Twenty years ago this summer, six undergraduates interested in environmental issues embarked on a new hands-on learning opportunity established by Graduate School of Geography faculty members Billie Turner II and David Angel. Undergraduates in the Human-Environmental Regional Observatory (HERO) Program have since journeyed to all corners of Massachusetts — from Worcester to Fall River and Ipswich to Pittsfield — to assess the relationship between residents and their environment and help research solutions to environmental challenges.
The program has sponsored 135 undergraduate HERO Fellows and a number of graduate students; received almost $2.5 million in research funding, much of it from the National Science Foundation; and generated approximately 45 book chapters and articles in peer-reviewed journals.
Chris Lippitt, ’05, M.S./GIS ’06, is associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, and director of the Center for Advancement of Spatial Informatics Research and Education (ASPIRE) at the University of New Mexico. He credits his experience as a HERO fellow with directing him to a career in science.
“HERO introduced me to professional science as an undergraduate,” he says. “Working closely with world-class faculty as a sophomore made research and science real and tangible for me. The HERO experience and successes it enabled undoubtedly led me to my career as a professional scientist.”
The HERO Program was one of four such programs nationwide initially sponsored by the National Science Foundation. HERO fellows, who are selected through a competitive application process, conduct hands-on research over the course of eight intensive weeks during the summer, for which they receive a stipend. They then pursue individual research projects during the academic year. Some fellows participate in the program for several years and help mentor new fellows.
Fellows present at the Clark student research event Fall Fest, and are encouraged to submit their research to professional conferences and competitions, notably those sponsored by the Association of American Geographers. They may also present their findings to local community groups that have included the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Metropolitan Area Planning, and the City of Worcester Brownfields Symposium, among others. Some fellows have co-authored scholarly papers with their faculty and/or graduate-student advisers.
During HERO’s first year, student teams under the direction of geography professors Susan Hanson, Douglas Johnson, Robert “Gil” Pontius, Samuel Ratick, and Billie Turner II, were assigned to research one of three topics:
Over the next decade, some fellows, with Pontius, mapped historic land-use change in central Massachusetts and predicted future change. They used Landsat satellite imagery to monitor changes in forest area and health in conjunction with Professor John Rogan’s Massachusetts Forest Monitoring Program. Others investigated lawn care practices and water scarcity in the Ipswich (Mass.) River watershed with Pontius, Deborah Martin, professor of geography and now director of the Graduate School of Geography, and then-Clark professor Colin Polsky.
Beginning in 2012, under the direction of Martin and Rogan, the HERO Program narrowed its focus to urban tree health in Massachusetts cities. The new direction was spurred by the removal of approximately 30,000 trees from Worcester and surrounding towns that had been infected by the invasive Asian long-horned beetle. Fellows worked alongside local organizations to assess the damage and to monitor the health of replacement trees provided by the Worcester Tree Initiative (WTI) in partnership with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and examined tree-policy programs.
“The students of Clark University’s HERO Program have helped quantify the value of tree stewardship in an urban setting such as Worcester,” says WTI director Ruth Seward. “Year after year, their presentations show that trees that are stewarded — even in harsh environments — have a far greater chance for survival. Overall, the HERO program has helped Worcester trees.”
In 2017, in partnership with DCR’s Gateway Cities Program, HERO expanded its research on urban tree health to include several Massachusetts cities.
Many HERO alumni have applied HERO’s lessons to their work life. Matthew Adams ‘00, who double-majored in geography and art history, works in the New York City Fire Department’s Bureau of Management, Analysis, and Planning’s Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Unit. There, he applies his quantitative analysis skills to public policies aimed at reducing fire and ambulance response times, mitigating fire risk, improving community awareness, and advancing diversity and inclusion.
Adams particularly enjoyed the opportunity to mix with graduate geography students in some courses. “HERO, for me,” he says, “was a step even closer to that world.” He also liked that HERO allowed him to work on a project for an entire year. “The more you focus on one thing, the more you learn,” he says. “I’m forever grateful for that.”
Shannon Palmer, ’13, M.A./CDP ’14, was a HERO Fellow in 2012 and 2013, and a project manager in 2013. It was “the single most meaningful academic experience I have had,” she says. “Out of the HERO program I learned immeasurable skills in conducting research, cross-discipline collaboration, working with stakeholders, public speaking, people management, and I published my first peer-reviewed paper.”
Now an assistant school principal in Brooklyn, N.Y., Palmer continues to draw on skills she learned as a HERO Fellow. “Although my current work may seem unrelated to the work I did with HERO, I am constantly remembering and revisiting things I learned about research and the importance of presenting data in clear and compelling ways,” she says.
HERO Fellows have earned doctorates in environmentally related fields at institutions like Arizona State University, University of Connecticut, San Diego State University, and the University of British Columbia. Others have gone on to careers in environmental law, data science, remote sensing and geospatial science, economics (with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and country network coordination (in Ethiopia with AgriProFocus).
On July 11, the 20th cohort of HERO Fellows presented their research findings at what has become an annual stakeholder summit. The focus of this summer’s research was the analysis of juvenile tree health and stewardship in the cities of Pittsfield and Leominster, which built on research conducted in Chelsea, Chicopee, Fall River, Holyoke, and Revere by the 2017 and 2018 fellows.
Matthew Cahill, director for the Greening the Gateway Cities Program, attended the summit.
“I’ve been working with the HERO Program since 2014, when we began the mortality assessment of trees planted by DCR in association with the Asian long-horned beetle and Gateway Cities programs,” he said. “The HERO program gets better every year.”