A successful pairing

Swamp Stomp
At the 2012 Louisiana Swamp Stomp Festival, Dr. Allyse Ferrara and Dr. Quenton Fontenot, a festival committee member and spokesperson, share a dance. “We have a ball at Swamp Stomp every year — great food, great music, dancing to Cajun, Zydeco and swamp pop,” Allyse says. “You can’t beat it.”

Dr. Allyse Ferrara grew up half a mile from a 200-acre lake in Ohio, “knee deep in mud or in the water chasing something,” she says. “Truth is, I guess not much has changed.

Her husband, Dr. Quenton Fontenot, doesn’t mind the muddiness one bit. The self-described “good south Louisiana hybrid” spent his own childhood exploring Louisiana’s waters and bayous, and he continues to do so.

As associate professors of biological sciences, Allyse and Quenton are as iconic at Nicholls as June Carter and Johnny Cash were in the entertainment industry. There’s this simple authenticity to them.

When they’re not researching alligator gar or teaching future biologists, they’re attending campus events, looking for their next great meal and living life to the fullest — as both co-workers and husband and wife. It’s more than their job. It’s who they are, and maybe that’s the most powerful lesson their students can learn.

“I took a class about fish, and when I found out they’ll give you a degree for fish, I changed my major.” — Quenton

The daughter of a biologist and an English teacher, Allyse grew up in Chardon, Ohio, a small town just outside of Cleveland. An only child, she spent summers in the water at her father’s hip and learned an appreciation for literature and culture from her mother.

The oldest of three, Quenton grew up in Denham Springs, a Baton Rouge suburb. His father was chief of inland fisheries for the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and his mother worked for a local Catholic church as director of religious studies.

Heavily influenced by their parents’ passions, Allyse and Quenton both enrolled in nearby colleges — Quenton as a pre-med
student at Louisiana State University and Allyse as a pre-vet student at Hiram College in Ohio. Well into their undergraduate course work, they both discovered that their true interest was not medicine but fish.

“She doesn’t wear high heels anymore. She wore them one day, and I had tennis shoes on, and I caught her.” — Quenton

It was 1999, at a fisheries conference in North Carolina. The two were working toward their doctoral degrees in fisheries — Allyse at Auburn University in Alabama and Quenton at Clemson University in South Carolina. Although they didn’t know each other, their advisers did, and a professional courtesy introduction is all it took.

Calypseaux 2011 Biology Grad student retreat
Quenton and Allyse plant mangroves during the 2011 Calypseaux Retreat for Nicholls marine and environmental biology graduate students.

The two spent the next few months sharing fishery ideas and research findings, discovering one common interest after another — music, the outdoors, fishing, hunting, traveling — and forming a friendship. Allyse invited Quenton to visit Auburn, and he took her up on the offer.

“When I first walked into her house, I noticed that she had the box sets of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams Sr., and I thought that’s pretty cool,” Quenton recalls. “And then, on the wall in her bedroom, I saw that she had a 20-gauge shotgun hanging up, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is good.’”

The two attended a big, Auburn-style Mardi Gras party that spilled into the early hours of the morning. Over breakfast the next day, Quenton asked Allyse and her father (who took a yearlong sabbatical to help his daughter with her doctoral project) to go with him to New Orleans for an authentic Mardi Gras celebration.

“We all headed for Mardi Gras, piled into his little Nissan truck,” Allyse says. “I think my dad didn’t want to talk to me for about three months, but we sure had a lot of fun.”

After nearly two years of dating, the fisheries students were married on the banks of Bass Lake in Chardon, where Allyse had grown up. Fittingly, they honeymooned in Grand Isle, where Quenton had spent many carefree childhood days.

“I’ve been Allyse Ferrara my entire life. I like my last name. He could have taken it!” — Allyse

Quenton Fontenot and Allyse Ferrara for Voila 2012
Named after Pete Fountain’s Half-Fast Walking Club, Pete, a 27-pound female tortoise, roams around Quenton and Allyse’s backyard.

A year later, after earning their doctorates, Quenton and Allyse began their careers at Nicholls. Despite not having any job openings, Dr. Marilyn Kilgen, department head for biological sciences at the time, interviewed the couple. Once a position became available, Allyse was hired in spring 2002, and Quenton came on board that fall.

Not sharing the same last name has been known to lead to rumors.

“A lot of students don’t realize we’re married at first,” Quenton says. “They’ll tell our graduate assistants, ‘I think there’s something going on between Dr. Ferrara and Dr. Fontenot. They’re acting kinda funny.’ Usually the GAs will play along, saying, ‘Oh, you have no idea!’”

In their relatively brief time at Nicholls — they’ve just hit the decade mark — Quenton and Allyse have made quite an impact. Together, they’ve secured nearly $1 million in grant revenue. In addition to their teaching and research, they are also co-directors of the Bayousphere Research Lab, overseeing student research projects. And they are heavily involved in the university’s Louisiana Swamp Stomp Festival.

“Working together we are so much more productive than we would be if I were by myself or she were by herself,” says Quenton, who was named interim department head in 2011.

“When people find out we have season tickets to the opera, they want to know, ‘What’s the joke?’” — Quenton

But what do two biologists do when you take away fish and water? Plenty.

The two have set up house on the outskirts of Thibodaux, just 7 miles from the Nicholls campus and 1 mile from the nearest boat launch, and they share it with a few unusual houseguests — a 27-pound female tortoise named Pete and two doves, Pork Chop and Boudin.

Digging in their garden and cooking with the fresh harvest — peppers, tomatoes, figs, satsumas, kumquats, lemons, basil and thyme — are a couple of ways the couple celebrate their love of food. Another is dining out.

Quenton Fontenot and Allyse Ferrara for Voila 2012
Allyse seasons her homemade butternut squash gnocchi while Quenton prepares to serve pork sausage, which he made himself and cooked all day in a smoker that he and his father-in-law built five years ago.

“We don’t splurge on a lot of stuff, but we do splurge on nice restaurants,” Quenton says. “Luckily, Allyse has a sophisticated palate and can re-create anything we enjoy in a restaurant at home.”

On Saturdays, they often head to the Big Easy for a New Orleans Opera performance and dinner at Lüke or Bayona. Three years ago, they attended their first live performance of Carmen at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. They’ve been season ticket holders ever since.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I love it,” Quenton says. “I love live performances. From Cajun to Dixieland to opera, if it’s performed well, I like it.”

The boundaries between Quenton and Allyse’s personal and professional lives are blurred. They approach everything — whether it’s cooking, mentoring graduate students or preserving our precious wetlands — with genuine curiosity, interest and passion.

There is an easiness about Quenton and Allyse — as if everyone should be able to get up and go to work doing something they absolutely love, at a place that they love, with the one that they love. It’s just natural. It’s how it’s supposed to be.

“My mom tells me that one time, when I was about 6 years old, we were passing by Nicholls on our way to Grand Isle,” Quenton says. “I told her, ‘Man, Nicholls would be the perfect place to work because you have freshwater fish right here and saltwater fish right down the road.’ I still agree with that statement.”

— Written by Renee Piper, director of University Relations

This article originally appeared in the 2012 issue of Voilà! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.