthrough results, too.  In one of four papers emerging from his stay, Ballard, with collaborators, developed a new method for approaching a decades-old, central conjecture in his field.

Ballard looks forward to watching his infant son grow, his graduate students further develop — and continuing with his research.

“Matt has given us entirely new tools to tackle old problems,” says Richard Thomas, a math professor at Imperial College in London and a fellow of the Royal Society and the American Mathematical Society. “For over 20 years no one could find a way to even begin to approach the fundamental ‘Bondal-Orlov conjecture,’ but in the last year Matt and his collaborators have found an exciting line of attack. It is a fundamentally new idea.”



Breakthrough awards, presented each year by the Office of the Vice President for Research, recognize faculty and graduate students for their research and scholarly excellence. The Breakthrough Leadership in Research award recognizes the university’s distinguished senior faculty; the Breakthrough Star award honors outstanding early-career faculty; and the Breakthrough Graduate Scholar award acclaims exceptional graduate students. Learn more in Breakthrough publications.

Invisible power: The impact of engineered nanoparticles on the environment and human health

In the spring of 2018, I interviewed three University of South Carolina professors who were being recognized for their scholarly excellence and wrote profile pieces to be featured in print publications and on the University of South Carolina website.

Mohammed Baalousha was recognized with a Breakthrough Star award for nanotechnology research


Invisible power: The impact of engineered nanoparticles on the environment and human health

The sky above St. Pancras International Railway Station in London is visible through a glass roof that will never need cleaning. A microscopic layer of nanoparticles on the surface clears grime away without the touch of a human hand.

Nanostructures are so small that they are unobservable to the naked eye, yet they are capable of mighty feats. They can make bicycles lighter, decontaminate hazardous waste and fight cancer. “And, you eat them,” says Mohammed Baalousha, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of South Carolina.

Baalousha’s research in nanotechnology is largely focused on the environmental fate, behavior and novel applications of engineered nanoparticles like silver and titanium dioxide. The latter, he says, shows up frequently in products sold directly to consumers like toothpaste, sunscreen and food additives. You might have been drinking nanoparticles in your morning coffee.

One unique opportunity to observe these extraordinary structures presented itself in the aftermath of a hurricane. Baalousha and his colleagues were able to sample surface waters in South Carolina to search for engineered nanoparticles among naturally occurring particles of similar chemical compositions.

“Naturally occurring nanoparticles contain natural tracers that we are using to differentiate them from the pure engineered forms,” he says. Searching for nanostructures in the natural environment is “almost like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” he says. “Writing papers is nice, but this is the payoff.”

Baalousha obtained his Ph.D. in environmental biogeochemistry from the University of Bordeaux, France in 2006 and began establishing an international reputation as a leader in the field of nanotechnology before being recruited by Carolina. His journal papers appear in some of the top international environmental science journals, and he currently has 66 publications, six book chapters and two books to his credit.

He joined the Arnold School of Public Health and the Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk at the university in 2014. His initiative established him as an independent and assertive scholar among his colleagues.

He received a National Science Foundation CAREER award and was also awarded an NSF EPSCoR fellowship to continue a collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Lab.

“I’ve witnessed the development and progress of Dr. Baalousha to achieve his career goals and to become a world-leading figure in his area of research,” says Jamie Lead, director for the Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk. “He has worked tirelessly over the years to build up his own research program and his international reputation.”

Baalousha’s most urgent priority is to gain a better understanding of how nanoparticles behave in the natural environment. By observing the existing structures in their natural and engineered forms, he hopes to cultivate a greater awareness of the impact they might have on the environment and human health.


Breakthrough awards, presented each year by the Office of the Vice President for Research, recognize faculty and graduate students for their research and scholarly excellence. The Breakthrough Leadership in Research award recognizes the university’s distinguished senior faculty; the Breakthrough Star award honors outstanding early-career faculty; and the Breakthrough Graduate Scholar award acclaims exceptional graduate students. Learn more in Breakthrough publications.

Carolina Q: The War Mouth & Buxton Hall

Pit-cooking a hog requires a lot of dedication. At its most basic, it is a culinary craft that takes several days. The actual process of cooking the meat can take 7-15 hours, depending on the size of the fire and the size of the animal. To begin, an oven is built into the earth by digging a hole which is often lined with bricks or stones. The pit fire can be fueled by charcoal or wood. A sweet or smoky character can be imparted to the meat by a conscientious selection of nutwoods, fruitwoods and heavy wood; hickory, pecan, apple, and pear, for example. The meat is marinated or rubbed with seasoning and then wrapped. Once the fire has burned down to a smoldering heat, the pig is placed in the pit, covered, and left to cook.

Porter Barron, Jr. cooked his first hog in Cambodia. “I was homesick,” explains the South Carolina native. So, he emailed his friend, Chef Rhett Elliott, for instructions. Elliott grew up cooking barbecue in Camden, SC. He was in seventh grade when he served his first hog to Prince and The Revolution (yeah, that Prince and the Revolution) during the LoveSexy tour.

“If it’s not wood…if it’s not whole pig, it’s not BBQ to us,” says Elliott.

He and Barron are poised to open a new neighborhood restaurant this month in a historic downtown area in Columbia, SC known as Cottontown. They are renovating the site of a former auto repair shop on Franklin Street. The same building also has the uncanny history of once being a business that built barbecue pits.

Chef Rhett Elliott and Porter Barron, Jr, inside The War Mouth. Photo taken by Thomas Hammond

The War Mouth is not going to be a typical barbecue restaurant. Chef Elliott will adhere to a traditional schedule of whole-hog pit cooking. Barbecue will be served three nights of the week (Thurs.-Sat.) with other popular regional fare filling out the menu; hearty dishes like chicken bog and catfish stew. Like Elliott and Barron, these are the dishes many Southerners grew up eating, often called soul food. Elliott warns, however, that “it’s not going to taste like what your grandma is going to cook.” Trained to cook many types of cuisine, including French and Italian, Elliott has spent nearly two decades building his reputation in fine dining establishments. He is excited to be getting back to the food he grew up on.

Moss stands in the dining room of Buxton Hall with his thumbs in his pockets
Chef Elliott Moss at Buxton Hall. Photo taken by Karla Turner

It sounds like the best of both worlds when Elliott explains that he wants to provide a high-quality dining experience free from the stuffiness and pretension of the typical white-tablecloth restaurants. It is a similar ambition for Chef Elliott Moss, a James Beard award nominee for Best Chef in the Southeast, who recently opened Buxton Hall in an up-and-coming district in Asheville, NC known as South Slope. After rising through the ranks in several cities, Moss chose to make his home in the state next door to his hometown of Florence, SC.


Painted figures still glide across the restored walls of Buxton Hall in bladed boots, bigger than life, where wood smoke warmly infuses the vast building that was once an ice-skating rink. That signature scent will linger in your hair and clothes for hours after you have gone home.

Ribs, hash, head cheese, and even take-home dog treats; Moss is building his livelihood on a philosophy of sustainable whole-hog cooking. Nothing is wasted. His style is innovative, affably irreverent, and touched with whimsy.

A side item of hominy grits and gravy is cleverly garnished with popcorn; a salad that blends apples and chèvre with the unexpected crackle of smoked pecan brittle gives a rascally middle finger to convention. Moss commissioned a sign for the facade of Buxton Hall to be freshly hand-painted in a classic style. In the coming years, he looks forward to the opportunity to “earn the fade” of the vintage signs he fancies.

South Carolina is a barbecue state. Loyalties in the state often lie with the regional mustard-based barbecue sauce, while people in North Carolina tend to favor a peppery sauce of vinegar or serous tomato. “People fight about barbecue.” Elliott says. When asked, he and Barron eagerly start throwing out names of some of their favorite local places: Scott’s in Hemingway, McCabe’s in Manning, Rabbit’s in Lake City. Sweatman’s BBQ in Holly Hill, SC, they agree, is the quintessential barbecue experience in South Carolina.

Barbecue is a tradition with very deep community ties. The War Mouth intends to be receptive to what the neighborhood needs. “We are celebrating the simple pleasures of eating and drinking in the 803,” Barron says.

As Southerners, by birth or by kismet, we at Auntie Bellum cherish the food traditions of the South. We are excited to see such an earnest application of this treasured tradition by folks who obviously love Southern food as much as we do.

Originally published by Unsweetened on December 7, 2015

One Year Later: Reflections on Columbia’s Flood


I remember waking up on the day of the flood a year ago. That Sunday, my mother called. “Have you seen the news?” she asked.

We had been making a big family breakfast with bacon and pancakes. My husband had discovered some wet spots on the carpet in our finished, ground-level basement that morning. We thought our elderly dog was responsible. Some old towels were left to soak up the moisture and we went about our routine.

We turned on the television. It was the hurricane.

Hurricane Joaquin had been traveling toward our coast after doing some major damage in the Bahamas and several other areas near it. Joaquin’s approach was directing some aggressive storm waters toward us. What started pleasantly in South Carolina, with cooling temperatures and misty rains, developed, over the course of several days, into relentless rainfall with no end in sight.

Our governor had declared a state of emergency several days prior to the disaster but many of us had not taken it very seriously. The hashtag #drizzlegeddon started trending on social media.

After days of waiting for calamity that we suspected would not really come, the damage came, and it came so rapidly. The water supply to our neighborhood was turned off not long after we tuned on the TV that Sunday. Reports started coming in from friends by text, IM, and phone calls. Houses were flooding. Businesses were flooding.

We confronted the rising water in our home, perplexed, not at all prepared for this thing that was being reported as a historic 1,000 year flooding event. We were called to action when our friend, Evelyn, arrived.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

She explained that there were fallen trees everywhere and they were cutting off access to and from our neighborhood. Power lines were being pulled down, tangled in the trees that were falling from the saturated earth. She was only able to find one route in to check on her friends in our area.

The three of us began to remove everything from the bottom-floor; photos, framed diplomas from the wall, our computer. “You are not overreacting,” Evelyn said.

We reassured the kids that mommy and papa had this under control.

My panic intensified when we realized that the moisture downstairs was coming up from the ground, not down from the sky.

When Evelyn left, we walked outside with hoodies thrown over our pajamas, sandals and other haphazard attire. The neighbors were all walking the streets in shock, assessing the area, displaced.

We met people on foot who we had never seen in our neighborhood before. A man in a windbreaker was smoking a cigarette. We started talking about what he had witnessed so far; a live electrical wire fallen across South Beltline Boulevard, kayaks rescuing people from their homes, really serious helicopters.

My street ends at Tall Pines Circle, a few yards away from a section of the Gills Creek watershed, what we affectionately call “the swamp.” The water in the watershed is not ordinarily visible from the street. Instead, a jungle of trees grows thickly up the steep banks, frequently overtaken by kudzu. The ground is carpeted with bushes and tangled growth. It isn’t particularly hospitable to foot traffic or for peering into.

From my driveway, I could clearly see a river of muddy, clay-stained water moving swiftly through the waterway, swelling nearly to the road. The road was eroding, chunks of asphalt crumbling into the water behind a few orange cones put there as a warning. Two young men stood at the edge taking pictures with their phones.


A woody cracking sound came from above and then we all watched one of the tallest nearby old-growth trees bow into the swamp, the clutch of its roots freed from the soaked swampbank.

On our street, my house was hit the hardest and we only took on about six inches of water on our lowest floor. Tall Pines was half underwater. The stop sign at the end furthest from our intersection was nearly hidden beneath flood water. By the second day, cars were floating on Rosewood Drive, a quarter of a mile from the road I lived on.

Dams breached. I recall waking up from a vivid, terrifying dream on the second night. In it, my home was sliding into Gills Creek with my family inside. I woke up feeling like it could really happen.

We weren’t officially evacuated but, even still, we left with our dogs on the third day. I took my camera, all my photo albums, my hard drives, and a random collection of clothes. It’s sort of pathetic, the things you reach for when you no longer know what matters beyond your family’s safety.

Leaving, I finally felt the shock of what I’d been through when I realized that things were entirely different right up the road. There they weren’t using buckets of rain to flush their toilets.

In the nearby city of Lexington I had a bubble bath, my first bath in days, the best bath of my life, even though the water ran cold halfway through. “Yes, Belinda, heaven is a place on Earth,” I posted to Instagram. Our friends made us dinner on the grill. Shrimp, chicken wings, s’mores.

The grocery store in Lexington had plenty of water and La Croix.

“I should buy a bunch to bring back to the city,” I told my husband.

The stores in Columbia were cleaned out. I had already gone to two churches and Whole Foods to get free water and hand sanitizer. I couldn’t even handle the shelves full of bread and milk in this land-of-plenty.

We humbly suffer a sort of survivor’s guilt knowing how fortunate we were. We watched our friends sustain incredible damage and loss to their homes and possessions.

At ground zero, I fixated on trying to peel an autographed “Labyrinth” poster that was stuck to the glass of its frame by flood water. It was signed by David Bowie and Jim Henson. My friend literally spent days pumping water from her home. Nearly everything she possessed was in ruins. I wasn’t much help. And, I didn’t even save the poster.

It seems too soon to be talking about this now. Many of my neighbors are still unable to return to their homes. Many of them lost everything. So many of them are anxious as Hurricane Matthew approaches our coast today, on the anniversary of last year’s catastrophic event.

It aches to revisit these feelings, in expected and unexpected ways. When I see my social media posts from those events last year, I see messages of support, virtual hugs, offers for places to find shelter, advice for ways to clear the water from my home. I see the same thing today.

Storms will always come. When disaster strikes, a community can emerge stronger. We did. I look back with gratitude. I look back knowing that the safety of my friends and family is enough. I’m grateful for that.

Originally published by Unsweetened on  

The Bridal Designs of Alexis Doktor

If you have ever attended a Columbia City Ballet performance, you are already acquainted with Alexis Doktor’s work. As costume designer for Columbia, South Carolina’s premiere ballet company, she is responsible for every seam and sequin that jetes across the Koger Center stage.

Doktor is a woman of many talents with an innate eye for style and a skill set that also includes event planning and theatrical wardrobe and bridal design. She selected four of her favorite customized bridal gowns for this feature. Each dress she chose uniquely represents the woman wearing it.

A native of New York City who resides in Columbia, South Carolina, Doktor wants people to think about wedding dress shopping in a modern way. “Gone are the days of in-store wedding gown shopping only,” she says. “You don’t have to have the ‘aha’ moment on a pedestal in a boutique. It can happen after the transformation process, after all the details have been customized.”

She honors the spirit of each woman in the shape of the garments and the small details. These are gowns for uncommon brides: women who embrace individuality, accept complexity and take risks!


The degree presentation at College of Charleston is surrounded by pomp and prestige. [Traditionally, women wear white dresses and the men wear white dinner jackets to the Spring commencement ceremony.] My father and older sisters all have C of C undergrad degrees and have taken that walk across the Cistern.

To add gravity to the situation, as the last daughter, my parents were guests of the President and walked with him to the Cistern in the opening processional.

I reached out to Alexis with a few ideas for my commencement gown from Pinterest (that she taught me how to use), but concurrently trusted her knowledge of what would work. She made me feel like I designed my perfect dress – the length, the box pleats, the neckline – were exactly what I wanted. She even picked the perfect fabric to hold shape, and not overheat, on the stage. And . . . the pockets!!!

I was able to bring my phone with me and capture the moment from my perspective.  I have pictures of my parents in the audience because of the pockets she added to my skirt. It was the best.

Any woman who has had a dress struggle knows how hard it is to feel beautiful and comfortable for a formal occasion. Alexis did that for me with this dress.  It’s why I want her to do ALL of my important dresses, and why I’m forever thankful to her for giving this moment to me.

“When it came time to manifest a cocktail graduation dress into a wedding gown, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to make multiple pieces.” says Doktor. “Bridal fashions have become so broad lately. People can personalize them in so many ways. It has even become quite commonplace to not wear a gown at all! I knew Misha’s dress transformation had to be classic and chic, but have a bit more presence. Instead of a typical veil we decided to get the drama of a long train with a cape. That piece, and the top skirt are removable, therefore allowing the bride to have up to four different looks throughout the evening. What an amazing way to personalize your wedding attire, without having to change your entire outfit!”



I knew from the first time I thought about it that I wanted to be married in a unique gown. I wanted to wear my mother’s wedding dress but found, upon pulling it out of storage, that it was far too yellowed and time-damaged to wear intact. I decided that, if I couldn’t wear the original, I would at least incorporate parts of my mother’s dress in my own.

I’ve never been much of a traditionalist when it comes to these things (I ended up having a surprise wedding ceremony at my childhood home) but sentimental, yes. I wanted my wedding dress to feel like me and not like a page out of a catalogue.

I pulled a no-no and ordered a basic gown online, knowing changes would have to be made.  The dress was simple: lacy with a low-cut back and buttons up the spine. Alexis altered the dress immensely.

She made changes to the cut to flatter my figure, added a blue sash, and embellished the hem of the dress with details cut from the embroidery in my mother’s dress. Other pieces of my mom’s dress adorned hair and the Groomsmen’s boutonnières, with lavender from the herb garden.

LOU (modeled by ASHLEY)

I didn’t set out to have a custom dress, but the more I shopped (12 boutiques and 6 cities!) the more disappointed I became.

I couldn’t find  what I envisioned and kept going back to one of the first dresses I put on. I loved the way it fit, but it was missing some of the key components I wanted. I wanted lace, something with a little champagne color, something with an antique flair. I even bought a dress that had all of these elements and it was SO wrong. I kept comparing it to “the dress.”

I knew there was only one person eclectic, artistic, and eccentric enough to truly help me on this journey. Alexis traveled out of town with me to a massive fabric warehouse and helped me pick out the items to customize my dress.

Alexis talked me through how various things would look in the end result, offered suggestions, and was really wonderfully honest. As we explored, it became obvious that we were also going to customize my veil, which I previously planned on just buying. To get the color I wanted, I dyed the lace in a pot of tea.

Alexis stitched it piece-by-piece onto the dress. The look became more and more beautiful leading up to the week of the wedding. Alexis worked tirelessly, with lots of coffee, through many nights.

I was blown away by the gorgeous creation we had come up with together. To top it all off, she custom-made all twelve of my bridesmaids dresses, too! She truly worked WITH me and I will forever be grateful for her time, talent, input, and creativity. Alexis loves what she does and has passion for her art. From ballet to bridal, she’s just a beautiful creator.



When I started shopping for a wedding gown, I thought, “I am in my mid-40’s and about to start a second marriage. Pretty wedding gowns are for pretty young brides.” I needed a simple but elegant dress for a mature woman.

I took Alexis shopping with me and tried on a few of those dresses. For various reasons, they looked awful.

It wasn’t long before Alexis was explaining to me (in that assertive but loving way that Alexis explains things) that a bride should be wearing a bridal gown. She convinced me to try on a few different shapes just to see how they looked.

Kathy_2One gown was a designer’s discontinued sample that I, otherwise, would never have been able to afford. It was three sizes too big, the shape was wrong, and it didn’t have the corset-back I knew I wanted. But, Alexis saw what was really there almost immediately.

As I stood there grumbling about my size, shape, height, coloring, and age . . . about to turn back toward the dressing room in frustration, she swooped in. “Just wait a minute Kathy,” she said  (again in that assertive, loving Alexis way.) “I can fix this.” After a few minutes of tugging, pinching, folding, and using all the clips in the shop…she stepped back. I turned toward the mirror and couldn’t believe it. It was a completely different gown.

“Are you sure you can do this?” I asked her. And (in that assertive, loving Alexis way) she informed me that she certainly could.

After practically deconstructing the whole thing and putting it back together again in a different size and shape, and adding my corseted back, Alexis delivered a work of art. It fit like a glove and my husband is convinced that it is the most beautiful wedding gown on the planet.


It was the perfect gown for the perfect wedding and my husband and I will treasure her gift forever.

Designer: Alexis Doktor
Stylist: Ashley Gunter
Photographer: Karla Turner
Discover more about Alexis at her website.

Southern Comfort: Bartenders On What Pairs Best with Fried Chicken

This was written to kick off a series of posts pairing drinks with iconic Southern food. As the original publication focused on women in the South, I asked some female bartenders in Columbia, SC, to give their suggestions for the best pairings for fried chicken.

Photo by Andrea Nguyen

An unassuming protein, chicken can be used as a vehicle for so many flavors. How do you like it best? Alone, atop a syrupy waffle, or smothered in your favorite hot sauce? Our experiences with Southern food are so bound to history and family, many of us can’t imagine it tasting any better than the way mama made it.

“Emotions have a profound impact on the way we experience food, especially a food as iconic as Southern fried chicken and especially from a Southern woman who grew up eating it.”


Natasha Edwards of The War Mouth. (Photo by Zarah Deweese Newton)

Natasha Edwards tends bar at The War Mouth, a restaurant in the Cottontown neighborhood of Columbia that specializes in expertly prepared Southern cuisine.

For our first challenge in this series, we asked her to recommend a drink to pair with this Southern staple. “Champagne,” she responded, and quickly. “The effervescent bubbles help to cut through the rich fats that cling to the tongue.”

Edwards recommends selecting a Spanish Cava or popping open a dry Brut sparkler. Prepared by Benedictine monks in Southern France, Saint-Hilaire sparkling wines are a favorite. “They were making sparkling wine years before Champagne even became a region,” Edwards says. She cautions against Prosecco, as it possesses a more fruit-forward character that wouldn’t pair as well.


Karlynn Fulmer of Speakeasy and Motor Supply Company Bistro. (Photo by Karla Turner)

A bartender at Speakeasy in Five Points and Motor Supply Company Bistro in the Vista, Karlynn Fulmer agrees that the dryness and effervescence of sparkling wine pairs well with fried chicken and prefers rosé. Edwards also suggests trying a sparkling rosé, like Louis de Brenelle Saumur, for spicier fried chicken.

But perhaps you thought fried chicken was more of a beer food? Fulmer recommends a light lager or crisp pilsner for beer drinkers. “The acidity of a sour beer would work too,” she adds. If wine is your preference, try a light-bodied red. Steer clear of anything with a fuller body as it could easily overpower the flavors of the meat.

“..the dryness and effervescence of sparkling wine pairs well with fried chicken…”


Joye White of The Whig. (Photo by Bree Burchfield)

Joye White slings drinks at The Whig, preeminent dive bar and Main Street institution (recently featured in The Bitter Southerner).

Purveyor of pints and goddess of gravy fries, White is brief: “I’m more of a whiskey gal. Put me down for straight Jameson.”

Fulmer advises that the unique preparation of the chicken should be considered for the best pairing, as additional elements, like an accompanying starch or an added sauce, can change the flavor profile. “I like to taste a dish and pick a couple flavors that I find have married well and choose to enhance those through a spirit’s natural flavors,” she says.

Emotions have a profound impact on the way we experience food, especially a food as iconic as Southern fried chicken and especially from a Southern woman who grew up eating it.

If you are like Fulmer, your memories evoke cravings for grandma’s sweet tea. “At Motor Supply, we make a sweet tea vodka and it is paired with fresh lemon and sugar to create a spiked Arnold Palmer. A splash of ginger beer or a dash of fresh ginger root in it would set it off and work as a palate cleanser as well, making you want another bite with every sip.”


Top Picks from Natasha Edwards:

  • Budgeting: Gruet Brut sparkling wine (New Mexico, USA)
  • Ballin’: Veuve Clicquot Brut (Reims, France)

Top Picks from Karlynn Fulmer:

  • Budgeting: Conquest Berliner Weiss or River Rat Kolsch (Columbia, SC)
  • Ballin’: Tequila cocktail with ancho spiced liquor, fresh lime and grapefruit, and brown sugar, finished with soda and a white pepper and lava salt rim

Top Picks from Joye White:

  • Budgeting: Jameson Irish Whiskey
  • Ballin’: Jameson Irish Whiskey in a crystal chalice

Originally published by Unsweetened on March 30, 2016

A Glimpse of the South: An Interview with Kathleen Robbins

Kathleen Robbins is a photographer and associate professor of art at the University of South Carolina. She grew up in the rural Mississippi Delta and returned, after a period away, to live in the Victorian farmhouse built by her great-great grandparents.
Into the Flatland is a collection of images inspired by her exploration of the connection to those familial bonds and ancestral lands.
Kathleen Robbins’ Hasselblad 903 SWC medium format camera.

Karla: As coordinator of the photography program at USC, you teach across disciplines…

Kathleen: The USC photo program has a hybrid emphasis with students learning both film and digital, though some choose to work primarily with film at the upper levels. It’s important for students to learn to use a variety of film and digital tools. This is integral to teaching and learning a medium that is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.

I have no aversion to digital, but I generally make better photographs with my film camera. It’s difficult to articulate why I prefer it. My Hasselblad and I go way back to my early grad school days. It has a wide, fixed lens and records a square image, which has a tendency to emphasize the ground. The emphasis is often placed on the horizon in representations of the Delta landscape. It is easy to feel stuck, even swallowed up by this landscape, particularly in winter. In many ways, the earth is more significant and peculiar to this place than the flatness of the horizon, and this camera functions well in depicting that. Change is hard, but I do shoot digital images and have begun to intermix them with the film work. I’m not opposed to it.

With film the time lapse between exposure and processing is also helpful in providing space for contemplating images. The break allows for more objective understanding. But, ultimately, I’m scanning the film and using technology to make large-scale inkjet prints. The print object is both film and digital.

Karla: The pull you felt from the Mississippi Delta was more than nostalgia. You felt you were doing something important by awakening your family home with your return. How did it feel to enter the Victorian house your great-great-grandfather built on your own as its newest inhabitant?

Kathleen: That was December of 2001. I was 25. Following the events of September 11, my brother and I both decided to return home to live on Belle Chase, which has been in our family for 6 generations. It was a romantic impulse but also a move of necessity to a certain extent. I was just out of graduate school with no income on the horizon and nowhere to live. My brother and his wife were living in Georgia and expecting their first baby.

We reoccupied houses that stood empty for decades. I had an immediate sense that we would all live out the rest of our lives there. I was certain of it. I remember feeling that it was the beginning of something infinite- that my children’s children would live there. I slept in my great-great grandmother’s bed. At dusk, I rocked on the porch and watched the blackbirds descend on the canebrake planted by my great-grandfather.


Karla: In your book, Into the Flatland, Cynthia Shearer writes a short story with a photographer’s barely-fictional magazine editor imploring her to “[g]ive us the real Mississippi, little old black men playing harmonicas, and roosters in barnyards, and rednecks and Confederate flags. That’s what our reader’s want. Give us the real squalor.” Why do you think people are more comfortable with that image of the South? Do you feel like your images challenge their perceptions?

Kathleen: I don’t really seek to define the region. I hope my photographs are somewhat open-ended and subtle, which is why I’m so proud of Cynthia Shearer’s short story and the pairing of the images with works of fiction in publications like the Oxford American.

I suppose much of my work fits into a genre described as lyrical documentary, which tends more toward poetry, and I’m inserting myself in my work fairly often. It’s diaristic. I seek narrative qualities in an image, and I suppose there is something inherently Southern about that desire. While my work is informed by the documentary tradition, I’m more interested in the relationship between image and narrative.  It also deviates from these strict definitions of documentary work in the form of an exhibition or a book, where I am interested in the potential to combine images with words and to play with sequence.  I think that frees me up a bit from conventions of photography that suggest a truthful depiction of a place. While I do think there is a place for that kind of work, particularly with photographs that promote social justice, that has never been my leaning or my strength.

Karla: Your vast and dignified landscapes present an intimate glimpse into a rural southern community where the skies are often dark and heavy, the lands soaked. There is an enormity and an emptiness to many images in Into The Flatland. Is that something you sought to portray?

Kathleen: 15 to 20 years ago, while I was in college and graduate school, I was making a lot of work and was focused at the time on making landscapes that expressed my distanced, increasing feeling of being simultaneously a native and an outsider in that landscape. I was invested in the idea of expressing a sense of place through photographing and eventually found that this particular use of the wide-angle lens and square format expressed a peculiar, sort of off-putting view. So, from fairly early on, I thought that by using this particular tool I could perhaps communicate that sensation – the experience of what it felt like to stand in the landscape there and what it felt like to leave it behind.  I’ve continued to explore similar notions through various ways of photographing that same landscape.

Karla: In “Me on Belle Chase,” you photograph yourself as a shadow upon the land. How do you think your work connects you to the other women in your family?

Kathleen: I’m always aware of that connection when photographing. I spent two years on the farm trying to immerse myself in my grandmother’s experience of living there for 50 years. I read her writing, dressed in her clothes, and ate from her china. I was 25 years old and trying to map out the rest of my adult life. In her letters, my grandmother had this way of making everything seem more amplified—more poignant. I sought a similar experience, and I found it was difficult to access the same level of poetry in my own life on the farm.

Karla: You investigate the ebbing culture of Southern cotton farming in your photo series, “In Cotton.” Why do you think the loss is so powerful for daughters of those vanishing lands?

Kathleen: This sense of loss, as it relates to my work, is tied to my relationship with my grandmother. She had a pen pal for more than fifty years. Pamela, my mother’s namesake and godmother, lived in Dover, England.  She and my grandmother began writing to one another during World War II. During the war, Pamela was secretary to the British general in charge of dropping spies into occupied France. My grandmother was a young housewife with an infant. Their early letters are full of each one’s desire to live like the other. When I was just out of graduate school and living on the farm, I read those letters and agonized over which woman’s experience I longed for most.

In “From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place,” Deborah Tall writes “a balance between wandering and staying is aspired to, the understanding that life involves both venturing out and returning… In the allegorical world of mythical and religious journeys the greatest challenge of the journey is to return home.  …When we lack a here, our wanderings are full of longing and confusion.”

I suppose it also has something to do with Thomas Wolfe and the notion that one “can’t go home again.” Or with Willie Morris, who wrote that “our sense of (home) is forever violated by others who see it, not as home, but as the dark side of hell.”

Karla: Which photographers have you been influenced by and how do you think they have impacted your work?

Kathleen: That list is long.  Harry Callahan is a big influence, particularly his photographs of Eleanor. Maude Schuyler Clay’s new book “Mississippi History” is mind-bogglingly good. Sally Mann. Eudora Welty. Jim Stone. Tom Rankin.

But my biggest influence remains my grandmother.  She was a painter, and she made photographs on the farm to use as studies for her paintings.  Small color square landscape photographs that look very similar to my images.

Fairly often, I will make a photograph and then find an image that my grandmother made fifty years ago.  I will have no recollection of that image, but I will make a near replica of it.  For instance, a portrait I make of my brother will refer to an earlier portrait of my grandfather in stance and location.

Karla: What do you think is your most important tool, as a photographer?

Kathleen: Time.

I try not to place constraints on myself regarding the timeframe of a project or making a particular image or number of images in a day or in a year.  Having time to consider the images that I’ve made and to make adjustments – to let projects evolve at their own pace – is important.

Karla: You have been preparing a new project for publication. Please tell us about any other new things you have coming!

Kathleen: I’m working on a new series that explores the physical and symbolic relationship between boys and nature, time and memory in the rural south. I am part of a family of many boys; seven nephews, a sole niece and my six-year old son among my generation’s descendants.

My grandmother used to tell us a story about a character called the “Wild Man” that began:  There once was a man who lived far away and deep in the woods in the top of a tree and in a hole.  The story of the wild man was told and retold by my grandmother over the course of my childhood. Her protagonist had a flower growing from one ear. Later, I heard about a man who lived by the Tallahatchie River on our family’s farm during the 1940’s. He hopped off a riverboat and dug a hole into the bank. I imagine my grandmother’s story must have derived from this family folklore.

Whatever the origin, her wild man has existed in the landscape where I grew up for as I long as I can remember.  When I return home, I reflexively search for him in the tops of the trees.  He has also come to represent a certain kind of spirit that boys inhabit while participants in this landscape.

Originally published by Unsweetened on February 23, 2016 


Hard Candy Christmas Video with Jade Janay Blocker

This was an exciting collaboration that brought together some of my favorite artists and organizations.

During the time I was writer and photo editor for a regional Southern publication, they were running a video series called, “Southern Cover Girl.” For the series, Southern indie artists were chosen to perform songs by Southern women.

I invited Columbia, S.C. singer-songwriter Jade Blocker to perform, “Hard Candy Christmas,” made famous by the inimitable Dolly Parton. I directed the shoot in the historic Fountain Room of Tapp’s on Main. Filming and editing was attentively done by Josh Rose and Matt Breeden of Elephant Room Media.

Originally published by Unsweetened on December 23, 2015

Empowered Women: Halloween Portraits


Frida Kahlo

Frida turned her personal struggles into art and painted life with an unflinching eye upon herself and an unfailing allegiance to the colors, symbols and indigenous culture of her beautiful Mexico. She was such a bold and unique woman who seemed to embrace life with ardor, even when it was severely unkind to her.

“I picked Frida because her unconventional qualities were what made her stunningly beautiful inside and out.” Brittany Braddock, model. 


Angela Davis

“I wanted to represent someone strong, smart and who looked like ME. With everything going on, I cannot let black women forget how impactful and important we are. Angela Davis is a prime example.”Mila Burgess-Conway, model.


Hermione Granger

LUMOS! I wanted my model to dress as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter stories. Hermione is a literary heroine notable for her confidence, talent and intelligence, as well as for having more than enough bravery to match the boys. Generations of girls get to grow up feeling proud to be smart and take risks because of this fierce, fictional witch. A warrior for the bookworms!


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

“I chose to dress as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she is an absolute badass. She started her legal career at Harvard Law during a time when women just didn’t do that sort of thing. While she was in law school she also became a mother for the first time and cared for her husband through testicular cancer. She then went on to champion women’s rights as an attorney for the ACLU and eventually made her way to the Supreme Court bench. She has dramatically changed the face of American jurisprudence all while overcoming personal obstacles I can’t even imaging facing. Now, at 82, she is still going strong and refuses to retire. For an aspiring lawyer she is more than an inspiration; the woman is a living legend.” Annie Rumler, model.



“It’s hard out there for women in comics, and not every author gives a character justice, but Catwoman is my ultimate foil to every hulking, brooding, male superhero. She’s Batman’s equal and has been around since Batman #1. There’s something empowering about embodying a character defined by her strength, ferocity, and passion.” Roxy Lenzo, model.


Pop Art Rosie the Riveter

“I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on a costume this year. The past year or so I’ve been getting into the vintage modern movement and Rosie is an icon from that time. I also really love doing makeup so I thought I’d put a twist on the traditional Rosie and turn her into a Pop Art cartoon character.” Brooke Troxwell, model.

Girls Rock Columbia: Sisterhood is powerful

Girls Rock Columbia launched in the summer of 2013. A mentoring program, GRC uses music as a tool to empower girls and trans* youth through activities that foster self-respect, leadership, creativity and collaboration.

As part of the curriculum, I taught a photography workshop for the first two years. In 2015, I served the board of directors as head of communications.


Campers were invited to view and discuss iconic images from influential female photographers who specialize in music photography. We used this exercise to encourage critical thinking and artistic expression through the medium of photography. Each camper was given a disposable camera and asked to document their experience at camp.

I created a Prezi and a workbook to supplement the things we talked about in the workshop.



Communication Strategy and Community Partnership

I initiated Girls Rock Columbia’s first social media campaign, “Show Us Your Power Pose!” in an attempt to build more marketing strategy around the brand.

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In order to activate community partnerships and show our mutual support, I encouraged the organization to participate in the South Carolina Pride Parade. It is a tradition that still continues.  That same year, Girls Rock Columbia aligned themselves with many prominent local nonprofits, and raised funds in excess of their goals, by joining Midlands Gives.

Photo Booth

I photographed people at events in the Girls Rock Photo Booth.

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The images were used to promote the organization and to encourage sharing on social media.


Source for pinhole camera instructions
Source for chart about shutter speed

Those Lavender Whales

Those Lavender Whales are a band living and working in Columbia, SC. We recently shared an afternoon and made some fun image for you to enjoy.

A man in a plaid shirt with an exaggerated frown
Aaron Graves


A woman in a striped shirt looks at the camera.
Jessica Bornick


A man looks to the right and smiles
Chris Gardner


A man with short hair and a navy shirt looks at the camera.
Patrick Wall


Four people in plaid shirt with arms linked and hands in each others' pockets.

Four small images of each person in the band holding heart mugs

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