Is there a sexpert in the house?

Drs. Irwin and Jawed-Wesel interacted with the public at a July 8 Science Cafe.

Drs. Irwin and Jawed-Wessel interacted with the public at a July 8 Science Cafe.

Sexpert. “It’s a funny word,” said Jay Irwin, Ph.D., associate director of the Midlands Sexual Health Research Collaborative (MSHRC), housed in the Department of Health Promotion, Social & Behavioral Health in the College of Public Health.

It is a funny word. Nevertheless, Dr. Irwin has agreed to take it on as a mantle. At least that’s the way he and his fellow panelists are billed at periodic Science Cafes that tackle the subjects of sex, sexuality, gender issues and sexual health. They’re the sexperts.

Dr. Jawed-Wessel listened as a member of the audience contributed to the discussion.

Dr. Jawed-Wessel listened as a member of the audience contributed to the discussion.

How does one achieve the rank of sexpert?

“I would say at least some basic training in human sexuality and being comfortable with the title,” Dr. Irwin said. So, it’s an honorary title, but not just an honorary title. There should be academic/scientific training involved. That schmoozy guy at a party going around calling himself a sexpert?

“I’d ask to see some credentials,” Dr. Irwin said.

That guy’s probably a pervert.

But being a sexpert is not all glamour – writing academic papers, conducting research surveys and headlining Science Cafes.

Anyone with a profession – doctor, plumber, author of incredibly compelling Lookin’ at U profiles – can sometimes want to unplug and think about something else. Lawyers, for example, sometimes complain about getting bugged at parties for free legal advice. Do sexperts ever want to just talk about something other than sex?

Christopher Fisher, Ph.D.

Christopher Fisher, Ph.D.

“I was at a gas station,” said Christopher Fisher, Ph.D., UNMC assistant professor of public health and director of the MSHRC. He was minding his own business, looking for some beef jerky or some chips, when a woman yelled out: “Hey, you’re the guy from that thing!”

(It’s rarely good to be the guy from that thing.)

And the woman started enthusiastically asking him about sexually transmitted infections (STI).

Now THAT’S a full-service gas station.

“I did stop and talk to her,” Dr. Fisher said. “But I was just there to buy snacks!”

And physicians complain about being on call. Sexpert: it’s not just a job, but a mission to serve.

Dr. Irwin addressed a full house at the sexperts' recent Science Cafe.

Dr. Irwin addressed a full house at the sexperts’ recent Science Cafe.

I went to a recent Science Café to see sexperts in (ahem) action. This time the panelists were Dr. Irwin and Sofia Jawed-Wessel, Ph.D., another MSHRC assistant director. Dr. Irwin’s research interest is in health status and health care of LGBT individuals and in sexual and gender identity. Dr. Jawed-Wessel studies the sex lives of pregnant and postpartum couples.

“I come from a very pleasure-focused, sex-positive point of view,” she said.


They threw the floor open to questions. One young man raised his hand immediately. Then, question answered, we waited a minute or so for the ice to break and someone else to step forward. The same guy immediately raised his hand again.

It turns out, we need sexperts. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. As Dr. Jawed-Wessel said at one point, “There’s misinformation even at the doctor level.”

But the sexperts are helping there, too. They give presentations to UNMC students. These students master a tremendous amount of information, Dr. Irwin said. “But most of it is very clinical. Not so much on how to talk to people.”

A patient’s level of “outness,” for example, may be important. (That’s a scientific term, “outness.”)

Sexperts in action: important, but not quite as exciting as it sounds.

Sexperts in action: important, but not quite as exciting as it sounds.

The questions kept coming. One silver-haired gentleman seized the microphone. He emphatically stated that young people should not think it’s icky that their grandparents have sex. Old people have sex! And it’s beautiful!

It was unclear whether he was actually there for Science Café night at the Slowdown or if this was just his latest stop as he made this announcement at every bar in town. Either way, the sexperts nodded appreciatively.

Afterward, more people came up to them. Asked more questions, delivered more declarative statements. They were surrounded by people. People who wanted to talk to them about gender identity, or sexual health. This is the life of a sexpert. It’s rewarding. But not as sexy as you’d think.

Listen to the podcast of the July 8 Science Cafe featuring the sexperts, below.

Rocket men

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine and part-time rocket man. (Photos by Kevin Trojanowski, The Heartland Organization of Rocketry)

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine and part-time rocket man. (Photos by Kevin Trojanowski, The Heartland Organization of Rocketry)

Theirs is a dangerous hobby, in more ways than one.

They’ve survived some close calls. Don Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology and microbiology, once noticed a highway patrolman driving alongside him for 10 miles, down I-80, trying to decide whether Dr. Johnson had an armored missile in the back of his pickup.

Paul Paulman, M.D., professor of family medicine, realized, too late, that he probably shouldn’t be picking up someone at the airport with a bed full of rockets under his truck’s camper top.

“I thought, What if they decide to look in the back?” Dr. Paulman said. “I’m going to be going to that little room.”

It’s a dangerous hobby.

They launch rockets. Real rockets.

OK, not manned rockets. But real rockets, just the same. With explosives, and little computers and airspace clearance from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration).


Don’t worry, they stress safety. Drs. Johnson and Paulman are members of national organizations and are part of a rocket club, THOR (The Heartland Organization of Rocketry), that includes aerospace engineers who work at Offutt Air Force Base.

You know, rocket scientists.

So, who is smarter? UNMC scientists or rocket scientists? Well, in this instance …

“They advise us a lot,” Dr. Paulman said.

“They kind of look down on us as biologists,” Dr. Johnson said with a laugh.

Don Johnson, Ph.D.

Don Johnson, Ph.D.

Their expertise is more black-and-white: “With physics and rocketry,” Dr. Paulman said, “you know when you are successful. In biology and medicine, you may not see results.”

Drs. Johnson and Paulman design and build their own rockets. They launch them when the weather is nice, but they work on them all year long.

They use the same explosives that were used with the space shuttles. They’re licensed to launch them as high as 20,000 feet.

They were both interested in rockets as boys, but then years went by. And then …

“I got back into it when my kids were a little younger,” Dr. Paulman said.

“Me, too,” Dr. Johnson said.

“It was a cool thing to do together. Now I launch with my grandkids,” Dr. Paulman said.

“For me, it’s something my son and I can do together,” Dr. Johnson said.

“His son is the best rocket tracker in the club,” Dr. Paulman said.

Søren Johnson, 15, the best rocket tracker in the club, with his National Association of Rocketry Level 1-approved test rocket.

Søren Johnson, 15, the best rocket tracker in the club, with his National Association of Rocketry Level 1-approved test rocket.

“He’s got good eyes,” Dr. Johnson said.

“And he’s determined,” Dr. Paulman said.

Good thing. Losing a rocket isn’t like losing a golf ball.

“Oh my gosh,” Dr. Paulman said. It’s a little more expensive than that.

But, oh, it’s fun.

“It combines engineering and propulsion and aerodynamics, recovery, electronics. Things have to work right,” Dr. Paulman said.

“They say, when the space shuttle goes up there are 50,000 things that can go wrong,” Dr. Johnson said.

“We’ve found a number of them,” Dr. Paulman said.


So, how are their families about how much time and money they spend on rockets?

“Tolerant,” Dr. Paulman said.

“It’s better than going to the bars,” Dr. Johnson said.

“There are worse hobbies,” Dr. Paulman said.

“There’s never been an accident,” Dr. Johnson said.

Launches are open to the public. If you are interested in joining the club or attending a launch, contact Dr. Johnson or Dr. Paulman.

Answered prayers

Lisa Spellman and her nephew, Jeffery

Lisa Spellman and her nephew, Jeffery

By Lisa Spellman

My nephew has a new kidney!

Jeffery Spellman, the young man I told you about earlier this year, has a beautiful new, fully functioning kidney as of June 2.

We are grateful and indebted to the incredible generosity of an unknown donor and their family and will always be praying for them.

They will never know the magnitude of this gift.

But we do. I do. And so do total strangers to whom I have spontaneously blurted out the good news.

“My nephew just got a kidney transplant and it’s working perfectly!”

The looks of surprise quickly turn into smiles and hearty congratulations.

Happiness is definitely infectious.

We have a lot to be happy about. And the transplant team couldn’t be happier with how perfectly matched the donor kidney is to Jeffery. You can’t get better than 100 percent, with zero antigens.

Jeffery had 99 out of 100 antigens and finding that one person whom he would be compatible with, well, it took two years. For others, the wait is much longer.

This transplant was definitely orchestrated by a higher power.

Jeffery should have waited 10 years for a kidney, his transplant surgeon, Alexander Maskin, M.D., told us.

The best part was when he said the kidney began producing urine immediately. It’s as if it woke up the moment it touched Jeffery’s body.

As for the surgery, which we were sure would last well into the night, it only lasted two hours and 39 minutes.

We were amazed by how quickly things went.

Dr. Maskin seemed to think it took longer than the usual hour procedure.

“He was a very difficult transplant,” he said explaining the length of time to Jeffery’s wife Ashleigh and other family members in the waiting room that night.

As Dr. Maskin explained the surgery he spoke of a potentially fatal infection that he discovered in Jeffery’s bladder that would have destroyed the new kidney.

Someone was definitely looking out for Jeffery and his precious new kidney.

Jeffery will be just fine.

And I can breathe again.