By Callie Hietala
Two staff members of the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA) were among the honorees at the Virginia Museum of Natural History’s (VMNH) annual Jefferson Awards ceremony, held in the museum’s Hall of Ancient Life on Thursday, March 24.
DRBA’s Virginia Program Manager Brian Williams and Education Outreach Manager Krista Hodges were selected to receive the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science Education.
Earl Armstrong, president of the VMNH Foundation Board, said the awards were established in 1988 to “recognize scientists and educators who have made significant contributions to the natural history knowledge in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
They were named for Thomas Jefferson because “one of the chief interests of his life was studying natural history in Virginia.” Armstrong said that Jefferson’s book, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” contains “a valuable compendium of what was known at the time about natural history here in Virginia.” Additionally, his creation of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition and his preservation of the records of the journey and of the specimens collected positioned Jefferson as one of the Commonwealth’s first and foremost conservationists. The significance of Jefferson’s contributions to the study of natural history is reflected in the numerous species and one genus named for the former president, Armstrong said.
VMNH Education Manager Christy Deatherage presented Williams and Hodges with their medals, emblazoned with Jefferson’s portraits.
Deatherage said Williams and Hodges were “outstanding educators” who “not only care deeply for our environment but are also passionate about educating audiences of all ages on its importance to healthy living and the existence of all life on earth.”
Williams has been with DRBA since 2008 while Hodges has been on staff for 11 years.
“Individually and collectively, they have been instrumental in facilitating numerous education projects throughout the Dan River Basin region,” including installing a monarch waystation at VMNH to attract pollinators “and provide all the resources necessary for monarchs to successfully sustain their migration.”
Deatherage said Williams and Hodges are working on numerous projects, including the installation of another monarch waystation in Danville, renovating the South Martinsville River Access to accommodate a riverside family area, enhancing Fieldale Park with access steps and a trail, and adding educational signage to J. Frank Wilson Park in Martinsville.
The two also are involved with trail and river access construction occurring throughout Danville, Martinsville, Patrick and Rockingham Counties, she said.
Deatherage said Williams “constantly works with community partners on conservation, restoration, master planning and asset developing projects” throughout the basin while managing DRBA’s recreational programs which includes identifying, planning, and constructing parks, river accesses, and trails all while providing “a wealth of environmental programs for all ages.”
Hodges, Deatherage said, provides education both in the classroom and in nature for over 5,000 youth annually. She created the Eco Learning Portal, “a virtual environmental education platform for teachers of every grade level in every county in the Dan River Basin” and numerous engaging public programs.
“Brian and Krista are a tremendous asset to our region and go out of their way to foster collaborative partnerships,” Deatherage said, and congratulated both “on this well-earned award.”
“When I started at DRBA nearly 11 years ago,” Hodges said, “some amazing work had already been completed,” including the organization’s Trout in the Classroom program. “While still utilizing those wonderful programs, I saw the opportunity to expand DRBA’s environmental education outreach into a robust series of programs that would engage thousands more youth annually.”
“It is truly and honor and it is very humbling to be recognized within our own community and by our peers,” she said.
Williams opened his remarks with a quote from John Muir who said, “in every walk with nature, one receives far more than they seek.” Williams said “we know it’s necessary for the human spirit to be in nature, to be out there observing it” and experiencing it in various ways.
“One thing I know for myself is we need those wild places. We need those places that we can go and rest and recharge our batteries, restore our soul,” William said. “You need to get kids on the side of the river for just an hour, get their feet wet … that’s the way you get them. You can drive them across a bridge and point at the river and tell them you need to protect that part of the land. Until you’ve set foot in that river and let it flow around you, you don’t understand what it means.”
Williams said DRBA wants to teach people of all ages that “the natural environment is our community” and to develop a sense of community in the outdoors.
“This is not only well deserved peer recognition for Krista and Brian, but it also illuminates the mission and vision of DRBA,” said Mark Estes, president of DRBA’s board of directors. “This is an excellent example of how education in the classroom coupled with an outdoor experience resonates by instilling the importance of protecting and preserving the natural resources within our Dan River Basin. Mentoring and equipping our next generation by providing a unique outdoor experience, preserves the legacy of our heritage and assures the future of water quality within our region. Essentially, all the water that we will ever have is already here, and right now.”
Dr. Nancy Moncrief, VMNH curator of mammalogy, presented Dr. Eric Hallerman, a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, fellow at the American Fisheries Society, and Fulbright Scholar, with the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science.
“(Hallerman’s) many contributions to science are evidence that he shares Jefferson’s passion for our natural world.” Those contributions include scholarly publications (including 4 books), teaching and mentoring students, and professional and public service, Moncrief said.
Hallerman said he was grateful and humbled by the award, and discussed some of his work using the tools of molecular genetics to inform fisheries and wildlife conservation, including his work the native brook trout.
He acknowledged that his work was not done alone. “In a letter to Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton wrote, ‘if I have seen further, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants.’ That means, if I am in a position to contribute to the natural history of Virginia, it’s because I have benefitted” from the work of colleagues, mentors, and collaborators, he said.
Dr. Joe Keiper, executive director of VMNH, presented the W. Bruce Wingo Conservation Award to Monogram Foods, represented that evening by Monogram Vice President of Operations Pat Strickland. The award recognizes significant conservation efforts in Virginia.
“Monogram is very forward thinking,” Keiper said, “and over time have implemented new waste management systems at its plant” using modern techniques to treat its waste products “in a way that’s environmentally beneficial” and does not strain the local infrastructure.
Keiper said the system allowed the company to treat 75,000 gallons of wastewater per day onsite, which would otherwise have gone into the local infrastructure. Heat from these processes was recycled, Keiper said, and put it back into the manufacturing process to make it more efficient.
Strickland said Monogram has 9 manufacturing locations across the country, including Martinsville. “Monogram is committed to investing in the communities in which we do business,” he said. “We are stewards of the environment and stewards of all the resources that are entrusted to us.”
He said Monogram had a 1.5 million gallon anaerobic digester which converts food waste into methane gas, which is then used to produce electricity.
He said the Monogram Loves Kids Foundation also supports outreach education at VMNH.
“We want to invest not only monetarily, but also humanly in the communities in which we do business,” he said.
Dr. Hayden Bassett and Capt. Bill Welsh, U.S. Army Reserve, presented Iridium Communications, Inc. with the William Barton Rogers Corporate Award, which was accepted by Iridium Public Relations Manager Kelli Sullivan.
Iridium provides communications capability to the Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab (CHML). According to the VMNH website, CHML is a “partnership between VMNH and the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative (SCRI) that provides global monitoring capability for cultural heritage sites threatened by armed conflict and natural disaster.” It also is a key component of the reactivated Army Monuments Men unit. Bassett said he and his team are currently monitoring the destruction of cultural sites in Ukraine by invading Russian forces.
Real-time communications between Bassett and his team in Martinsville and Army Monuments officers globally are facilitated by Iridium’s technology.
“This is an incredible partnership,” Bassett said, and noted that Iridium has provided Ukraine with a number of satellite phones to aid in communications. The phones will continue to work even when traditional telecommunications are down.
“We’ve all been without cell phone service before,” Welsh said. “It’s a lot worse when you don’t know where you are, you don’t speak the language, and you don’t know what message is being received by the people you’re counting on to keep you safe. With our partnership with Iridium, that was a thing we didn’t have to worry about.”
“Iridium is the only satellite network that covers the entire planet, pole to pole, connecting people and things, and it is especially exciting to have the opportunity to connect people doing such important work,” Sullivan said. “We look forward to continuing this partnership and continuing telling this story.”