Angelo State grad helps blaze trails with Discovery Channel

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Austin Osmanski, 26, may be a proven example that success occurs when hard work meets opportunity.

Osmanski, a San Angelo native, went from Ph.D. student studying evolutionary biology at Texas Tech University to hunting a large crocodilian species in the Bolivian rainforest for the Discovery Channel.

“We had a telephone call from the Discovery Channel,” Osmanski said. “That’s really how it happened. It was just some random fluke phone call one afternoon and we were on our way to Bolivia.”

The Discovery Channel contacted Texas Tech in November looking for a scientist who studied crocodiles to appear on its new television show “Trailblazers.”

The show follows three elite survivalists, all with military backgrounds, as they lead teams of scientists through regions of the world in search of clues and discoveries that could lead to scientific breakthroughs.

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Yfat Yossifor / Standard-Times San Angelo native Austin Osmanski teaches about snakes while holding a bullsnake Thursday, May 19, at Texas Tech University Center at Junction.

One of the missions was to include a trek through the far northwest region of Bolivia to capture a rare black caiman and extract its DNA.

Discovery soon selected Osmanski to be a scientist on the show because of his expertise in reptilian studies as well as his eccentric personality, Osmanski said. Just two weeks later he found himself bound for Bolivia to go hunting for caimans.

Osmanski said the network planned to air six episodes of “Trailblazers,” and three have been shown. The remaining three episode are on hold by the network, he said. The first three episodes are available to view at discoverygo.com/trailblazers.

Osmanski played football at Central High School and graduated from Angelo State University with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology. He said his passion for nature came from his father, a lay naturalist who enjoys bass fishing, hunting and catching lizards in their home garden and is knowledgeable about the tremendous biodiversity of West Texas.

“When I was a kid, we were constantly catching lizards, snakes and turtles,” he said. “Having little pets underneath my bed, Mom would get mad because I had a snake underneath my bed.”

Osmanksi said his mother nonetheless provided the foundation or him to pursue his passion.

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“She was really an enabler, my mother,” Osmanski said. “One time I had this snake underneath my bed in a shoe box and then she came in and she found this snake and she was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And then instead of saying, ‘Don’t ever touch snakes, don’t ever put things underneath your bed in a shoebox,’ she bought me an aquarium so then I could have more snakes.”

Osmanski and a camera crew spent more than two weeks filming 12 hour days in Bolivia in constant rain and humid weather, surrounded by natural dangers of the jungle. The team trekked up-river in a boat for about 20 miles from Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, to a lake called Lago Gringo, where the locals reported seeing massive caimans swimming.

“When we got down there, they turned the cameras on and said, ‘OK you have two weeks to go catch a caiman. Good luck,’ ” Osmanski said, laughing. “I’ve never been to that part of the rainforest before. Talk about a paradise. It really is something special down there.”

Osmanski, alongside two other scientists, ate freeze dried food packets, slept in a hammock and was woken each morning by Howler monkeys

“The first night I woke up in the rainforest in my hammock, these howler monkeys above you just ‘ROARRRR’ and you’re like, ‘What is that?’ ” Osmanski said. “It’s a frightening noise.”

Osmanski said his team eventually found a caiman in the waters of Lago Gringo and was able to capture it using a lasso.

Osmanski said the most memorable part of the journey was sitting around a campfire each night with the other scientists and talking about crocodile biology for hours on end.

“Instead of just going with a film crew along a linear path of a story line, I’d like to go down there and do my own story line,” he said. “What can we learn from this area, spend more time there and see what other discoveries are to make down in Bolivia.”

Osmanski said he lost 10 pounds during the experience because of the amount of work put into filming while being in a rainforest. He said all the money made participating in the show went back to support his research, the crocodile genome project at Texas Tech.

Acquiring his Ph.D. his the most important thing in his life right now, he said, and is paramount to his success.

“To sum it all up, follow what you most like to do, and the money — I guess and all that stuff — would come eventually. But I love catching snakes and I love catching animals, and I’m on the Discovery Channel catching crocodiles and caimans,” Osmanksi said. “Because if you like what you do, you will work hardest at that. And then if you’re the hardest-working person at catching animals, then you will be the world’s expert on catching animals. Everything will fall in place if you just keep trying and you do what you love.”

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

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Precocious local speller drawing national attention, studying hard

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Big things come in small packages, and 6-year-old whiz kid Akash Vukoti is a prime example.

Akash and his family moved to San Angelo from the East Coast in August, and less than 8 months later Akash became the youngest winner of the San Angelo Spelling Bee.

This wordsmith, a homeschooled first-grader, took the first-place trophy March 5, out-spelling 30 older competitors, ranging in age from 8-14.

Akash’s win may have seemed like a curve ball to some in the crowd, because the same two students have fought it out in the final rounds in the past two San Angelo bees.

“I studied very hard, and I won the bee with ‘circumspectly,’ a really easy word,” Akash said with a giggle Wednesday. “If I didn’t study well, I would be probably not going to win at all, because I wouldn’t even know a single word.”

Akash is no stranger to spelling bees, with 12 trophies siting in his home. He has been competing since 2012, when he was 2. The biggest trophy of the bunch is from his latest spelling championship, at almost the same height as Akash.

“Out of all, the most prestigious and the most loved one is from, you guys, the Standard-Times,” said Krishna Vukoti, Akash’s father and an assistant director at Shannon Medical Center Pharmacy. “That means a lot to us and not only for us, but for all the San Angelo kids.”

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The spelling bee was sponsored by the Standard-Times and lasted more than 12 rounds inside the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts.

Vukoti said the family recognized Akash’s interest in the alphabet when he was a toddler.

An uncle was feeding Akash one evening when Akash was 1 ½ years old, Vukoti said. The uncle told Akash “this is a spoon” and began to spell out the word for him. Akash replicated the spelling. The uncle asked Akash for the spelling of spoon a week later, and Akash was able to correctly reproduce the spelling, Vukoti said.

“S-p-o-o-n, that was the first word he spelled,” Vukoti said. “That was the first time when we observed his interests in spelling, and since then we thought we would encourage him.”

The family began to provide Akash with more alphabet toys, then took him and his older sister, Amrita, 8, who attends Bonham Elementary School, to spelling bees, Vukoti said. He said the family would sometimes drive six hours or fly a few hours to get to the competitions, where “people mostly think he came along with his sister to participate in the spelling bee,” Vukoti said.

Akash will participate in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May thanks to his win in San Angelo. However, that won’t be the first time he gets to experience the national spotlight. Akash was seleced from several hundred applicants and went through four screening stages to become a guest on the new NBC prime-time show “Little Bit Shots.” The show is a children’s comedy, talent and variety series co-produced and created by Ellen DeGeneres and Steve Harvey, with Harvey serving at the host.

Akash went head-to-head with Harvey in a spelling contest on the show, which will premiere Sunday on NBC. He left Harvey stumped by correctly spelling the word “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,” a term referring to a lung disease caused by silica dust.

Akash then appeared as a guest on the “Steve Harvey Show,” which aired Friday.

Akash received his first paycheck from NBC and donated some of his earnings to the Children’s Miracle Network in San Angelo and to Wikipedia, Vukoti said.

“We are very proud to say that,” Vukoti said. “Our goal is not to win the championship or to become rich. But the goal for my kids is to become a good citizen of the country and help themselves, help their family and the community and the country. So that’s what we are looking forward for Akash.”

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Vukoti said he and his wife, Chandrakala, 33, often think about Akash’s achievement overshadowing his older sister. Vukoti said, however, that Amrita played a major role in shaping Akash.

“She always quizzes him. She always encourages him. She has a different talent than Akash,” he said. “I’m sure — me and my wife, we both are sure — that she also will be having a special day in her life soon.”

Akash will be one of the youngest contestants to compete at the national level when he participates in the Scripps bee in Washington. A 6-year-old from Virginia, Lori Anne Madison, also competed at the National Spelling Bee in 2012.

Nonetheless, Akash is eager for the competition.

“I’m waiting for next month because that’s the time when I’m getting ready to start working on this huge dictionary, the Webster, the biggest dictionary in the whole wide USA,” Akash said. “If I win or not win, it’s really based only on how much I studied well.”

Where to watch

See Akash Vukoti’s “Little Big Shots” appearance at 7 p.m. Sunday on NBC or at nbc.com/little-big-shots 

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

Monks pour time, heart into baked goods

CHRISTOVAL, Texas — Tucked in the West Texas countryside and purposefully secluded from the rest of the world, Mount Carmel Hermitage has sat overlooking Christoval for almost 25 years.

The monastery, which was founded by Father Fabian Maria Rosette, began as a humble hut in 1991. Today it has a gift shop, a renovated chapel, several buildings and is home to Father Fabian and several brothers of his Carmelite order — as well as an unexpectedly professional, restaurant-style kitchen,

Inside the kitchen, three monks worked studiously in silence this week, peeling apples and stirring flour with aromatic spices, preparing for their annual bake sale at this weekend’s Christmas at Old Fort Concho.

“It’s a tradition to the early ages for monks to support themselves by the work that they do with their hands, so that’s how we started the bakery,” Brother John David said. “Here we all work for the same pay: Our reward is in heaven. We have great rewards in heaven.”

The sprawling kitchen is filled with professional-grade stainless steel appliances, has its own brick-fired pizza oven and would be well-suited for a restaurant — let alone for a few monks baking bread and making jam and jellies several months out of the year. The kitchen cost an estimated $250,000, donated by a woman from Christoval, Father Fabian said.

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Credit: Kimberley Meyer Brother John David slides rolls of baked biscotti onto cooling racks in 2012 at the Mount Carmel Hermitage in Christoval. In addition to their regular daily prayer commitments, the monks spend much of their time preparing baked goods to sell at Christmas at Old Fort Concho and elsewhere to support the hermitage.

The hermits wake up about 3 a.m. every day and during the holiday season spend much of their day in the kitchen, baking sweets to sell in their gift shop, at local events and online.

“We feel as though this is becoming our income for our budget throughout the year,” said Brother David, who shadows the younger monks during the baking process. “All our products are so good that they just sell by themselves.”

Brother David said one of the first baked goods the monks sold was an apple walnut bread whose recipe was given to Father Fabian by some nuns. Their most popular bread, however, is the pumpkin pecan. Brother David said even though he gives out the recipe for it, people want the bread to come from the hermitage because it is blessed.

“The recipe is right there, but people say, ‘We want y’all to do it,’ ” Brother David said, chuckling loudly.

The hermits try to cook up something new each year to expand their products, and this year they have a pomegranate jelly, Brother David said. He said he also tries to follow trends, catering to people’s interests.

“Everybody likes it hot with heat,” Brother David said. “So we started doing a habanero apricot jam. Everybody loves it. And we also have jalapeño honey, and people are going crazy with that.”

Profits generated through sales are divided across 12 months to cover bills, unexpected expenses and sometimes construction.

The money might help Father Fabian get closer to his current goal: building a church in the center of the hermitage, where there is now just open space.

In the hermitage’s humble beginnings, Father Fabian built the original hut with just the help of Brother David.

“He talked about having a house of prayers,” Brother David said. “I didn’t know much about what he was talking about because this was foreign to me. But since I was a good friend of his, I would come out and help him because I used to be a carpenter.”

Three years later, Brother David, 55, said he liked the lifestyle at the hermitage so much he left modernity and joined the sanctuary permanently.

Father Fabian said after serving as a priest for 10 years, he felt a calling to create a place of worship.

“I really wanted to go into the desert and be alone with God,” he said.

Creating the hermitage was his dream, but it was not easy for him to build it, Father Fabian said. He faced misunderstandings and persecution and struggled to make it the way it is today, he said.

“I can die today, I am happy,” Father Fabian said. “This is my dream come true. I can die at peace and say at least I did what I was called to do.

“Everything else is in the hands of God.”

Find the original story at gosanangelo.com.

How crossing the street in Hanoi looks like

HANOI, Vietnam — The trick is to walk across at a steady pace. People will avoid or maneuver around you. It took me some time to get used to crossing the street this way. I thought it was too dangerous. This is how crossing the street looks like in most Asian countries though. You must adjust to adapt. One thing to remember, no matter what you do, DON’T run across. That’s how you die.

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Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.