• August 25 Francesca Gross and Nina Morgan exploring Paint Rock


Diverse ways of seeing diversity


Before you decide the younger generation is disengaged from nature, you better meet Nina Morgan.


Nina Morgan is as old as I still imagine myself to be. She graduated from UAB last year after developing a catalogue of all the trees on campus. She’s now working for the city of Birmingham to help them figure out a way to do their business in a more sustainable way, and just helped them win a nice grant to do it.


And Nina is a whirlwind in the forest, too. Nina looks at things. I mean looks at them. She takes in what’s around her. And she asks more questions and better questions than anyone else I’ve been in the woods with.


Nina’s special. No doubt about it. But maybe more young Americans would develop Nina’s keen eye for nature, and her passion for questions, if they were exposed to places like Paint Rock.


That’s one of the big goals of our project, to train a new generation of scientists who understand the natural world. It may surprise you to learn that natural history, biodiversity and ecological studies, and good old-fashioned field taxonomy have been largely forgotten by major universities. A new generation of students sees the world only through the eyes of an electron microscope, or in a readout from a molecular analysis. That’s not the student’s fault. That’s the fault of the universities training them, and the narrowly focused grants that support them.

E.O. Wilson, the famous Harvard evolutionary biologist, wants the Paint Rock Forest Research Center to promote not only great research, but also a new generation of researchers who have one foot in the forest and one foot in the laboratory. Paint Rock, with its emphasis on field sampling, its relationship with Alabama universities, and its association with the country’s top field biologists and ecologists, is a perfect place to do this training.


The center’s close ties to Alabama A&M has also added another dimension of diversity to the program. As the result of a special USDA grant, the Paint Rock Forest Research Center will be able to promote the training and advancement of minority students.


The goal is to open up new opportunities for teens and college students  who usually don’t get much exposure to this kind of scientific research, and provide them a stairway to the best research programs in the country.


That kind of opportunity development is how Francesca Gross, who works with The Nature Conservancy’s urban outreach program in Birmingham, met Nina. Francesca’s genius is figuring out how to re-engage people with the natural world they almost forgot. Nina, while a student at UAB, interned with Francesca. And Nina and Francesca have been working together to introduce inner city kids to the mysteries of the forest environment.


I expect we’ve got some things to talk about.