Introducing Mina Burton – Our First Barnett Fellow!
In 2021, Mount Auburn Cemetery established the David P. Barnett Fund for Horticulture and Urban Ecology in honor of the retirement of President & CEO Dave Barnett. The Barnett Fund provides stipends for talented young women and men to receive hands-on training in horticulture, urban ecology, and climate action/sustainability work from senior Mount Auburn staff, as well as opportunities for research, travel, and professional development. The long-term goal is to train a new generation of leaders in these sectors. Today, we are thrilled to introduce our inaugural Barnett Fellow, ecologist and recent Lesley University graduate Mina Burton. Read on to learn about the GIS StoryMap she will be creating for Mount Auburn, and the opportunities it offers everyone to engage with our ecology work in new ways!
Tell us a bit about yourself. What drew you to pursuing a career in ecology?
I’ve lived in Massachusetts most of my life and currently live in Cambridge, where I completed my undergraduate degree at Lesley University. I transferred to Lesley in 2019 as a junior. During this process, I also made the decision to call it quits on the psychology degree I’d been working on, and began pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies. As you can imagine, Environmental Studies is a very broad discipline, and as a transfer student, I was initially worried about figuring out exactly what career path I wanted to take with my degree.
During my first semester at Lesley, I took a course called “New England Field Studies” taught by Professor David Morimoto. Each Saturday, we would visit different parks and natural settings in the Greater Boston Area and discuss the natural history and ecology of those places. Mount Auburn was one of the last sites we visited, and was definitely a favorite of mine. That trip was when I first learned of the citizen science and biodiversity research being done at Mount Auburn. A little over two years later, I feel fortunate to now directly support those same studies in my current work using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I really credit David Morimoto’s class and mentorship in helping me find my passion for ecology and wildlife conservation, and am thankful for the opportunity he gave me to first get involved with research here at Mount Auburn.
Although you’re just starting your Barnett Fund Fellowship, you are not new to Mount Auburn – could you talk about the work you’ve already been doing with us through Lesley University? How has that helped inspire your project for this fellowship?
I formally started working at Mount Auburn through a co-grant with Lesley University in April 2021. The focus of my work at the time was primarily to create maps for the citizen science and biodiversity studies. These map layers included features such as acoustic monitoring sites used in bat research, the specific trees surveyed in Mount Auburn’s phenology and arthropod surveys, and the amphibian coverboards used in the red-backed salamander reintroduction survey.
During my first few months on the job, I had the opportunity to meet individually with the researchers behind these biodiversity studies. In addition to obtaining data and discussing how I could support the aims of each study, I came out of these meetings feeling really fortunate to get a first-hand explanation of the ecological significance of each study. Mount Auburn is a unique location in that it offers such well-maintained habitat, and unlike public parks, it’s also closed to the public for the evenings. This makes it a sort of oasis for many kinds of wildlife seeking refuge in urban settings. Biodiversity research at Mount Auburn can offer a lot of insight into how we can support wildlife here and in other urban areas.
The inspiration for my fellowship project came about through these interviews and while creating my initial site maps. I wanted to find a way to showcase the work these researchers were doing that would be useful to a variety of interested parties and stakeholders – citizen scientists, researchers, students, funders, Cemetery visitors, and the general public as well.
Over the next six months, you will be creating a GIS StoryMap for Mount Auburn, to support our citizen science program and ecological studies. Could you describe what that is and how it works?
I do all my GIS work using ArcGIS products, which are supplied by a company called ESRI. One of these products is ESRI StoryMaps. StoryMaps is designed to enable online storytelling by integrating GIS maps with text, images, videos, and more. On the user’s end, StoryMaps look and function essentially like websites or blogs. For creators, StoryMaps allows for easy integration of interactive GIS maps. I personally like this format because it allows me to give additional context to maps and data. My goal is always to make GIS more accessible and engaging for all audiences, regardless of expertise.
The StoryMap I’ll be creating will individually showcase all the citizen science and biodiversity studies being implemented at the Cemetery. It will include study descriptions, interactive maps, images, and key findings from each research project.
What excites you about working with this format?
During college, I worked as a peer tutor to help fellow students understand content and complete coursework. Tutoring taught me that being able to understand information is less about intelligence, and more about receiving information in a format that is engaging and suits one’s learning style. Interpreting data can be challenging, especially when scientific literacy isn’t taught evenly across the board. I initially became interested in GIS because I felt that mapping out data visually is often more compelling to the average person than, say, data tables. StoryMaps offer additional format options that can make content engaging for everyone regardless of learning type. Some people prefer maps, charts, or diagrams, while others would rather read narrative descriptions, or perhaps opt for images or videos. I find that working with multiple formats allows me to express the full value of the research being done at Mount Auburn. Maps and narrative text can highlight the findings and valuable implications of research, and I love being able to include great photos and videos of wildlife as well.
What opportunities does a StoryMap offer at a site like Mount Auburn?
In developing the StoryMap, I knew I wanted to create a tool that would remain accessible to all audiences but still allow for a depth of information that would be useful for researchers and stakeholders. For researchers, this StoryMap can offer a convenient way to highlight and share research. I hope it can provide a jumping-off point for collaboration between researchers both within and outside of Mount Auburn’s research team.
For existing citizen scientists, it can be rewarding and motivating to get a clearer understanding and accompanying visual as to how their data is utilized. The StoryMap can provide citizen science resources, interactive learning opportunities, and live site maps to assist with fieldwork. Web apps and training videos can also be featured down the line. Sharing research outcomes can assist in recruiting new citizen scientists or student volunteers.
For the general public, maps can offer an entry point to research. For those who already visit the Cemetery on a regular basis, photos and maps of study sites help contextualize research within a landscape they are already familiar with. I experienced this firsthand – I grew up visiting Mount Auburn nearly every year, yet re-familiarizing myself with the landscape through an ecological lens gave me a deeper appreciation for the Cemetery.
The StoryMap will include numerous citizen science projects. Do you have a favorite?
I’ve really enjoyed learning about all of Mount Auburn’s citizen science and biodiversity studies; it would be hard to choose a favorite! With that said, I’ve recently had the opportunity to work more closely with Lesley University professor Christopher Richardson. He monitors bat activity to determine when and where bats are most active at Mount Auburn, and to assess to what degree these bats are afflicted by White-nose syndrome. This research is so critical because this disease spreads very rapidly and has dramatically decreased bat populations in North America. Chris believes that Mount Auburn may provide crucial habitat to support bats in the face of such a huge threat. Recently, I’ve been helping Chris investigate how differences in landscape and vegetation structure might impact bat activity at Mount Auburn. I look forward to working further on this, and to working more closely with other researchers at Mount Auburn over the course of my fellowship!