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‘I’m grateful to the Atwood Foundation and for scholarships that helped me accomplish so much’

FlowerEnvironmental science student Brie Xavier is turning her study of the life cycle of plants into a passion for teaching people about climate change. A native of Fall River, Mass., Brie attends Alaska Pacific University with help from scholarships and the Anchorage-based Atwood Foundation, an education philanthropy.

Brie credits APU for introducing her to a new way of looking at the world – from enrolling in an APU course in mushing sled dogs to a service-learning course that took her to Malawi, Africa.

Brie is among ES students who’ve launched careers while graduation was still months away. With help from ES faculty, she landed an internship at the Alaska Botanical Garden, 110-acre public garden that sponsors education and research programs.

She says her internship was among the best summers of her life. Her supervisors were impressed too: Brie will be keeping her job after APU graduation while she pursues plans to help Anchorage schoolchildren learn more about plants.

She plans eventually to study plant science or botany in graduate school.

Your ES Department senior project connects your interest in climate change and plant science with a nationwide effort. That sounds important.
I have several goals for my senior project, which focuses on bringing efforts undertaken by the National Phenology Network to Alaska.

Phenology refers to recurring plant and animal life cycles. If more people were more observant about changes in these cycles, and could learn to contribute good data, science could gain greater understanding of climate change and its effects. NPN and its work are important in Alaska, where climate change is detectable now.

NPN is based in Tucson, Ariz., and it’s a good fit for environmental scientists like me. NPN is affiliated with several government agencies including NASA, the National Park Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So your project will help mobilize people like backyard gardeners?
Among others, yes.

Gardeners often collect a lot of phenological data. They’re aware of changes in phenophases, such as when leaves emerge, unfold, and fall. Gardeners tend to track when flowers open or fruit ripens.

I’m working with Professor Rusty Myers and Professor Carl Tobin to look into ways to put all that local data together in one place and analyze it to see what’s there.

I’m passionate about phenology because it’s something people who are concerned about climate change can be a part of and do pretty simply.

You traveled a long way from home to study with APU’s Environmental Science Department.
Before moving to Anchorage from Massachusetts, I’d never been away from home for more than a week. When I got off the plane Aug. 8, 2008, I really wasn’t sure what I was in for.

My dad was here to get me settled in, but when he left it was the strangest feeling in the world: My entire support system was 4,000 miles away! Homesickness was a challenge at first. I’m very grateful to my amazing parents who always encouraged me to follow my dreams.

In a way, I’ve started a new life here at APU and in Alaska. I’m still very close with my family – I talk with my mom, dad and aunt almost weekly – so the distance doesn’t seem so far, especially when I know more about what’s going on back home than my sister does, and she lives there!

You’ve said that Alaska and APU are among the best places in the country to study the environment. Why is that?
APU is a great place to grow and learn. In the ES Department we have a glaciologist, a botanist, a geologist and an ecologist in addition to others. The department includes a program in marine biology. APU has small class sizes while offering many ways to pursue environmental science.

Alaska is one of the last places on earth where it’s possible to study intact ecosystems. That’s important for scientists trying to understand complex, connected systems in nature.

APU courses take full advantage of Alaska locations, of course, but Environmental Science Department students gain knowledge and skills that can take them anywhere. You don’t have to be committed to research or a career in the subarctic to benefit from APU.

Brie A. Xavier, APU Class of 2012, is pursuing a bachelor of science degree in environmental science.