Step by step, this student is mapping a sustainable future

Step by step, this student is mapping a sustainable future

April 09, 2018
By Matt Windsor
Senior Nina Morgan's UAB Sustainability Asset Map offers an interactive look at dozens of green initiatives across campus and in the surrounding community.

Nina Morgan has seen every tree at UAB. All 4,000 of them. 

Tablet in hand, the UAB senior has walked to every corner of the 100-block campus, cataloguing the identity and exact geospatial coordinates of over 60 different types of trees, including dogwoods, cherries, oaks and magnolias. She has also mapped the award-winning chilled water plant system installed by UAB Facilities, which recovers millions of gallons of water every year. She has talked with students, staff and faculty whose own sustainability efforts are reducing energy use, minimizing food waste and saving money across Birmingham’s Southside. On April 12, Morgan will offer an overview of her efforts at the 2018 UAB Spring Expo; this summer, she will share her project with the entire UAB community.See research from 600+ undergraduates at UAB Spring Expo

The UAB Sustainability Asset Map is the product of Morgan’s high-tech digital sleuthing and laborious “ground truthing.” As Morgan explains in her UAB Expo abstract: "The UAB Sustainability Asset Map is designed to display the numerous avenues that UAB staff, students, and faculty are taking to address and promote sustainability on campus. It provides annually recorded baseline data that can assist university stakeholders with identifying strengths and weaknesses related to sustainable development on campus and in the surrounding Birmingham community. Additionally, it is used as an interactive online tool that the UAB community can use to locate resources that will ensure sustainable practices."

Thirty layers of data display locations of bike racks, walking trails, urban gardens, water bottle refilling stations, fresh fruit and vegetable sales, recycling drop-offs and much more.

mix trees screenshotScreenshot of the UAB Sustainability Asset Map in development. The selected layer shows the location and species of trees across campus.

Big trees and bigger data

“There’s so much work being done here at UAB that it can be easy to miss,” Morgan says. “It’s great to be able to highlight the different ways that staff and students and faculty are addressing and promoting sustainability on campus.” For more than two years, Morgan has been an intern in the UAB Sustainability office, assisting manager Julie Price on a wide range of projects. Morgan, who is majoring in anthropology and sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, says her coursework and her passions have combined in the Asset Map project. “In my research methods class, we have talked about how Big Data and data sharing are the future of analysis. There is a lot of sustainability-related data out there from different university departments; this map is a tool for highlighting and tracking that data.”

Mapping UAB’s trees was Morgan’s favorite project. She taught herself to use geographic information systems (GIS) methods and ArcGIS software, and learned botanical details to accurately classify different types of tree species. “I’ve always appreciated that we have this robust tree canopy, despite UAB’s urban location,” Morgan says. “It was exciting to learn how you assess the condition of trees and all the work that goes into keeping our campus trees healthy.”

mix racks screenshot

Finding her passion

Morgan grew up in Sipsey, Alabama, a rural area of Walker County. “I’ve always enjoyed being outdoors — hiking in the woods and gardening with my grandmother,” she says. Morgan arrived at UAB on a track to medical school, but over the years her interests shifted. “I took an introductory environmental sociology course with Dr. Chris Biga — that was a strong influence,” she says. “I’ve always been concerned about social justice, environmental stewardship, and the socio-economic benefits of sustainability. And I got more involved on campus, I found that I really liked doing hands-on work involving community engagement and outreach.”

Working with UAB Sustainability, which is a division of UAB Facilities, has given her insight into the effort that goes into “making a university run well,” Morgan says. “I wish more students knew about UAB Facilities employees and the work that they do. Making sure everything is manicured and clean, that the buildings run properly and efficiently — it’s a big job. I hope that this map helps connects students to that world.”


Research 2.0

Morgan’s project, “UAB Sustainability Asset Map," is one of several hundred UAB undergraduate student projects that will be presented at the 2018 UAB Spring Expo.

The event, which celebrates its 11th anniversary this year, showcases research, scholarship and other academic endeavors by UAB undergraduates on April 12 and 13.