Catherine Danielou Presented with Honorary Alumni Award

The UAB National Alumni Society has selected Dr. Catherine Daniélou, Senior Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, as its recipient of the 2017 Honorary Alumni Award.

""The UAB National Alumni Society has selected Dr. Catherine Daniélou, Senior Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, as its recipient of the 2017 Honorary Alumni Award.

The Honorary Alumni Award is presented to a member of the UAB family who has made exceptional contributions to UAB and its programs. For 25 years, Dr. Daniélou has been an integral part of UAB. She joined the faculty of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in 1990 and during her tenure, has amassed a long list of academic and administrative accomplishments, including directing the International Studies Program, establishing CAS Academic Advising, and serving as interim chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. She has successfully shepherded the College of Arts and Sciences through the SACS accreditation process and has been named the SGA Faculty Member of the Year and Faculty Advisor of the Year. She’s been awarded with the UAB Conner Prize for the History of Ideas and the UAB President’s Excellence in Teaching Award. She has also been a longtime member and current chair of the UAB Athletics Advisory Committee.

Dean Palazzo said in his nomination letter, “While her administrative skills are exceptional, her relationships with faculty, staff, and students are what make her special and remarkable. She loves UAB deeply and works tirelessly to help others achieve their personal and professional goals. She has the institutional memory that helps guide us as we make decisions, as well as the enthusiasm for the future to propel us forward in our plans. She is a beloved member of our faculty and one of the most trusted people in the entire College of Arts and Sciences. She has a servant’s heart, and her service is, first and foremost, to UAB.”

Other nominators noted, “She will do anything for her ‘dear old UAB’ no matter how many late nights at her desk, no matter how many weekends at recruitment fairs, no matter how many sporting events, or performances, or exhibits, or lectures. She is always there—encouraging, cheering, clapping, supporting, embracing—because she is so proud of this place and the people who make it the special place that it is.”

Dr. Daniélou, along with the recipients of the recipients of the Honorary Lifetime Alumni award, the Distinguished Alumni Award, and the Outstanding Young Alumni Award, were honored at the Alumni Awards and Recognition Luncheon on September 29, 2017 at the UAB National Alumni Society House.

Congratulations to Dr. Daniélou!

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Lisa Higginbotham

    Many Blazers donate to and engage with the Benevolent Fund, a charitable giving campaign that supports health and human service agencies, selected health-related charities, and University of Alabama at Birmingham employees through the Employee Emergency Assistance Program.

    Lisa HigginbothamMany Blazers donate to and engage with the Benevolent Fund, a charitable giving campaign that supports health and human service agencies, selected health-related charities, and University of Alabama at Birmingham employees through the Employee Emergency Assistance Program. Through the Benevolent Fund, UAB has distributed over $43 million to local nonprofit organizations and to UAB employees. The work changes lives, and it is a model of charitable excellence.

    One of the key people behind the Benevolent Fund is Lisa Higginbotham, a two-time graduate of UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences. Higginbotham earned both her Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Public Administration in the early 1990s, and, afterwards, she navigated a prolific career in nonprofit management across Alabama.

    “I fondly reflect on my time in CAS,” said Higginbotham. “From the friends I made who are now colleagues to working alongside Dr. Norm Eggleston researching discrimination in the workplace against people living with HIV or exploring ethical decision making with Dr. Mary Guy, it was all instrumental in me becoming the person I am today.”

    During her time in the nonprofit sector, Higginbotham worked for Childcare Resources; Girls, Inc.; and the Children’s Trust Fund. Often, she improved processes and structures to ensure the organizations and institutions could do their best work and maximize impact—a skillset she gleaned from her time in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration.

    When it came time to expand her family, Higginbotham decided to seek a part-time position, so she could achieve her desired work-life balance. Thankfully, at that time, UAB needed a new team member to support the Employee Emergency Assistance program—a perfect fit for Higginbotham.

    Higginbotham accepted the role, and, eventually, she became the fund manager for the Benevolent Fund. She deployed a systems leadership approach to her work and uncovered opportunities to do more than provide funding to local nonprofits. For example, under Higginbotham’s leadership, the Benevolent Fund expanded service-learning opportunities for UAB students, developed new systems for Employee Emergency Assistance, and launched Blazer Kitchen (UAB’s campus food pantry which has provided 400,000 meals in just over four years).

    “I launched Blazer Kitchen with a lot of help and support from our council and the UAB administration,” said Higginbotham. “We knew there were employees who needed help through our Employee Emergency Assistance program… and they could [also] benefit from access to healthy food.”

    Every step of the way, Higginbotham has leveraged data, best practices, and her past experiences and knowledge to ensure her work is people-focused and impact-driven.

    Over the past two years, the pandemic created numerous challenges for the Benevolent Fund, including limitations on grant-making and a pause on house builds with Habitat for Humanity, a long-standing nonprofit partner. That said, Higginbotham still encounters individual stories that illustrate the impact of her work—even during the pandemic. Recently, she worked closely with a UAB employee who experienced trauma and loss due to COVID-19. By highlighting UAB’s sick leave bank and counseling services offered by local nonprofits, Higginbotham was able to support the employee and help them navigate a heart wrenching moment.

    As Higginbotham reflects on her experiences during her 18 years at UAB, she notes her passion for connecting employees to resources in the community.

    “When I listen to nonprofits talk about the programs they have in the community, I think, ‘How can this help our UAB employees,’” said Higginbotham.

    Now that she is back on campus (and in a new building), she sees endless opportunities to continue pursuing that passion and to deepen partnerships with nonprofit organizations. She also aims to expand Blazer Kitchen’s operating hours and further engage with the Department of Social Work and its students. Moving forward, the horizon is bright as the Benevolent Fund steers through the pandemic and continues its life-changing work.

    “I encourage everyone—students, alumni, and employees—to reflect on where you are today, thank those who have helped you achieve your success, offer mentorship to the next generation of leaders, engage with your community to contribute to the public good, and stay connected to UAB,” said Higginbotham.

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Kristine Farag

    Being the first to do something can be challenging—thankfully, when you have a mentor by your side, the experience can be enjoyable and empowering.

    Kristine FaragBeing the first to do something can be challenging—thankfully, when you have a mentor by your side, the experience can be enjoyable and empowering.

    For Kristine Farag, one of the first students to graduate from the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Undergraduate Immunology Program, she sought and found mentorship from Heather Bruns, Ph.D., the co-director of the innovative new program.

    “We were the first class to graduate [in Spring 2021]. We were a really small class, so it was nice to have good relationships with our mentors,” said Farag. “I found a lot of mentors, including Dr. Bruns. We have a unique relationship.”

    “Kristine is an engaging, kind, and compassionate individual,” said Bruns.

    Farag came to UAB from Carmel, Indiana, with a strong science background. While studying anatomy and working in a research lab in high school, she learned about immunology—the study of the structure and function of the immune system—for the first time. The field intrigued her, so, when it was time to declare a major, she decided to join the first cohort of the Undergraduate Immunology Program, an interdisciplinary partnership between the College of Arts and Sciences and the Heersink School of Medicine.

    The program—which launched in 2017—offers the only undergraduate major in immunology in the U.S. with coursework that focuses on topics including the innate immune system and microbial pathogen-immune system interactions. Through the program, students conduct hands-on research and prepare for careers in medicine, biomedical research, health-related professions, and/or science-related professions.

    “The newness was really interesting. It feels like the up-and-coming thing,” said Farag. “I would learn something new every day. [The faculty] would always bring in different clinical correlations.”

    Those correlations were valuable to Farag because she came to UAB with a conditional acceptance to the Heersink School of Medicine through the Early Medical School Acceptance Program. Now, Farag, in Indianapolis, is pursuing her M.D. at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Bruns is proud to see Farag applying her knowledge in medical school.

    “Kristine is a highly accomplished individual in both academics and research,” said Bruns. “She exemplifies the attributes we desire all of graduates from the Undergraduate Immunology Program, and we are so proud that she is an alumna of our major.”

    While at UAB, Farag also contributed her time and talent to the UAB Dance Marathon, a fundraiser that benefits Children’s of Alabama. Farag is passionate about the student-led program—which is also a part of the Children’s Miracle Network—and found an opportunity to include Bruns.

    “I asked her to be our faculty sponsor for Dance Marathon because we needed someone from the school to be a part of it,” said Farag.

    Throughout this experience, Farag and Bruns continued to collaborate and work together. By her third year with the Dance Marathon, Farag became the president and, in turn, nurtured valuable leadership skills.

    “I have seen first-hand her passion and compassion for others and her ability to be a strong leader to accomplish goals that benefit others,” said Bruns.

    Now, in medical school, Farag reflects fondly on her time at UAB and offers appreciation for the strong foundation she built during her time in the burgeoning immunology program. She also acknowledges that the program’s curriculum was particularly important during a global pandemic.

    “With COVID-19, it’s a very interesting time to have this knowledge,” said Farag. “My past year-and-a-half of being an undergrad was absorbed by COVID-19—that made those classes more interesting.”

    When asked to offer a piece of advice to her peers who will graduate in December, she pauses for a moment and smiles. “Treasure the next few months—it’s a really special time,” said Farag.

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Taylor Byas

    Through language, poets help us better understand and navigate life. However, the journey to a career in poetry is not always clear (or easy).

    Taylor ByasThrough language, poets help us better understand and navigate life. However, the journey to a career in poetry is not always clear (or easy).

    For Taylor Byas, a renowned poet who is pursuing her Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, her dream of becoming a writer emerged when she was a child.

    “I’ve been a bookworm since I can remember,” said Byas. “I think I always knew that I wanted to pursue English and to pursue something that has to do with language.”

    Although English was her first passion, she found herself on the pre-medicine track when she arrived at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2013. She chose this path because her mother was a successful doctor, and because several people questioned her future career prospects if she focused on English solely.

    “Along the way, I let people discourage me… I let them ask ‘What are you going to do with an English degree?’” said Byas.

    She stuck with pre-med for a year, but, deep down, she felt out-of-sync with the coursework. Eventually, after receiving support and encouragement from her emerging network of friends and mentors, she pivoted back into the English program.

    “I stepped into the confidence to be fully myself,” said Byas. “UAB created a culture of perseverance. It also instilled a mindset in me—of not being afraid to fail and believing in my ideas.”

    As her confidence grew, so did her talent. While pursuing her B.A. in the Department of English, Byas’ creative voice shined, and, before she knew it, she was considering the department’s graduate program. Immediately after earning her bachelor’s degree in 2017, she matriculated into the M.A. program with a focus on creative writing.

    “My master’s degree, specifically, is where I found my voice in writing,” said Byas. “It was the support of that wonderful department… I was loved and believed in—well before I found it for myself. That support system was so crucial.”

    Along with finding her voice, Byas also benefited from the overall rigor of the program.

    “I think we never really know…how rigorous something is until we step out of it and apply those things,” said Byas. “When I arrived at my Ph.D. program, I found myself not struggling. I really have had a fairly smooth time in my doctorate degree.”

    Her smooth transition into her doctoral program also allowed her the space and time to launch a fruitful career as a poet and writer. Over the past year, she secured a literary agent, released her first chapbook of poetry, sold her first full-length book manuscript to Soft Skull Press, and won the Adrienne Rich Poetry Prize—a series of significant milestones for a young poet.

    “This last year has been incredibly busy and also life-changing in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated,” said Byas.

    Byas maintains a down-to-earth and welcoming demeanor amidst her noteworthy achievements. Although she recognizes her talents and creative voice brought her to this moment, she also credits much of her success to her network—her community.

    “We aren’t designed to do this life alone. Finding your people, finding your community, is one of the most meaningful and important things you can do for yourself,” said Byas. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the community I found and created.”

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  • Neuroscience alumna publishes in major journal

    The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences and Heersink School of Medicine offer five unique interdisciplinary programs that prepare students for the career fields of the future.

    Shreya MalhotraThe University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences and Heersink School of Medicine offer five unique interdisciplinary programs that prepare students for the career fields of the future. Although these programs are relatively new, several cohorts of students have already attained their degrees. As students continue to graduate from these innovative programs, the College of Arts and Sciences will highlight their achievements and next steps.

    Shreya Malhotra is a Spring 2020 graduate of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program. The program allows students to build knowledge and prepare for medical school. It also provides students with laboratory- and literature-based research experiences. Malhotra excelled in the program, and, during her senior year, she published her research in the Journal of Neuroscience, a top-tier journal in the field of neuroscience. Malhotra was the first author on the paper which is entitled, “Climbing Fiber-Mediated Spillover Transmission to Interneurons Is Regulated by EAAT4.” The co-authors on the paper include Gokulakrishna Banumurthy, Reagan L. Pennock, Jada H. Vaden, Izumi Sugihara, Linda Overstreet-Wadiche and Jacques I. Wadiche.

    Malhotra and her faculty advisor Jacques Wadiche, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Neurobiology in the Heersink School of Medicine, recently crafted a significance statement on the research. According to Malhotra and Wadiche, “Although the cerebellum appears to be a uniform structured region, it exhibits a striped pattern of gene expression aptly named after a protein called Zebrin. These stripes may delineate different connectivity with the rest of the brain allowing the cerebellum to act beyond its designated role in motor control. Here we find that the protein levels of EAAT4, a glutamate transporter, follow the Zebrin pattern to cause differences in glutamate signaling across stripes. These results show a new functional difference in cerebellar information processing between stripes and may have implications for understanding the role of the cerebellum in motor control and cognition.”

    Malhotra is now pursuing her M.D./Ph.D. at Stanford’s School of Medicine.

    “To publish a first author paper as an undergraduate is a notable achievement, but Shreya’s accomplishment is even more significant considering her work was published in one of the top journals in our field,” said Cristin Gavin, Ph.D., co-director of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program. “This indicates not only the high quality of the science, but also the impact of the intellectual advance.”

    You can access the paper here.

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Karla Khodanian

    Inspiration can strike when you least expect it—even while waiting in line for a coffee.

    Karla KhodanianInspiration can strike when you least expect it—even while waiting in line for a coffee.

    “I was 14 years old in line at a Starbucks, and I overheard the girl in front of me tell her friend that she was going to major in public relations,” said Karla Khodanian, managing partner at the Birmingham Business Alliance. “I went home that night, and I Googled public relations and landed on the Wikipedia page for it. I thought it sounded amazing.”

    Although high school students often change their minds about college majors, Khodanian never wavered from her newfound passion for PR and storytelling.

    “Every campus tour, everything I did after that, I was looking at schools’ communications departments,” said Khodanian. “I never had a moment of doubt… I knew it, stuck with it, and I loved it.”

    Khodanian grew up in Madison, Alabama, and, while exploring college options, she sought out a change of scenery. After spending years in a suburb of Huntsville, she was ready to be in a city rich with culture, energy, and opportunity. Thankfully, during her numerous campus visits, she included the University of Alabama at Birmingham on her list. Once she arrived in Birmingham, her next step was clear.

    “I chose UAB very early in my senior year of high school because I loved the campus—I loved the energy of being in a city,” said Khodanian.

    She started at UAB in 2010 and thrived in the Department of Communication Studies. She also worked with several other units and groups across campus, including Blaze Productions and UAB Digital Media. At the same time, she embraced opportunities to get to know her new city and build a network of like-minded colleagues, mentors, and friends. This commitment to community led her to intern with American Idol star Ruben Studdard, the legendary music venue Bottletree Cafe in Avondale, and the Woodlawn Foundation.

    “It got me outside of the campus bubble and into the community,” said Khodanian. “I learned a lot of practical applications for how to be a strong communicator. The sharpest tool in my toolkit is knowing how to communicate broadly to a big audience.”

    Khodanian went on to graduate with a B.A. in Communication Studies with a Public Relations Specialization in 2014. She also earned minors in sociology and marketing. Soon after graduation, Khodanian decided to stay in Birmingham and start her career in PR.

    “I chose to stay in Birmingham because I knew it would be a phenomenal place to build my career,” said Khodanian. “I didn’t want to lose the valuable relationships I built as an undergrad.”

    Seven years later, she’s found a way to successfully meld her love for community with her knack for storytelling, relationship-building, and brand development. As a managing partner at the Birmingham Business Alliance—the lead economic development organization for the Birmingham seven-county region—Khodanian currently focuses on investor relations and member engagement. Through this work, she connects businesses to the Alliance’s mission of growing more and better jobs in the region. 

    When Khodanian first arrived at the Alliance in 2019, she was responsible for attracting talented people to live and work in Birmingham. Her efforts culminated in a milestone project entitled OnBoard Birmingham.

    “It’s really cool to have a job that helps me build the city that helped build me. I’m really proud of OnBoard Birmingham, which is the talent brand [of the Alliance],” said Khodanian. “I got to be a part of concepting and developing the project. It was something I started as a consultant and freelancer, then carried it into full-time work. I got the opportunity because of my depth of knowledge of the community and my passion for bringing more people into the community.”

    In a way, the website for OnBoard Birmingham is the perfect distillation of Khodanian’s journey. It is a celebration of all things Birmingham, and it’s a digital space where people can start building their own networks and relationships—something Khodanian encourages current CAS students to prioritize.

    “Take the time to build relationships with everyone,” said Khodanian. “Whether it’s your advisor, professor, peer, or someone in the community, those relationships are gold.”

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  • An interview with Ashley M. Jones, the next Alabama Poet Laureate

    Ashley M. Jones, an alumna of the UAB Department of English, was recently appointed to serve as the next Poet Laureate of Alabama.

    Ashley M. Jones, an alumna of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of English, was recently appointed to serve as the next Poet Laureate of Alabama. She holds an MFA from Florida International University and currently lives in Birmingham, where she teaches creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She also co-directs PEN Birmingham , is the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival , is part of the Core Faculty of the Converse College Low Residency MFA Program, and recently served as guest editor for Poetry Magazine . Her collections include Magic City Gospel, dark // thing, and Reparations Now! 

    Ashley M. Jones, Poet Laureate of AlabamaSo, how does it feel to be the next Alabama Poet Laureate?

    Jones: It feels really amazing. I'm very grateful that people trust me to do the job, you know. And I'm obviously very proud to be a Black woman doing the job. I'm the first person of color ever to hold the position in the history of our state, which is something that we need to definitely contend with…I'm just very excited to serve and to represent this really amazing community of writers…I want our state to be a premier literary destination. 

    If you want to elaborate on this, what does it mean to be the first Black woman to hold this position?

    Jones: It means a lot. It's not lost on me that is taken 91 years for this to occur… Thinking back to being a young person and looking for those role models who looked like me—that was so important to see, you know. I will always remember my first-grade teacher, Ms. Hafeezah Abdur-Rasheed at EPIC elementary school, because she just was so incredible, and for me to see a Black woman who was so smart, so just on point, always…And of course, having my mom be an example to me—those things matter, you know. To have someone who looks like you, who shares your experience, doing the things that you dream of doing… So, I'm hoping that by me existing, as whatever it is that I am, and holding whatever title that I hold, maybe that can help someone else to feel more possible.

    What are your thoughts on representation in literature in society? 

    Jones: Yeah, I think representation is so very important… For me reading a poem or a novel about Black people by a Black person means more, perhaps…Makes you feel that you can actually tell your own story. If we think back to the slave narratives…sometimes there had to be a preface written by their white benefactor, to say that this is all good; I signed off on it. That does something to a Black reader—and as a White reader actually—you’re being sent the message that this person's voice is only valid because somebody else said it is. But if instead the book is written by the person and we believe it just because they have written it, that says a lot as well…I'd like to walk into the mirror of literature and see myself reflected back.

    Do you have any thoughts on or suggestions for how we answer the deep issues in our state and country’s history? 

    Jones: I've always been so focused on pointing out what actually happened and on operating in truths only, not in your imagined history…[The system] was made to hurt people—So, with something like this, you know, 91 years of poets laureate and now the first non-white person holding it, I think if we all kind of sit with that for a moment…And then, engaging the full community, instead of staying in your little silo…I think work like that is what can help, because obviously we can't fix the century it took to have somebody hold this position, but we can move forward in a meaningful way.

    Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?

    Jones: Yes. I consider myself to be a feminist in the lineage of people like Audre Lorde or bell hooks, which is very important to say…Feminism has also struggled with its ties to the white patriarchy. So, I follow an intersectional of feminist model, which allows me to celebrate the issues of my people within the framework of feminism… We have to celebrate those differences that we have, and not play into those structures that oppress in the first place.

    What advice would you give to young poets?

    Jones: First of all, you're already a poet. Even if you just wrote one poem, you're a poet already. There's not an application process…I also tell students “Your work is already complete.” When you write it, no matter what draft it is, it's complete. So, if we're workshopping it, we're not trying to fix it or make it complete. We're just refining what's already there… So, I would just tell them to learn to value themselves, because that's the thing is going to carry them through. If I had not realized that being Ashley Jones was enough, I would not be sitting here as Poet Laureate of Alabama.

    How do you feel that relates to something like publishing? 

    Jones: I'll start by saying, the reason I'm able to even think of it that way, I think it's because I teach from a feminist perspective. Because this idea that we are having to work enough or work to a certain level: that's a patriarchal idea. It's not serving any of us well, you know… And as far as submitting to journals, I mean, that's such a subjective process. You just don't know…I encourage the students to submit any place they want to do. But I also try to be realistic with them as well. Like if you're looking to build up your publication history, try smaller journals first. They have less submissions to go through, so they might actually see your work and be able to actually spend time with it. And if they’re submitting to a journal and they're like, “oh, but I'm just in high school. Should I let them know that's where I am?” I say, “well first of all, it doesn't matter where you are: if a poem’s good, a poem’s good.” If they're really doing their job like they’re supposed to, they're not going to be looking at what age you are.

    Who have been some of your main influences?

    Jones: I always loved listening to my family speak. Like, I mentioned earlier, if you speak Southern, that's poetry. So like hearing grandmothers, aunts, uncles, mom, dad, whatever, speaking; that's always been amazing to me. As far as poets go, you know, Eloise Greenfield was my entry into poetry, then Rita Dove and Lucile Clifton. Kevin Young was huge for me in college… And now it's a lot of my peers and colleagues, who inspire me a lot. And Jacqueline Trimble, who is in Montgomery, Alabama; she is a huge inspiration to me…And then my students inspire me all the time. They are just so creative. When the student is allowed to truly explore and to feel safe in that exploration, they are going to create some of the most incredible, innovative, thought-provoking, emotional pieces that anyone's ever seen. 

    How are you feeling about the release of your third collection?

    Jones: I feel so excited. I love all my book children equally, but this book, I think, is truly the one where I feel the most myself. And I felt that I didn't have to prove anything anymore. I'm just writing as me…I feel like I'm my most self-actualized in life, so in this book I am also my most self-actualized on the page.

    What are some of the projects you're working on right now? 

    Jones: Well, I am releasing my book [Reparations Now!]…I'm also trying to move into the prose space. I'm trying to write a memoir. I have a few essays out from that already…I'm thinking of doing some [essays] that are partially personal essay and partially critical essay. 

    The Magic City Poetry Festival slogan this year was “poetry is for everybody” and you mentioned bell hooks earlier, so I wanted to know, what do you mean by “poetry is for everybody?”

    Jones: Well, I mean exactly what it says: poetry is for every single person. There is a belief, I think, that poems have to be super hard to understand and they're just for the learned of us. But that's not true. Everybody interacts with poetry on a daily basis, you know…For me and for the MCPF, we are trying to make sure that everybody knows they have access to this art form and that it can be helpful to them… That's what I love about some of my poetry heroes, like sister Sonia [Sanchez], who I met. She made me a cup of tea—like if you understand what this woman has done in life…all the gifts she has bestowed upon the world. She deserves all the respect ever—The fact that she made little old me, little Ashley from Alabama, a cup of tea, with her own hands? Okay. That to me is the spirit of “poetry is for everybody,” you know…And that's the kind of thing that I want to spread everywhere. I want us to feel like we're all fighting the same fight. We're all here together. 

    What are some of your favorite moments from your writing career so far?

    The first one deals with my dad. He passed this year, which still seems very not real…When he was still alive, I was commissioned to write a poem for the Southern Foodways Alliance, because they were having their annual meeting here in Birmingham. So, I decided I was going to write about my dad's gardening. So, I interviewed him, and he told me all these stories about gardening as a child and how they did it out of necessity back then…We’ve always had a garden in our backyard and eaten all these amazing vegetables and fruits that my dad has grown. So, I wrote this poem about him, called “Photosynthesis,” and I invited my parents to come…he had never heard it. And it was like right after his birthday too, so I was sneaky…So, I do my last poem, which is the poem for him—and in this poem, I talked about gardening and how he has taken care of us—and is still taking care of us. I mean, we ate his harvest after he passed away…There are so many ways that he planted things for us to reap forever. At the time I didn't know that. I was just writing a poem…So, I read the poem. And I looked out to the audience—and my dad was not a man who cried very often, at least not in front of us. I maybe saw him cry like one time in life, maybe like one and a half—but I looked up and my dad was wiping his eyes, and my mom was like ‘he was crying. He was crying!” and I felt so proud. I was like wow, first of all, I got him [laughs]. But, also, I'm so glad I was able to. There's this phrase “give people their flowers while they yet live.” I could give him flowers, right in front of him. I could tell this group of people, “My dad's awesome. Here is why.” I could tell my dad, “You're awesome, Here is why,” you know. And all of that just from writing a poem.

    This article is based on an interview conducted by Ash Tippit for 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Read the original story here and sign up for their weekly newsletter here.

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Alex LaGanke

    When Alex LaGanke, staff attorney at Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, left her hometown of Cullman to attend UAB, she quickly started to see the world through a new lens.

    Alex LaGanke (left) walking at Railroad Park with Ron McKeithen (right) and University of Alabama Law Intern Allen Slater (center) after filing a petition for a client who was subsequently released in June 2021.When Alex LaGanke, staff attorney at Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, left her hometown of Cullman to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she quickly started to see the world through a new lens.

    “I moved to UAB and gained perspective—I was surrounded by… so many different people, perspectives, and conversations,” said LaGanke. “I developed a better understanding for how the world works.”

    As her worldview expanded, she developed a passion for humanitarian work and decided to pursue a B.A. in International Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

    As she approached graduation, LaGanke was determined to find a career path where she could help people meet their basic needs. Thankfully, during her final semester at UAB, she got the chance to work on an innovative pilot program with the Alabama Association of Nonprofits (AAN), a membership-based organization that supports Alabama's nonprofit sector.

    During the pilot, AAN matched students with nonprofit organizations that were pursuing the Standards for Excellence endorsement—an endorsement that consists of a series of benchmarks that ensure high ethical standards within organizations. LaGanke was paired with the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA), a program in Jefferson County which trains community volunteers to provide support and advocate for dependent children involved in neglect or abuse cases. Through this experience, she developed a longstanding connection with CASA, a keen understanding of the value of the AAN’s website (specifically, the jobs board), and a newfound interest in public administration.

    “[After graduation] I knew that I wanted to do nonprofit work,” said LaGanke. “I would look on AAN’s jobs site, literally daily. One day, I stumbled across a program coordinator position for M-Power Ministries in Avondale.”

    M-Power is a nonprofit that provides education and health services to people impacted by poverty, and, at the time, the organization needed someone to coordinate direct services for learners participating in the adult basic education program. The organization selected LaGanke for the role, and she quickly learned the value and importance of relationship-building.

    “I processed 160 students throughout my time there. I realized if I’m going to build relationships with these people, I couldn’t just focus on education,” said LaGanke. “I had to connect people with resources so they could be successful in their education.”

    Between LaGanke’s experience with CASA and M-Power, she started to uncover a vision for the future. She knew she wanted to serve the people of Birmingham, and, to do so, she believed she needed to focus on law and policy reform. Her realization led her back to UAB—specifically, the Department of Political Science and Public Administration.

     “I’m such a proud UAB alum,” said LaGanke. “I didn’t apply anywhere else. I didn’t want to leave Birmingham.”

    LaGanke enrolled in the Master of Public Administration/Juris Doctorate Dual Degree Program (a partnership between UAB and Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law). While studying in the program, LaGanke learned to analyze and communicate about data—a skillset that serves her well in her current role as a staff attorney with Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit that works to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians.

    “My work revolves around Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act,” said LaGanke. “Combatting excessively punitive laws in the State of Alabama is challenging, but UAB’s MPA program has provided me with the basic skills and tools necessary to approach complex policy issues effectively and strategically.”

    LaGanke’s casework and research with Alabama Appleseed has sparked life-changing outcomes for four people, including Ronald McKeithen. McKeithen was convicted of first-degree robbery in 1984 and sentenced to life in prison. Through LaGanke’s efforts—and the work and support of many others—McKeithen was released from prison, and, in December 2020, he successfully re-entered the community. Now, he is working with Alabama Appleseed on its re-entry efforts and also creating art, which will be featured in the Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration exhibit at UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

    A detailed account of McKeithen’s journey is available here.

    LaGanke also supports community re-entry efforts for people who were formerly incarcerated. Her varied responsibilities include everything from helping people as they get a new Social Security card to replacing a flat tire. In this work, she continues to see the importance of policy reform and the need for additional research and advocacy.

    “I’m really proud that our organization is able to funnel resources and time towards helping our clients be successful beyond our legal representation,” said LaGanke.

    As she looks to the future and seeks systemic change through casework, research, advocacy, and policy reform, she continues to emphasize an essential skill she nurtured during her time at UAB and with M-Power—building relationships.

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Angelo Della Manna

    When building something from the ground up, it’s valuable for the builder to be detail-oriented and driven. For Angelo Della Manna, Director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, both skills came into focus during his time studying in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Criminal Justice.

    When building something from the ground up, it’s valuable for the builder to be detail-oriented and driven. For Angelo Della Manna, Director of the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, both skills came into focus during his time studying in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Criminal Justice.

    “Having attention to detail is an extremely important skill in Forensic Science,” said Della Manna. “That is one of the best things I learned at UAB.”

    Della Manna’s journey to UAB set the tone for his future professional endeavors. In 1991, during his senior year studying chemistry at the University of Toronto, he purchased a plane ticket and traveled from Canada to the United States to attend the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference. At that conference, he scheduled a meeting with faculty members from UAB’s Department of Criminal Justice.

    “I wanted to see, as an international student, if it was possible for me to come [to UAB],” said Della Manna.

    Della Manna met with Fred Smith, Ph.D., and Ray Liu, Ph.D. Both former faculty members were impressed with the young, analytical chemist’s drive and willingness to travel to the conference on his own dime. During the conversation, they encouraged Della Manna to take the GRE and asked him to share his transcripts.

    Soon after his journey to the conference, Della Manna was accepted into the forensic science graduate program at UAB. At the time, it was one of the few programs of its kind in the country. Della Manna took advantage of the burgeoning field of study and sought out an internship to obtain practical experience and work alongside forensic scientists.

    “You’ve got to be deliberate and intentional,” said Della Manna. “Having that internship was very valuable to me and helped teach me that skill.”

    At the time, Della Manna was also nurturing a long-distance relationship with his future wife, Debbie, who he met in Canada. Little did he know, she would later move to Birmingham to pursue her master’s in basic medical sciences, and, eventually, become a cancer researcher in the School of Medicine’s Department of Radiation Oncology.

    “Just having her in the same zip code was a win,” said Della Manna.

    After earning his M.S. in Forensic Science, Della Manna started his career as an hourly laborer position with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences (ADFS), the second oldest crime lab system in the country. With a deep interest in forensic biology and a background in DNA techniques from UAB, he found an opportunity to build something within the ADFS.

    “I was fortunate that I had that background,” said Della Manna. “It was a technology that was just starting here in Alabama… We saw early on that DNA could be revolutionary in forensic science.”

    And it was. Through his tireless efforts, Della Manna and others built a DNA program within the ADFS, and, in turn, put Alabama on the map. In May 1994, the Alabama legislature took notice of the importance of forensic DNA testing and passed the Alabama DNA Database Law, which allowed Della Manna to move faster and help ADFS develop a national reputation.

    “The application of new technology has always been fascinating to me,” said Della Manna. “It allowed Alabama to be at the forefront, on the cutting-edge, of DNA technology.”

    Nearly 30 years later, Della Manna now serves as the Director of the ADFS and has helped build the only internationally accredited provider of forensic laboratory services in the state. Along the way, other agencies and organizations have taken notice of his knowledge and talents — including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

    “I was appointed by the FBI to the Executive Board on DNA Analysis Methods,” said Della Manna. “We helped set the national standard for forensic science.”

    The FBI also encouraged CBS’s 60 Minutes to film a segment about the ADFS’ work, an experience that Della Manna cherishes.

    Given some of ADFS’ recent statistics and outcomes, it’s no surprise why the agency values Della Manna’s expertise. Last year, his lab helped solve 806 cold cases, leading the country in the number of cases solved per capita.

    Now, Della Manna is ready to support and train the next generation of forensic scientists. He strongly advocates for work-based learning experiences and internships, and he is quick to offer advice to students who work in his office.

    “Always look for opportunities to give back,” Della Manna often tells students and interns. “As you look for your own career path, be patient. Let the body of your work develop your reputation.”

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Kristin Powell

    Sometimes, people find themselves pursuing unexpected career pathways. According to Kristin Powell, Ph.D., organizational consultant for Blankenship & Seay Consulting Group, the knowledge and skills she attained while studying in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Psychology prepared her for any career — regardless of the field or subject matter. 

    Sometimes, people find themselves pursuing unexpected career pathways. According to Kristin Powell, Ph.D., organizational consultant for Blankenship & Seay Consulting Group, the knowledge and skills she attained while studying in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Psychology prepared her for any career — regardless of the field or subject matter. 

    “I got my foundation at UAB,” said Powell. “I have the basic skills that I needed to be successful in any role. That can give you a lot of confidence.”

    Powell began building her skills (and confidence) in her hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. After graduating from St. Jude Educational Institute, she decided to pursue a bachelor’s in psychology at Auburn University at Montgomery and earned her degree in 2000. Throughout her formative years, Powell nurtured a connection with the city of Birmingham and, subsequently, UAB.  

    “Growing up in Montgomery, coming to Birmingham was like coming to the big city,” said Powell. “When I became older, I learned more about the training that goes on at UAB and the medical community, which is a large part of the university... Also, my father received medical treatment at the Kirklin Clinic.”

    Kristin Powell, Ph.D.Powell witnessed the extraordinary care her father received at The Kirklin Clinic of UAB Hospital, which inspired her to consider pursuing her doctorate in psychology at UAB. Through the university’s Department of Psychology, she saw an opportunity to nurture a research foundation while also attaining a clinical education.

    “I was interested in learning about… the health psychology aspect of mental health,” said Powell.

    Although she applied for numerous graduate programs across the country, UAB was at the top of her list. Soon after applying to UAB, Powell was accepted into the Ph.D. program, and she received a Comprehensive Minority Faculty and Student Development Fellowship. According to Powell, the fellowship was a game-changer.

    “It afforded me the opportunity to study without having the financial worries of how I was going to fund my doctoral education,” said Powell.

    She thrived in the program and was mentored by Jesse B. Milby, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of the Department of Psychology. “I always felt very welcomed by him,” said Powell.

    After she earned her Ph.D. in Clinical/Medical Psychology from UAB in 2006, Powell moved to Boston and participated in a year-long post-doctoral fellowship with the National Center for PTSD. After completing her fellowship and working in Boston for three years, Powell started a position with the Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center where she worked in a training director and PTSD team lead role and later transferred to the Birmingham VA Medical Center. Powell spent the last four years of her 14-year VA career as a national program manager, responsible for leading a team that developed and implemented programs and initiatives supported by VA Central Office. 

    “I helped lead and coordinate a national evidence-based mental health training program for the entire VA,” said Powell. “It really extended my reach. People would come back to me and say, ‘What your training program taught me to do helped me to make a difference in someone else’s life.’”

    Powell made a profound impact during her time at the VA — that said, after a decade-and-a-half in her role, she decided to make a significant career pivot. She leaned on her transportable skills — specifically in assessment, communication, relationship-building, and problem-solving — and moved to a role in the private sector with Blankenship & Seay Consulting Group, a consultancy that delivers assessment-based psychological consulting services to companies. 

    Powell is enjoying her new career as an organizational consultant, through which she helps employees and leaders develop their essential skills. Moving forward, she aims to encourage future alumni of the College of Arts and Sciences to celebrate opportunities to pursue unexpected career pathways and leverage their talents across sectors. “Don’t let anything limit you,” said Powell. “Don’t let anything box you in.”

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  • Uncovering the power of human rights

    While growing up in Birmingham, Katie Fagan lived a few blocks away from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Although both of her parents graduated from UAB’s School of Medicine, attending the university was not part of Fagan’s long-term plan. At least not at first.

    While growing up in Birmingham, Katie Fagan lived a few blocks away from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Although both of her parents graduated from UAB’s School of Medicine, attending the university was not part of Fagan’s long-term plan. At least not at first.

    “I wanted a bit more distance,” said Fagan, AmeriCorps VISTA and volunteer engagement member for the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting clean water for the sake of public health, recreation, and wildlife habitat throughout the Black Warrior River watershed.

    Fagan’s academic journey helped her achieve that desired distance. After studying sociology at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, she made her way across the Atlantic Ocean to the University of Manchester where she earned her Master of Science in Environmental Governance. That’s also where she met Elliot Nicholson-Cox.

    Fagan and Nicholson-Cox connected quickly and uncovered a shared interest in human rights and peace studies. Nicholson-Cox, an alumnus of the University of Bradford’s Peace and Development Studies program, was teaching full-time and planning his next academic step. While crafting his vision for the future and exploring his evolving interest in anthropology, he decided to visit Fagan while she was back in Birmingham spending time with her family.

    During his trip to Birmingham, Nicholson-Cox was determined to meet Douglas P. Fry, Ph.D., a prominent anthropologist and former chair of the UAB Department of Anthropology.

    “Dr. Fry was instrumental in establishing the Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights program [at UAB],” said Nicholson-Cox. “We chatted and stayed in touch, and he invited me to apply for the program.”

    Nicholson-Cox followed Fry’s recommendation and was accepted into the graduate program. Fagan also started exploring the possibility of returning home, given her burgeoning relationship with Nicholson-Cox and deepening interest in peace studies.

    “All of my research led me to focus on issues of justice and environmental justice,” said Fagan. “I had been around Elliot and his friends who had all done peace studies in undergrad and had been immersed in it. I thought it [UAB’s Anthropology of Peace and Human Rights graduate program] was another master’s that would really help push my research.”

    Within a year, both Nicholson-Cox and Fagan had moved from England to Alabama and enrolled in the APHR program. Although they shared several foundational classes, they uncovered their own specific interests within the program.

    Fagan embraced her return to Alabama and sought opportunities to ground her research and work in her home state through interdisciplinary courses in public policy and public health and internship opportunities with the Jefferson County Memorial Project and the Institute for Human Rights. As Fagan developed her Birmingham network and continued to refine her focus on public participation in environmental justice cases (with a focus on clean water issues in North Birmingham), Nicholson-Cox found ways to pursue his specific interest in the ways education systems work in relation to peace and conflict in local communities.

    “Katie was able to spend lots of time doing research that was specific to Birmingham,” said Nicholson-Cox. “While I was doing more classically academic work.”

    Both Nicholson-Cox and Fagan graduated from the APHR program in 2020, and, now, their specific interests are informing their respective post-graduation paths. At the moment, Nicholson-Cox is exploring Ph.D. programs that will allow him to further build on his master’s thesis, which focuses on the way education was used as a tool of colonial Spain in Mexico from the 16th century up to today. He will also teach the Intro to Peace Studies course at UAB in Fall 2021.

    Fagan, on the other hand, is working with the Black Warrior Riverkeeper and serving on junior boards for both the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and the Alabama Rivers Alliance. Throughout her daily work and volunteer activities, Fagan draws on her knowledge and skills from the APHR program, including conflict resolution and conflict transformation.

    “I’m still using all of my research. [The APHR program] is very multidisciplinary,” said Fagan. “I’m currently on junior boards for the Botanical Gardens and the Alabama Rivers Alliance and discussions about equity and justice are definitely a part of that work. I’ve been able to bring a lot of theories from the program out to these groups, which has really helped me.”

    According to Peter Verbeek, Ph.D., associate professor and program director in the Department of Anthropology, both students made a lasting impact on the APHR program. “Access to a healthy and sustainable environment and to age-appropriate education are not privileges but rights that are integral to the basic human rights framework that much of the world has pledged to uphold,” said Verbeek. “Katie Fagan and Elliott Nicholson-Cox, two distinguished alumni of the APHR program, have dedicated much of their work in APHR on studying these basic rights and how working to advance them equals working for positive peace. Their contributions to APHR have been multifold and much appreciated, and all of us in the UAB Department of Anthropology have great expectations for their future careers as scholars and activists of peace.”

    It’s clear that both Fagan and Nicholson-Cox will carry their knowledge and networks with them throughout their careers and future academic pursuits. It’s also clear that the APHR program profoundly influenced the ways in which both alumni see the world.

    When prompted to reflect on and consider the importance of the APHR program and human rights education more broadly, Nicholson-Cox offered a powerful insight: “Rather than talking about abstract political ideas… using human rights as a frame grounds everything in human needs that just makes sense to people. We all have a right to a safe and clean house, good food, drinking water, to have our voice heard when we choose to speak. These are all very common-sense ideas that people have for what would make a just and peaceful society.”

    Fagan agrees. “It’s collaborative. Peace is a lot more holistic and something to reach for than I think people realize. It impacts everything. There’s nothing outside of the discussion of peace and human rights,” said Fagan.

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Eric Teoh

    For students who study math in college, the notion of saving lives with their knowledge may seem distant — maybe even far-fetched. For Eric Teoh, director of statistical services at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the connection between math and lifesaving work is crystal clear.

    For students who study math in college, the notion of saving lives with their knowledge may seem distant — maybe even far-fetched. For Eric Teoh, director of statistical services at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the connection between math and lifesaving work is crystal clear.

    That was not always the case, though. In high school, Teoh had a complicated relationship with mathematics.

    Eric Teoh “I wasn’t very good at math until I got to college,” said Teoh. “I let it intimidate me.”

    Teoh admits that he did not have a positive attitude about the discipline prior to college. However, when the time came to declare a major at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he unexpectedly selected the subject that posed numerous challenges for him in high school.

    “At the time, I thought to myself, ‘I can do anything — I’ll major in math,’” said Teoh.

    This new outlook on life (and education) prompted a different mindset for Teoh. Instead of allowing math to get the best of him, he found himself working harder and challenging himself to master the discipline. And that’s exactly what happened.

    “The faculty in the Department of Mathematics took a chance on me,” said Teoh. “Between them taking a chance on me and a shift in my attitude, I made it work.”

    Right after being accepted to UAB, Teoh was also accepted into the Mathematics Fast Track Program. Through the program, Teoh earned both a B.S. and M.S. in Mathematics in only four years. Along the way, he also took a few extra courses in a variety of subjects, including more than were required for him to earn a minor in chemistry. All in a day’s work for Teoh.

    “I think UAB was an excellent place to learn,” said Teoh. “We learned a lot of important skills for work and life in general. We learned to think independently.”

    After graduating from UAB, Teoh enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to pursue a Ph.D. in Biostatistics. Although the program was engaging, Teoh started reevaluating his future with a new focus on starting a career that would allow him to save lives. His reflective mindset motivated him to leave Chapel Hill and accept a role as a data analyst with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). According to Teoh, IIHS — an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization dedicated to reducing deaths, injuries, and property damage from motor vehicle crashes — aligned with his vision, values, and talents.

    Now, 15 years after taking the job with IIHS, Teoh has a clear perspective on the transportable skills he developed while at UAB and the ways in which his work improves the world.

    “I’ve learned the value of simplicity,” said Teoh. “We try to use the simplest scientifically sound analysis methods so everyone can understand our work and use it to make better decisions.”

    When Teoh reflects on his professional accomplishments, he immediately circles back to the values that drove him to leave Chapel Hill and start his job with IIHS: saving lives and reducing harm.

    “There are no panaceas or silver bullets in this field, so every effective countermeasure is important,” said Teoh. “Some of the biggest ones from my research studies include antilock braking systems on motorcycles, front crash prevention technology on large trucks, graduated driver licensing laws for teenage drivers, and vehicle roof strength in rollover crashes.”

    Teoh’s journey is full of valuable lessons — that said, there is one theme in particular that he emphasizes when speaking with students who are crafting their visions for the future.

    “Do not be afraid of changing your mind on future plans,” said Teoh. “[If you do change your mind] do so in a way that builds off of what you’ve already accomplished. I changed my mind substantially at least a couple times and, looking back, I’m glad I did each time.”

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Leigh Willis

    In 1997, Leigh Willis, Ph.D., a rising senior studying sociology at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, encountered a life-changing document. It was an interest form about a graduate program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    Leigh Willis, Ph.D.In 1997, Leigh Willis, Ph.D., a rising senior studying sociology at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, encountered a life-changing document. It was an interest form about a graduate program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    "UAB’s Department of Sociology sent the information to my department [at Albion],” said Willis. “I completed the form, and, later that summer, UAB invited me to participate in a 10-week paid internship in Birmingham.”

    Through that program, Willis got the chance to connect with and work alongside faculty and graduate students in the UAB Department of Sociology. He also got the opportunity to participate in an engaged learning experience with the Jefferson County Department of Health.

    “The faculty were nurturing and supportive,” said Willis. “I was interested in patterns of health and illness, and [during the internship] I got the chance to interview people at the Jefferson County Department of Health and collect data.”

    During this experience, his mentors and peers in the department also encouraged him to pursue his Ph.D. at UAB. Willis quickly uncovered his appreciation for the faculty-to-student ratio in the department – he also learned that UAB had one of the few medical sociology graduate programs in the country.

    “I received a fellowship with a stipend from the graduate school and stayed in Birmingham,” said Willis. “I started the graduate program and learned the craft and skills of research. I loved the size of the program, because I had a lot of interaction with the faculty.”

    Willis went on to earn his Master of Arts in Sociology, Master of Public Health, and Doctor of Philosophy in Medical Sociology. During his impressive academic career at UAB, Willis developed many valuable skills, including creative problem solving.

    “We were very well-trained,” said Willis. “We could think big and answer hard and difficult questions for the benefit of mankind.”

    After earning his Ph.D., Willis became an assistant professor of sociology and African American Studies at the University of Georgia. Then, in 2009, he was hired to serve as a Behavioral Scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When he arrived at the CDC, he discovered he had something in common with several of his coworkers.

    “There are several UAB alumni at the CDC,” said Willis. “Many of them studied in the College of Arts and Sciences – specifically, the Department of Sociology.”

    Today, Willis is a behavioral scientist at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. He continues to appreciate the value of engaged learning, so he makes an effort to connect current UAB College of Arts and Sciences students with the CDC through internships and research experiences. He also frequently finds opportunities to visit UAB, so he can connect with students and share stories about the impact of his work. He has one career milestone in particular that he enjoys discussing with students.

    “I was one of the leaders of a team that were finalists for a Health and Human Services Innovates Award,” said Willis. “Projects are submitted from all over HHS and voted on by the general public. Through our project, we created a motion comic to educate people about HIV, because parents said it was needed. We went to HHS headquarters and received recognition for our work from the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”

    A short clip from the motion comic is available online, and, in 2018, the journal Health Communication published two articles on the innovative project.

    Willis continues to make a difference through his work, and he encourages current students and recent alumni to do the same. “Continue to work hard. Continue to gather news skills and sharpen existing skills. Don’t be afraid to try and change the world,” said Willis.

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  • UAB grad and filmmaker reaching bigger audiences

    Anissa Latham nurtured her storytelling and filmmaking skills during her time at University of Alabama at Birmingham — now, with new partners and supporters investing in her work, she’s bringing her creative vision to the world.

    Anissa Latham nurtured her storytelling and filmmaking skills during her time at University of Alabama at Birmingham — now, with new partners and supporters investing in her work, she’s bringing her creative vision to the world.

    Latham earned a B.A. in African American Studies and a B.A. in Cultural Digital Storytelling (an individually designed major) from UAB's College of Arts and Sciences in 2017. She was also a member of the UAB Honors College. As an undergraduate student, Latham found many opportunities to write and share stories across campus and the community. She served as a staff writer for Kaleidoscope — UAB's student-run digital news outlet — and, during her time as an intern and fellow with UAB Digital Media, she wrote content and managed social media for the African American Studies program, giving her a chance to further connect with the program and its director, Kay Morgan, Ph.D.

    Recently, Latham reconnected with Dr. Morgan for a conversation on Juneteenth with UAB School of Medicine Dean Selwyn Vickers, M.D., for his podcast, “The Checkup.” The episode will air on June 18, 2021 and will be available here.

    June will be an exciting month for Latham. She will also premiere her new film “Missing Magic” at the American Film Institute (AFI) DOCS Film Festival, which will take place the week of June 22-27. She directed and co-produced — along with UAB alumna Kelsey Harrison — the film which will be included in the festival’s Spotlight on the Hindsight Project series. "Missing Magic" will be screening free throughout the duration of the AFI DOCS Film Festival, and ticket reservations are available here.

    When asked to summarize the film, Latham offered the following description: “As uprisings spread across the country, a young poet in Birmingham, Alabama, becomes involved in local protests against decades of police brutality. As he tries to reconcile the city’s modern image as a diverse and welcoming metropolis with its violent and complex civil rights history, he suddenly becomes a part of the story when he’s arrested at a demonstration.”

    "Missing Magic'' was one of 77 films selected by the AFI for the 2021 AFI DOCS Film Festival. Latham received support for the film from the Hindsight Project, an initiative that supports Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) filmmakers living in the American South and U.S. Territories. Through the Hindsight Project, six filmmakers — including Latham — received production support from Firelight Media, the Center for Asian American Media, and Reel South.

    Reel South — a documentary series reckoning with the South’s past, present, and future — will also premiere all six Hindsight Project films on its respective public media platforms. “Missing Magic” will be featured on Alabama Public Television (APT).

    Along with support from the Hindsight Project and APT, Latham also received mentorship from celebrated filmmaker and producer Daphne McWilliams.

    Latham lends her talents to other outlets and platforms too. She edits and produces content for Meredith Corporation, creating video content for AllRecipes, Cooking Light, and Southern Living. And she’s a video producer for Red Clay Media, generating content for the "It's a Southern Thing" brand. One of her recent works for “It’s a Southern Thing” connects back to her recent conversation with Dr. Morgan — it’s entitled, Juneteenth: America has Two Independence Day.

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Jolie Thevenot

    International studies alumna Jolie Thevenot is the executive director of the Japan-America Society of Alabama.

    Like many of her fellow students, Jolie Thevenot fulfilled a curriculum requirement to study a language during her freshman year at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. For Thevenot, the experience transcended a curriculum requirement and changed both her life and career trajectory.

    "I'd been interested in Japanese pop culture like anime and manga in high school, so when I was prompted to study a language at UAB, I thought I would just take Japanese 101-102 to enhance my media consumption," she divulged.

    But, as she began studying the language, Thevenot developed meaningful relationships with her professors in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

    "[The professors] showcased the Japanese culture more so than just the language. It made me really excited to study and use it more as a tool and an avenue to communicate than just a class."

    As a student, Thevenot had many interests and often changed her major. She eventually landed in the International Studies program due to its interdisciplinary nature. That degree program, paired with a minor in Japanese, allowed her to explore courses in sociology, history, foreign cultures, political science, and economics.

    She further cemented her interest in Japanese culture through two study abroad opportunities.

    First, Thevenot was selected for a two-week Birmingham's Sister Cities exchange program in Hitachi, Japan the summer after her freshman year. "That wasn't long enough for me, so I wanted to go back and study [in Japan]." Through UAB Study Abroad, Thevenot participated as an exchange student at Nihon University in Tokyo for her junior year.

    When she returned to UAB for her senior year, Thevenot was selected for an internship with the Japan-America Society of Alabama. During her internship, the executive director left the organization, which allowed Thevenot to lean into a role outside of typical intern duties. She worked closely with board members, helped organize events, and learned how to run the organization. Those experiences gave her the confidence to apply for the executive director role when she graduated in 2017—a position she continues to hold today.

    Founded in 1989, the Japan-America Society of Alabama (JASA) is a private nonprofit organization committed to fostering friendship and understanding between Japan and the U.S. As the Executive Director of JASA, Thevenot is focused on community engagement and outreach, a value she says she learned at UAB by taking advantage of the cultural engagement opportunities and events offered across the university.

    After her first year as Executive Director at JASA, Thevenot was named a Next Generation Fellow by the American Friends of the International House of Japan. The Next Generation Fellows Program supports promising young American leaders in the U.S.-Japan relationship.

    Thevenot says UAB gave her the skillset to think critically about the world around her and consider everything from different angles and perspectives. Her interdisciplinary degree, in particular, inspired her to be open to many opportunities. "The international studies field is so broad that it allowed for different connections with different fields of study... [UAB] gave me the confidence in taking something I don't understand and knowing who to reach out to and what questions to ask," she explained.

    Her advice for current students? Use your time at UAB to get comfortable asking questions and take advantage of UAB's events and opportunities. "You never know when one Wednesday night event will completely change your perspective or get you really excited about something you never knew was possible. There are opportunities like that everywhere," said Thevenot.

    Learn about the international studies major at UAB and the minor in Japanese.

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  • I Am Arts and Sciences: Ellyn Grady

    As Ellyn Grady embraces retirement and looks back on her storied career, she does not call attention to her impressive and incomparable fundraising achievements. Instead, she reflects on and celebrates the people with whom she connected, learned from, and worked alongside over the course of her 30 years in Birmingham.

    As Ellyn Grady embraces retirement and looks back on her storied career, she does not call attention to her impressive and incomparable fundraising achievements. Instead, she reflects on and celebrates the people with whom she connected, learned from, and worked alongside over the course of her 30 years in Birmingham.

    Her Birmingham journey began at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Master of Public Administration program in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Political Science and Public Administration.

    For Grady, the decision to pursue her master's degree emerged after an early career in community education in Fairfax County, Virginia. She learned a lot from her time as an educator, and, during that period, she uncovered a clear passion for the administrative side of the work.

    So, when her husband told her about an opportunity to move to Birmingham, she offered an appropriate caveat. “I said, ‘Look, if I’m going to go to Birmingham, Alabama, I want to get my master's degree,'” said Grady.

    And that’s exactly what she did. After an inspiring conversation with Dr. Mary Ellen Guy (former chair of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration), Grady decided to earn her MPA. And, as she has done with everything in her life, Grady dove into the experience head first and quickly developed lifelong friendships with her professors and fellow students.

    “Who you meet at UAB inspires you to learn more," said Grady. "I tell my students, ‘It’s the people in these seats who will be your network throughout the rest of your life and career.'"

    Grady earned her MPA in 1992, and, soon after graduation, she was hired to serve as executive director for Girls Inc. of Central Alabama. Girls Inc. is a nonprofit organization that offers programming that equips girls to navigate gender, economic, and social barriers, and grow up healthy, educated, and independent. When Grady started leading the organization, she briefly wondered if she was ready for the responsibility.

    "I realized I was responsible for 2,000 girls and the staff responsible for serving them," said Grady. "I asked myself, ‘Can I do this?’"

    Thankfully, Grady's uncertainty waned quickly, and she began to leverage the critical thinking and problem-solving skills she built during her time in the MPA program. "UAB gave me the starter set. It gave me the confidence to walk through the door and make one decision after another," said Grady.

    She successfully led Girls, Inc. for seven years, then pivoted to a career with the United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA). While serving as Senior Vice President of Agency Impact at the UWCA, Grady brought a transformational mindset to her role in development. She found success by focusing less on the dollars and more on the people.

    "It wasn’t really about raising money," said Grady. "It was about raising awareness and matching donors with community needs, so they could make a difference. I had a front-row seat to the generosity of this community."

    Grady eventually became Senior Vice President of United Way of Central Alabama’s Resource Development Department and retired in 2019. Today, as a practitioner teaching for the MPA program, she continues to impart her knowledge and wisdom on UAB students.

    When mentoring students who are making plans for the future, she offers thoughtful advice that is rooted in service and her love for the City of Birmingham. Regardless of her students' career plans, she encourages all of them to serve on nonprofit boards and advisory boards.

    "The service side of the College of Arts and Sciences is the heart of the university," said Grady.

    Read More: Ellyn Grady awarded the 2020 Alumni Service Award

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  • I Am Arts and Sciences: Vincent Cirel

    Vincent Cirel developed a passion for mathematics in high school and found personal inspiration even earlier in life working with his grandfather as a land surveyor. When it was time to pursue his undergraduate degree, he looked to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    While growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Vincent Cirel developed a passion for mathematics in high school and found personal inspiration even earlier in life working with his grandfather as a land surveyor. When it was time to pursue his undergraduate degree, he looked to the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    "I always thought I'd do my undergraduate work at UAB," said Cirel. "It was a part of my hometown."

    During his tenure at UAB, Cirel pursued a major in mathematics and a minor in physics. His talents and interests aligned with the emergence of the Word Wide Web, and, as a result, he applied his valuable knowledge in real-time at UAB's Health Sciences Learning Technologies Lab.

    He became the co-founder and co-chair of the UAB Web Advisory Group, and he navigated the evolution of the web at UAB for seven years. This experience reflects a primary theme in Cirel's life and career—leveraging emerging technologies during pivotal moments within institutions and businesses.

    "I was passionate about science and technology, and I blended it with the business world," said Cirel.

    Cirel continued to build his knowledge and expertise, earning a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from UAB and a Master of Business Administration from Vanderbilt University. By combining his cross-curricular academic interests in mathematics, applied sciences, and business, Cirel successfully co-led Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings through a defining moment in 2013.

    "Norwegian went public in 2013," said Cirel. "It transformed the cruise line industry."

    As Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, Cirel spearheaded the expansion of mobile/social to include full customer lifecycle integration and got to stand at the podium when the company was added to the NASDAQ. It was a defining point in his career.

    Throughout his numerous professional milestones, Cirel admits that he never steered far from his early foundations in mathematics and physics. "That foundation is something I rely on and apply everyday," said Cirel.

    Today, Cirel is the executive vice president of Worldstrides, Inc. (in addition to many independent consulting engagements) and, through these roles, he finds ways to leverage emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing. As he continues to blaze ahead, he sees his alma mater as a source of continued pride and inspiration. 

    "It's interesting to watch how UAB has grown in size and impact. It's what you always hope will happen," said Cirel.

    As Cirel's career moves forward, he continues to watch the transformation of the business world, noting that fewer people are focused solely on financial wealth. He sees workplaces emphasizing and elevating personal growth and diversity, equity, and inclusion, which he believes is important and necessary.

    He encourages future UAB graduates to think about both their personal and professional goals as they look ahead. "The most important early-career question to ask is, 'Where does my passion lie?' And do your very best to align your efforts to that answer," said Cirel.

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  • Biology alumna helps rescue and release thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles

    Despite all her experience, nothing could have prepared Dr. Amy Bonka for what she has experienced over the past week: the largest sea turtle cold-stunning event ever recorded in Texas.

    A convention center full of cold-stunned sea turtles on South Padre Island Texas. These turtles will be protected, gradually warmed and rehabilitated by Sea Turtle Inc. and eventually released back into the Gulf of Mexico. (Photo Courtesy of Amy Bonka)While earning her doctoral degree in the Department of Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Dr. Amy Bonka worked on remote sea turtle nesting beaches ranging from Mexico to Indonesia. Despite all her experience, nothing could have prepared her for what she has experienced over the past week: the largest sea turtle cold-stunning event ever recorded in Texas.

    Dr. Bonka received her Ph.D. from UAB in the summer of 2020 studying two of the most endangered sea turtles in the world. In December 2020, she accepted a position as the Chief Conservation Officer for Sea Turtle Inc., a conservation and education organization that monitors sea turtle nesting, stranding and rehabilitation on South Padre Island, Texas. Dr. Bonka was well aware of the previous cold-stunning events that occurred in south Texas and the possibility that Sea Turtle Inc. may have to handle several hundred sea turtles during those events. However, no one anticipated the magnitude of the cold-stunning event that occurred along the Texas coast last week: the largest ever on record.

    (Photo Courtesy of Amy Bonka)Due to the cold-stunning event, thousands of turtles have been washing up on the shores of Texas and many others have been found floating helplessly at the water’s surface. The majority of these incidents have occurred in south Texas, in particular South Padre Island. According to Sea Turtle Inc., “cold stunning” occurs when sudden drops in air and water temperature cause sea turtles to go into a hypothermic shock. Without assistance from conservationists, many of these turtles would perish. Over the past week, Sea Turtle Inc. has collected between 4,000-5,000 cold-stunned sea turtles, and they have resorted to using the South Padre Island Convention Center to house thousands of turtles. These turtles will be protected – gradually warmed and rehabilitated – and eventually released back into the Gulf of Mexico.

    “Fortunately for these thousands of sea turtles, Dr. Bonka and the full crew of dedicated conservationists from Sea Turtle Inc. are currently working around the clock to ensure these turtles will survive and will be able to resume their long lives in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Dr. Thane Wibbels, professor in the UAB Department of Biology.



    Dr. Amy Bonka, a recent graduate of UAB Department of Biology who has recently become the Chief Conservation Officer for Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island Texas. She and the dedicated crew of conservationists are working around the clock to save the thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles. (Photo Courtesy of Amy Bonka)

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  • Finding Her Voice: The Megan Louise Montgomery Endowed Memorial Scholarship

    UAB was where communication studies alumna Megan Montgomery found her passion—and herself.

    UAB was where communication studies alumna Megan Montgomery found her passion—and herself. Read the story behind this new scholarship for students in the Department of Communications Studies.

     

    Please join the UAB Department of Communication Studies in honoring Megan Montgomery. Gifts go toward deserving students in the Department of Communication Studies who are involved in the community. Give now at go.uab.edu/MeganMontgomery.

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  • A limitless world

    Makayla Smith wants to use poetry to create spaces of joy and representation for Black, queer audiences.

    Photo of Makayla by Tedric Davenport
    Illustration by Caitlin Du

    Makayla Smith wants to use poetry to create spaces of joy and representation for Black, queer audiences.

    Growing up in the rural South, Smith struggled to find her identity as a writer and as a person. But studying literature, creative writing, and African American Studies at UAB has clarified for Smith what role she wants to play in the world as an academic and creator. Now, as an adult and recent graduate, Smith has a clearer understanding of herself.

    “I feel like there aren’t enough works on the market really exploring that for my age group,” Smith said. “My sexual orientation is such a big part of my writing.”

    Smith also hopes to explore these realities without commodifying Black pain. She worries about the misconception that creating work is only profitable and valuable if the process is painful for the audience and creator.

    “[Writing] does not have to be traumatizing in order for it to sell and it will literally have the same impact,” Smith said. “I want people to feel joy. I want people to feel happy to be themselves and safe.”

    During her final semester at UAB, Smith compiled a poetry manuscript called I don’t believe in mermaids. In the manuscript, she uses her childhood and personal memories as a way to broach the topics of how community, family, and one’s surroundings can affect an individual’s relationship with their sexuality and perception of self. Smith writes about the experience of growing up with her grandparents, particularly her relationship with her grandmother and how that impacted her identity.

    “In poetry, you’re limited in some senses of style and formatting,” Smith said. “It was very meticulous [work] trying to convey a clear picture while also trying to not give it away at the same time, to be metaphorical.”

    Before attending UAB, Smith attended Booker T. Washington Magnet High School in Montgomery. Smith had the opportunity to write with the Alabama Writers Forum and as a journalist for the Kentuck Festival of the Arts. Writing with and for her community confirmed for Smith that writing was what she wanted to do professionally.

    “Essentially, what I’m trying to teach people is that you don’t have to be in one specific place, like New York or San Francisco, to really learn about yourself or to be proud of your identity,” Smith said. “I want Black, queer people in general to feel proud of themselves.”

    In High School

    In high school, Smith had felt adamant that attending school or living in a major city was necessary to achieve a career in writing. She ultimately chose to attend UAB instead of going out of state since it was the best option financially. Looking back, Smith is grateful for how her time at UAB allowed her to grow as a writer and person.

    “It ended up being a very introspective, very needed last four years,” Smith said. “I didn’t need to go out of state to find all these great things out about myself.”

    Smith is especially appreciative of the relationships she was able to foster with her professors during her time at UAB. She describes the Department of English and the African American Studies Program as a family. Smith hopes to carry that dynamic with her as she continues in academia.

    “It felt safe and like I could show up 100 percent as myself. There was no white gaze to interfere with,” she said. “It feels good knowing that people are going to be there for you and stand up for you.”

    Smith is also thankful for the confidence that her African American Studies minor and literature studies has given her. Before UAB, Smith was unfamiliar with the idea of intersectionality. Exploring that, along with critical race theory, allowed Smith to understand herself better.

    “I was able to really analyze the systemic and historical context of my existence, of Black people’s existence. It makes sense why I am the way I am and now I can work on myself,” Smith said. “That’s the best thing both departments could have ever given me.”

    New Opportunities in New York

    Since graduating from UAB, Smith has flourished professionally and academically. Currently, Smith is attending the New School of New York for her M.A. She is also on staff at the school as a tutor and as an intern for “One Story,” a literary magazine based in Brooklyn. Over the summer, Smith also announced on social media that she won a Gilman Scholarship. The scholarship will cover her travel and living costs while she studies television and film production in London for three weeks.

    “I was with my brother at the time [of receiving the scholarship], screaming at the top of my lungs. I’ve never been overseas a day in my life, owned a passport, or anything like that so I’m just really grateful,” she said.

    However, Smith acknowledges that rejection is a large but often hidden part of the application process. In the same social media caption announcing her Gilman Scholarship, Smith admitted that receiving this award came after multiple rejected scholarship and job applications.

    “There are so many different ways to get to where you want to be,” she said. “That is my healthy way of dealing with being turned down from so many opportunities and scholarships.”

    Currently, Smith is studying children’s literature at the New School and has workshopped several short stories. She hopes to publish more illustrated editions of her work in the future. She hopes that her experiences inspire others to persevere, even through rejection.

    “One person’s no will be another person’s yes. The world is limitless.”


    If I Could Buy Love in the Marketplace

    Grandma used to make tea cookies that left sweet fantasies in the air
    But the texture was brittle and bleak and rock-like as if it had been -
    apart of a canyon
    She used to say, "Do right by me and right shall follow"
    To which I respnded with irate sadness and irate confusion
    How dare she place God where they need not be?
    Between hard boiled cookies and my sweet, little fantasies
    But God was her love for all seasons and her love for all reasons
    And I, too, was fascinated with that idea of unconditional love
    From an unconditional savior like Jesus Christ
    But instead, I was warped with thoughts of buying vases of love
    In its glass cylinder as it refracted the Moon
    Christ had nothing to do with this equation
    And Grandma's tea cookes had left me toothless and heartbroken
    I, too, was to do right by myself
    Amen

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  • Five Questions with Alumni: Shelby Morris

    Shelby Morris earned her B.A. in Professional Writing with a minor in Spanish in 2016 followed by a M.A. in Rhetoric and Composition in 2018.

    Shelby Morris earned her B.A. in Professional Writing with a minor in Spanish in 2016 followed by a M.A. in Rhetoric and Composition in 2018. She is currently attending law school at Samford University, Cumberland School of Law.

    Why did you choose professional writing?

    Originally, I thought I would be going to Dental School and I had always enjoyed English in high school so I decided to major in English. It wasn’t until I took a Document Design class by Dr. Bacha that I realized I really enjoyed professional writing and decided to pursue that instead.

    I definitely get skeptical looks from people who believe you can’t get a job with an English degree, but I constantly look at the market and see how untrue that really is.

    What made you want to attend law school?

    My mother is a lawyer so it was always in the back of my mind as a career path, but it wasn’t until graduate school that I realized this was something I wanted to pursue. I didn’t really feel the part of a teacher and when volunteering at the literacy council, I realized I wanted to help others and advocate for those who couldn’t.

    What do you like best about law school so far?

    I really enjoy all my classes and how logic based everything is. Some very challenging things have been learning how to write in a legal sense. I’ve recently been able to take an intellectual property class and I really feel like this mixes the both of best worlds: creative arts and law. I feel like I’ve been able to apply principles I’ve learned in my professional writing classes to legal concepts I’m learning now.

    What advice would you give to current UAB students?

    Internships. Experience. These are some of the most important things to do before leaving college. Now is the time to find out what you really want to do and internships will really help with that. Experience in the field is necessary, especially when it comes to landing that marketing role. The English faculty is awesome and are there to help you in whatever capacity you need so don’t be afraid to reach out to them!

    What question do you want us to ask our next alumni we interview?

    Have you been able to use your degree or experiences from UAB in an unexpected way?

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