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Alabama Water Institute

New Initiative to Boost Ecological Education, Conservation in Southeastern US

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – A pioneering educational initiative aimed at empowering the next generation of ecologists and conservationists is taking root in the Southeastern United States.

A team of researchers led by The University of Alabama is launching the Woods to Water, or W2W, project that is focused on helping early career scientists understand critical linkages between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

The project has been awarded nearly $3 million in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Research and Mentoring for Postbaccalaureates in Biological Sciences, or RaMP, program. It will give recent graduates year-long immersive training opportunities in key field techniques and data science centered on the interconnectedness of water, carbon and nutrient cycles within forests and streams.

“This is a great opportunity for students who are interested in ecology or natural resources,” said Dr. Carla Atkinson, associate professor in UA’s Department of Biological Sciences and one of the co-principal investigators of the project. “The program will greatly benefit those who are not yet sure if they want to pursue careers or graduate studies after earning their undergraduate degree by providing them on-the-ground training experiences and professional development opportunities.”

The Southeast is one of the most ecologically and biologically diverse regions in the U.S., boasting more than 1,500 species of vascular plants, 79% of freshwater fish and 91% of the country’s mussel species.

Despite the region’s potential for biological education, barriers such as restricted access to public lands and a shortage of comprehensive field and classroom training significantly hinder experience-based learning opportunities. Moreover, the scarcity of research training opportunities particularly disadvantages first-generation students and those from groups historically marginalized in STEM fields.

By leveraging training with the NSF’s National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, and the Jones Center at Ichauway, the W2W program offers a clear focus on equipping young minds to tackle the pressing issue of global climate change. W2W RaMP participants will be trained at two NEON domains: the Ozarks, a complex consisting of three pairs of terrestrial and aquatic field sites that includes a threatened longleaf pine ecosystem; and the Southeast, which is made up of two sites within JCI’s expansive longleaf pine ecosystem.

“Partnering with NEON and a private research foundation, we are giving opportunities for participants to gain experience in a wide range of field techniques and scientific management,” said Dr. Christina Staudhammer, professor in UA’s Department of Biological Sciences and the project’s lead principal investigator. “In addition, this program will aid in training the next generation of field scientists.”

W2W will equip new scientists with the means to seamlessly enter the ecological workforce, enriching the scientific community and addressing the urgent need to comprehend ecosystems among a changing planet. Participants will engage with experts across study areas, blending classroom learning with fieldwork, lab tasks and research to build ecological expertise and confidence. W2W cohorts will also have chances to share their research and earn certification as ecologists.

As part of the program, they will also receive an annual stipend support of $32,500, an allowance for health insurance and reduced-cost housing. The first cohort will begin in May, and UA is actively recruiting recent graduates for the program. More information about applying can be found on the W2W website.

Brock Parker, Multimedia Specialist and Writer, Alabama Water Institute,

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