The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

1 week ago

‘Safe Harbor’ documentary to focus on Vietnamese fishing community

(University of South Alabama/Contributed)

Chris Phengsisomboun grew up in the Vietnamese fishing community of Bayou La Batre, where the families of war refugees worked and sacrificed to build better lives for their children.

He remembers his grandparents coming home reeking of shrimp from the packing house. He remembers the community reeling from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. He remembers his family feeling so proud when he became the first Asian-American valedictorian at Alma Bryant High School.

“That was pretty emotional,” said Phengsisomboun. “When I graduated from high school, I was the only member of the family who’d made it to that point, so everybody was ugly crying. It was intense.”

At the University of South Alabama, where he earned a communications degree in 2019, Phengsisomboun juggled schoolwork, side projects and internships. The day after graduation, he moved to Nashville to start work at the Recording Academy, which produces the Grammy Awards.

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“He was the kind of student who takes advantage of every possible opportunity,” said Dr. Lorraine Ahearn, an assistant professor of multimedia journalism in the department of communication. “Anytime I saw him in the hallway, he was on the phone, working, or going into meetings. He was a man with a plan.”

Phengsisomboun will appear in a 30-minute documentary Ahearn is doing about the fishing community. The working title is “Safe Harbor: The Vietnamese Fishermen of Bayou La Batre.” The project also features David Dai, the first Vietnamese-American teacher at Alma Bryant, who was named Mobile County’s 2020 Teacher of the Year.

There will be interviews with older members of the community, too. After 1975, many of them fled the coastline of Vietnam, arrived in America, then found their way to an Alabama fishing community along the Gulf of Mexico.

“I think it’s very powerful that boats saved them, some of them, and then ended up sustaining them in a new place,” Ahearn said. “It’s a powerful metaphor, almost biblical.”

She began work on the Bayou La Batre project with Andrew Hongo, an assistant professor of broadcast journalism who moved to California but is still co-producing the documentary. Graduate students in the department are doing historical research and pulling together archival material from the Mobile Historical Society and the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library at South. She received a $1,500 grant from the University’s Office of Research and Economic Development to pay for interpreters, travel and the rights to historical photos and newsreel footage.

One of the challenges for Ahearn is building trust and encouraging candor during interviews. Many Vietnamese faced hardship and prejudice, especially when they first came to this country, but that painful subject wasn’t always shared with their children.

“People don’t talk about it much,” she said. “It’s difficult for some older people to go back and tell it in detail. There are stages people go through — social stages, educational stages, economic stages — but it’s harder to get into the psychological and emotional part of that.”

Asian Identity in Alabama

Bayou La Batre, “the Seafood Capital of Alabama,” is 20 miles south of Mobile. It’s a small city of about 2,500 people. More than 20 percent of the population is Asian-American.

Phengsisomboun (pronounced “feng-siss-om-bon”) remembers his family celebrating the Laotian New Year at a Buddhist temple and the Blessing of the Fleet at a Catholic church.

He was a multiracial child in a melting pot community.

His father’s family are Asians from Laos and Thailand — they own the Taste of Thai restaurant — while his mother is a white woman from Mobile. After his parents divorced, his mother married a Vietnamese man, giving him an extended multiracial family along the Gulf Coast.

At South, he skipped many extracurricular activities to focus on a career after college. He landed a show business internship that turned into a full-time job in Nashville.

As a boy, he was embarrassed about having a long last name that people struggled to pronounce. Now he’s thrilled to have nationwide audiences read his name in the credits for Grammy productions.

Phengsisomboun is only 25 years old, but time on his own has given him some perspective. He thinks he’s just starting to appreciate the sacrifices that were made for him. He’s just beginning to understand his immigrant experience.

“You’re fed a particular idea of what the American Dream looks like, with all the prosperity, and having the opportunity to become a businessman or woman,” he said. “There was a sense that if I didn’t do something greater with my life, I’d be letting them down, and ultimately disrespecting them — and respect is just a huge, huge, huge part of the family.”

Different Refugee Experiences

Before Ahearn became a communications professor, she was a reporter and columnist for the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina.

One big story was the 5,000 Montagnard refugees who left the highlands of Vietnam and were resettled in Greensboro.

“There would be entire apartment complexes in our city that were entirely Montagnard,” she said. “It was very interesting, a very noticeable presence. Every time I would write about them, we’d get these nasty, angry letters from some people. There were other people who understood that we had been allies, we were on the same side, and that Montagnards had saved many American lives.”

Ahearn marvels at the way immigrant communities seek out the landscapes and livelihoods they know. Mountain farmers head for the hills, while fishing families cling to the coast.

When she joined the faculty at South in 2019, she began meeting students from Bayou La Batre.

“One class after another had these Vietnamese and Cambodian students,” she said. “I started to delve into their stories a little bit and that’s how I learned about the seafood industry, and took some trips down there. It’s so localized to the Gulf Coast, and it’s so much about the Gulf, but it’s also a uniquely Southeast Asian story of refugees recreating their lives and becoming successful enough to put their kids through college.”

The “Safe Harbor” documentary should be finished by the end of this year. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed production, but Ahearn is still doing interviews. There’s always more to hear and something to learn.

“Hearing these migration stories is fascinating,” she said. “The people who fled South Vietnam, they lost everything when they came here. We see it as a story of resilience and determination, but it’s also a story of great loss. There’s this shadow of the past that stays with them.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

3 weeks ago

To protect and solve: Saudi criminal justice major at Univ. of South Alabama readies for nontraditional role

(University of South Alabama/Contributed)

Raghad Sultan came to Mobile all the way from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but her family forms a long line of Jaguars at the University of South Alabama.

Eleven years ago, her brother, Mohanned, graduated in electrical engineering. One of her sisters, Rahaf, studied respiratory therapy, while the other, Moroj, majored in marketing. And her cousin, Aseel Damdam, graduated two years ago in criminal justice.

While Sultan followed the family tradition of attending South, she is preparing herself for a nontraditional role in her country.

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This semester, she’s busy finishing classes and an internship with the University of South Alabama Police Department. She plans to graduate in May with degree in criminal justice. One day, she’d like to go home and become one of the first women police detectives in Saudi Arabia.

“I want to solve things,” said Sultan, 22. ”I want to see things. I want to protect people.”

Sultan said she isn’t a political person, but does support women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. Women only got the right to drive there in 2018. That same year, the government announced plans for women to begin serving with the traffic police.

She’s never seen a woman police officer in Saudi Arabia, but hopes more law enforcement positions will become open to women.

Police Chief Zeke Aull welcomed her to his department. He hasn’t forgotten her cousin, who completed an internship two years ago.

“The first time I met Aseel, he surprised the heck out of me,” Aull said. “He grabbed me, hugged me, and gave me a kiss on the forehead.”

When Sultan applied this semester, Aull mentioned it to his wife, who was a police officer for 20 years. She supports the careers of women in law enforcement all over the world.

“She’s like, ‘You’ve got to take her on,’” he said. “‘You’ve got to do this.’”

In Saudi Arabia, Sultan’s father served in the Navy before he died when she was younger. Her mother is an English teacher who became a high school principal. She insisted that her daughter go to college in the United States.

“She’s proud of me,” Sultan said. “She supports whatever I want to do.”

At the campus police department, she has shadowed officers in the communications department and done ride-alongs with officers on patrol.

“I’m learning a lot from them,” Sultan said. “I can ask anything that comes into my head.”

In Mobile, she does not wear the traditional hijab head scarf of her country. She said she would, though, if it was part of a job back home.

Sultan lives in an apartment near South with her dog, a shih tzu named Muffin. She enjoys eating seafood and doing crafts. She FaceTimes with a friend studying in the U.S. and her family back home.

She gets homesick for Jeddah, a relatively liberal Red Sea city in the conservative kingdom. She hasn’t been home in two years, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After graduation, she plans on returning. Lots of family and friends to visit. After renewing her student visa, she’d like to return to South for a master’s degree in psychology.

Sultan would like to begin a career in Saudi Arabia, but she’s open to other possibilities. One of her brothers went to college and settled in Australia. Staying in Mobile is an option.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just want a good opportunity.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

2 months ago

South Alabama launches School of Marine and Environmental Sciences

(USA/Contributed)

The University of South Alabama will begin a new era of coastal education and research with a newly created School of Marine and Environmental Sciences. Plans call for new undergraduate and graduate programs to complement the existing degrees that have been offered by the department of marine sciences.

“We can make a much larger impact by developing younger scientists,” said Dr. Sean Powers, director of the School of Marine and Environmental Sciences. “We can use the draw of the marine world to attract good students to South.”

A proposal for the new school within the College of Arts and Sciences was submitted in the fall and approved on Friday by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

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South is the only four-year state university in Alabama that is near the Gulf of Mexico. Many of its marine science faculty members are also senior marine scientists at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, which offers marine programs for 23 public and private colleges.

“It is with great enthusiasm that we announce the establishment of the School of Marine and Environmental Sciences,” said Dr. Andi Kent, interim provost and senior vice president. “The school capitalizes on our strategic location on the Gulf Coast, and allows us to expand opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students in these areas. It will help further our mission to provide exemplary educational opportunities with extraordinary faculty and leading research in the field.”

This fall, the School of Marine and Environmental Sciences will move from the lower level of the Life Sciences Building to the second and third floors of the Education Outreach Building on Clinic Drive, east of the Glenn Sebastian Nature Trail on the north side of campus. There will be 20,000 square feet of space, which will include a teaching auditorium, classrooms and laboratories.

Four professors of environmental science will be hired over the next four years. The School hopes to draw 80 new undergraduate students.

Marine science researchers at South bring in $5 to $7 million a year in new research grants, Powers said. A new school will make that kind of work more prominent on campus. It should help recruiting, too.

“Our faculty does research from Alaska to Antarctica,” said Powers. “We have an international reputation. We want to bring new students to South, students who wouldn’t have come without these programs.”

In addition to the School of Marine and Environmental Sciences, the Alabama Commission on Higher Education approved an interdisciplinary Ph.D.  program in chemical and biomolecular engineering at South.

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

4 months ago

South Alabama sophomore solves cold cases using DNA, forensic genealogy

(University of South Alabama/Contributed)

From a Grand Bay bedroom decorated with posters from forensic TV shows such as “Bones” and “Dexter,” Olivia McCarter spends long hours on her laptop working to identify people and solve crimes.

Though just a sophomore at the University of South Alabama, where she’s studying anthropology and criminal justice, the 19-year-old is a senior intern with a Massachusetts company called Redgrave Research Forensic Services. Her team uses DNA analysis and online genealogy databases to match chromosomes, build family trees and identify suspects and victims.

Just in the last year, McCarter helped solve three cases.

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In April, she joined a Redgrave team that identified the body of a man found along the Missouri River back in 1979.

“That was Harry – Harry was my first forensic case,” she said. “We worked nonstop for three days and solved it on the fourth day, which is really fast. I basically did not go to sleep, because I didn’t want to miss anything. It was exciting because we had such great matches. We found this man and he was perfect. He fit into the tree so perfectly. We knew it had to be him.”

Her second case was the 1984 rape and murder of Christine Jessop, a 9-year-old girl from Queensville, Ontario. Years before, DNA evidence freed the man charged with her death in one of Canada’s most notorious wrongful conviction cases.

Redgrave researchers worked for months this summer before genealogy and DNA records pointed to Calvin Hoover, a man who had been a friend of the Jessop family, as the likely killer. Hoover committed suicide in 2015.

“I found his name at 2 a.m. one night,” McCarter said. “That genealogy was so hard, compared to Harry’s. All of these people had 12 kids, and their kids had 12 kids, and then I had to keep going until I found Calvin. I knew he had to be from these parents, but I could not find any kids until I found three, all at once. I found them through a voting record, because they all lived in the same household in Ontario.”

Her third case was the one that hit closer to home.

In 1982, the body of an 18-month-old girl was discovered in the Escatawpa River just across the state line in Mississippi. The girl became known as “Delta Dawn,” or “Baby Jane Doe,” but she was never identified and what happened to her remained a mystery.

When the case was reopened last year, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department turned to the Othram DNA laboratory, where a team of Redgrave forensic genetic genealogists worked. A fresh DNA sample and genealogy records led police to a child and mother reported missing from Joplin, Missouri. Family there said the mother had met a man and was moving to start a new life in Florida. She remains missing and her body has never been found. Her child was identified as Alisha Ann Heinrich.

While working to identify the girl, McCarter would visit her grave in Jackson County Memorial Park. She would clean the gravesite marked “Baby Jane, Known Only to God.” She would bring flowers.

“Somebody had to remember,” she said. “Until her name was returned to her.”

The “Delta Dawn” case helped her make contacts in Mississippi law enforcement. She met everyone from FBI agents to sheriff’s officers.

Lt. Eddie Clark, one of the Jackson County investigators, remembers when McCarter visited the department to explain what Redgrave Research had found and how they had found it.

“We were floored by her skill set and how deep she could dig,” Clark said. “Excellent job, she did an excellent job. It was crazy how they did this, how they went back and built a family tree. I didn’t think it was going to be a college-age student who broke this case. Thank God for her.”

“I didn’t think it was going to be a college-age student who broke this case. Thank God for her.”

The ‘Wizard’ and the Intern

McCarter was born in Texas but grew up in Alabama. Her parents own several feed stores near Grand Bay, where she works part-time and saves money to pay her own tuition at South.

Olivia – “Liv” to her friends – was home-schooled by her mother. Her independent study included genealogy and then forensics, though no one in the family expected her research to go so far and so fast.

“We’re extremely proud of our daughter,” said Tracy McCarter. “She showed an aptitude very early on. She’s an excellent online researcher. What’s she’s doing now is outside our experience, our areas of expertise, so we’re kind of learning right along with her.”

She describes Olivia as an introvert who goes her own way. After years of home school, the McCarters were worried that she might have trouble adjusting to college in Mobile. Instead, she thrived.

“It was very different,” she said. “I didn’t think I would acclimate, but I did. I met so many amazing professors, and I made a lot of friends.”

Dr. Philip Carr, professor of anthropology and the Chief Calvin McGhee Endowed Professor of Native American Studies, taught McCarter in several classes. She is quiet and unassuming, but often winds up leading her class team. Then she started telling him about her extracurricular work in forensic genealogy.

“That came as a complete surprise,” Carr said. “You don’t expect a student to already have these kinds of experiences. We hope that our students have an internship by their senior year.”

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, McCarter began spending more time at home in Grand Bay. She studies, works at the feed store business and spends hour after hour online.

She likes to wear jeans, Air Jordans and a pink cap that says “SOUTH.” She has several tattoos on her left arm. She wears glasses that fog up behind a face mask decorated with pictures of cats.

McCarter talks with her forensic research colleagues almost every day. Her mentor, Anthony Redgrave, is a co-founder of the company and a pioneer in the field.

“He’s basically a wizard,” she said. “I owe everything to him.”

Redgrave, who’s trained law enforcement officers, often works on cold cases with DNA samples provided by police departments across the country. He teaches his team members how to compare DNA records and genealogy records to triangulate relationships within a family tree. The latter has been made easier in recent years with commercial genealogy websites, along with organizations such as NamUs, an information clearinghouse and resource center for missing person cases.

McCarter was a quick study. He first met her on genealogy websites and forums, where he noticed that her hypotheses and educated guesses usually turned out to be correct.

“She just got it, you know?” he said. “She really fit the bill of exactly what we wanted in an intern.”

Redgrave has been impressed with her teamwork on investigations this year. She’s shown the patience and perseverance to see cases through. She’s taken the lead in some projects.

“Her memory and attention to detail really set her apart,” he said. “She’s really good at analyzing things off the cuff and then remembering something important from months ago.”

Unfinished Business

McCarter is looking forward to her next semester at South, where she’s a member of the Student Anthropological Society. She hopes to graduate in 2023. She’s already planning to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D in forensic anthropology.

“I don’t want to teach, though,” she said. “I want to work with law enforcement.”

McCarter is the kind of a dogged researcher who also has the people skills to talk with family members. She still keeps in touch with Harry’s children from her first case.

“I talk to them often,” she said. “They follow my genealogy stuff. I guess we’ll always be connected.”

At Redgrave Research, she remains the youngest intern, but has become a team leader. She says she still has a lot to learn. She’s looking forward to new cases.

“I get emotionally tired because of how terrible the cases are sometimes, but I don’t get tired of the puzzles,” she said. “I haven’t yet, at least.”

I get emotionally tired because of how terrible the cases are sometimes, but I don’t get tired of the puzzles.

In her bedroom, McCarter keeps a framed photograph of Alisha Ann Heinrich from the “Delta Dawn” case. She still visits the girl’s memorial in Jackson County Memorial Park.

Next to her plot is the grave of another baby girl whose body has never been identified. For McCarter, this is unfinished business.

“Definitely,” she said. “I won’t give up on that until it’s solved, too.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

4 months ago

South Alabama dives into Galapagos research

(University of South Alabama/Contributed)

When Dr. Ronnie Baker returns to the Galapagos Islands as part of ongoing research project with the University of South Alabama, he’ll bring along a dozen underwater cameras and a plan for surveying the waters surrounding one of the most remote and unique ecosystems on the planet.

“What I’d like to do is look at the mangrove and other shallow water habitats along the coast,” said Baker, who is also a senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. “And get a general baseline of the juvenile fish communities to allow us to detect changes in these communities into the future.”

The research is part of a collaboration with the University of North Carolina and Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. Baker is one of seven South researchers who have been awarded grants to explore research opportunities with the Galapagos Science Center.

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He made his first trip in 2019. He planned to return this fall, but the coronavirus pandemic interrupted travel. His next chance might come in the spring.

COVID-19 restrictions may have delayed trips to the archipelago for South faculty and students, but they haven’t diminished enthusiasm for the partnership. A USFQ team of engineering students and an instructor recently participated remotely in a USA innovation program as they seek to link disposers of recyclable materials with buyers.

Meanwhile, three South students have worked on research projects with faculty from USFQ. Marie Foret and Aaron Wilson, both honors students, are participating in meaning in life research, surveying USA students to secure a comparison population and offering an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding. Lena Siemers, a December graduate in international studies and foreign languages and literature, assisted on a project focused on human migratory flows from Venezuela to Ecuador.

“When you start these kind of partnerships, you hope they’ll grow into something meaningful and significant,” said Bri Ard, director of international education at South. “With USFQ, we had a great idea and we were able to execute it.”

Alex Rendon, director of operations for the office of international programs at USFQ, said South research fit well with plans for the International Galapagos Science Consortium.

“One of the motivations for inviting USA to join the consortium,” Rendon said, “was the strong capacities in sustainable fisheries and ecotourism that could elevate ongoing activities to higher levels of scholarship and greater global visibility.”

The Ecuador program joins more than 15 South partnerships with colleges around the world. These include exchange programs with the Toulouse Business School in France, Hanyang University in South Korea and Kansai Gaidai University in Japan.

The Galapagos Islands, which are more than 500 miles off the coast of South America, are famous for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution during his scientific voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1835. Because of their isolation in the Pacific, the islands have a large number of unique species and are a national park and marine reserve of Ecuador, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dr. Tony Waldrop, president of the University of South Alabama, helped start the Galapagos Science Center when he was vice chancellor of research at the University of North Carolina. The center was founded in 2011 as a hub for research among local, national and international scientists. The focus of work is on interdisciplinary research, education through science and community support. The connection between Waldrop and USFQ administrators led to South joining research in the Galapagos.

“These kinds of relationships are incredibly valuable,” Ard said. “You automatically have university buy-in and support. It’s a bit of a dream.”

Lynne Chronister, vice president of research and economic development at South, offered travel grants to professors interested in Galapagos research. These included Dr. Sean Powers, Dr. Alison Robertson, Dr. Brian Dzwonkowski and Baker in the department of marine sciences; Dr. Kevin White in civil, coastal and environmental engineering; and Dr. Alex Beebe and Dr. Steven Schultze in the department of earth sciences.

Areas of study are fisheries, climatology, oceanography and seismology, along with tourism and hospitality, health-related services, and civil and coastal engineering. In years to come, field work could include graduate assistants and undergraduate students from Mobile.

“This will give our students an opportunity to gain international experience,” Chronister said. “Both in the classroom and in research.”

Right now, South professors are trying to plan their research around the travel restrictions and health concerns of the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s delayed all of the research by about a year,” Chronister said.

In 2015, some of the first scholars from the University joined an international research project in the Galapagos Islands. A pair of South biologists at the time, Dr. Ylenia Chiari and Dr. Scott Glaberman, helped identify a new species of giant tortoise – the Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise, Chelonoidis porteri.

Baker joined the South faculty two years ago. He was born in the United States, but grew up in Australia and earned his Ph.D. from James Cook University in northeast Queensland. For several years, he did research in Australia and Papua New Guinea. His post-doctorate experience includes work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Galveston, Texas, and the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Fla.

One of his mentors at the Smithsonian, Dr. Ilka “Candy” Feller, is a world leader in mangrove research and traveled to the Galapagos in 2019.

“What’s she’s found there,” Baker said, “is an incredible mangrove system unlike any other in the world.”

His plans for the Galapagos rely on an underwater camera system developed by one of his former students. Small waterproof devices are much easier to use than bulky equipment from years past. The hard part comes with analyzing all of the data from different cameras at different locations.

Species of snapper and grouper are most valuable to the fishery, but also most vulnerable to overfishing. Ecotourism is an opportunity, but also a concern. One question for national park officials is whether to allow snorkeling at certain mangrove bays.

His research will have an application for island programs with ecological tourism and sustainable fisheries.

“That’s quite appealing,” Baker said. “To be able to work with the national park managers, to have our work tied to their immediate plans.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

4 months ago

Local philanthropists pave the way to expanded healthcare in Baldwin County

(USA/Contributed)

On a glorious fall afternoon — their favorite time of the year — Louis and Melinda Mapp pull up a pair of rocking chairs on the front porch of their Fairhope home.

They sit down to trace a family history that begins with business roots in Mississippi and ends with hospital philanthropy in Alabama. Both of them are volunteers as well as donors. They have the easy rapport of a couple who have been married 61 years.

He starts most of their stories. She finishes many of his sentences.

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The Mapps are from Hattiesburg, Miss., where his grandfather founded the Faulkner Concrete Pipe Company in 1915. Years later, after selling the family business, Louis started a second career in finance at the company that became Regions Bank.

Since then, he and his wife have shared their good fortune with neighbors in both states. The Mapp Family Foundation has given away more than $6 million. The couple has made several six-figure donations to USA Health Children’s & Women’s Hospital, where Louis has volunteered in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

He’s a certified NICU cuddler, using his body warmth and a gentle rock to soothe premature infants. “To hold one of those babies in your arms,” he said, “is just amazing.”

This summer, the Mapps gave eight acres to USA Health for a Baldwin County medical campus that is proposed to include outpatient surgical care.

“Communities can’t make it without good healthcare,” Louis says. “And it’s needed here. Why should a young family with a critical-need child have to drive to Mobile, when you can have a doctor with a subspecialty right here?”

Owen Bailey, the CEO of USA Health, has known the Mapps for 30 years. They’ve served on local boards and committees. As volunteers, they’ve offered their time as well as their money.

“I can’t say enough good things about them,” Bailey says. “They’re kind, caring and selfless. They’ve made a difference in countless lives.”

Years ago, when the Mapps donated to a new heart center in Fairhope, hospital administrators planned the usual ground-breaking ceremony of VIPs with hard hats and shovels. Louis suggested a program featuring local heart patients and their families.

This year, when USA Health was looking at land for a campus near Fairhope, the Mapps owned two suitable tracts. Louis insisted that the hospital group accept the more desirable one, a $2 million corner parcel at the intersection of Alabama 181 and Alabama 104.

Bailey calls him a mentor and counselor who is gracious and humble.

“Louis is one of the most talented business people I know, but you would never hear that from his mouth,” he says. “He’s a servant leader.”

Sunshine on the Eastern Shore

For a front porch chat, Melinda Mapp wears dress shoes, black slacks and a matching print blouse. Louis is more casual, in a gray long-sleeve T-shirt and faded blue jeans. He’s taller than his wife. His hair is shorter and whiter. His drawl is more syrupy.

Louis doesn’t jog anymore, thanks to his 83-year-old knees, but he still wears New Balance running shoes. An iPhone peeks from his shirt pocket.

“I love technology,” he says. “I’m an Apple guy.”

“He’s a good geek for me,” Melinda says.

“Yes,” he agrees, laughing. “I’m her Geek Squad.”

The Mapps have three children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Their daughter’s family lives in Fairhope, while one son is in Mississippi and the other is in Florida.

“We don’t go to visit much anymore,” Louis says. “They come here.”

Joining the Mapps on their front porch is a five-year-old dachshund. Animal welfare is another one of their interests. Sunshine is part of that story.

“She’s a rescue,” Louis says.

“Our second rescue dog,” Melinda says.

“From ‘The Haven,’” Louis says. “A Fairhope-Mobile animal shelter.”

“We found out about her from a friend,” Melinda says. “We had just lost another dog.”

“I got this e-mail saying ‘you need to go and see this dog,’” Louis says. “Then they brought her to the house.”

“She went through that door,” Melinda says, “like she’d lived here her whole life.”

“And the rest is history,” Louis says.

Mississippi Natives

The Mapps knew each other growing up in Mississippi. They started dating when she was a sophomore and he was a senior at Hattiesburg High School.

“He was nice – very nice,” Melinda says. “And my older brother was so particular about who I dated. Mother and dad would always say, ‘Is it OK if she goes out with so-and-so?’ Then they said, ‘What about Louis Mapp?’ And he said sure.”

Louis went on to college at Southern Mississippi, where the football field, Faulkner Field, was named for his grandfather. He was not an academic success, though, and never graduated.

“I didn’t flunk out, but I didn’t do well,” he says with a hangdog grin. “I enjoyed myself.”

His father told him that leaving school meant that he was either going to work or joining the military. Louis enlisted in the Army – “I was a slick-sleeved private, about as low as you can get” – before marrying Melinda and returning to college at Louisiana State University.

They were big football fans in those days. The Ole Miss and LSU teams were often ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation. In Tiger Stadium on Halloween Night, 1959, they watched Billy Cannon become a legend by returning a punt 89 yards on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy.

“They were playing Ole Miss and I got blamed for it,” Melinda says, laughing. “I had just said, ‘Well, I don’t know what’s so great about Billy Cannon. …’”

The Mapps returned to Hattiesburg and Louis took over the family business after his grandfather died. He jokes that he earned his MBA on the job. Years later, he took his business experience to the banking industry.

He makes it sound simple.

“The basics are the same,” Louis says. “Treat your customers right, treat your employees right, and you’ll be all right.”

A Commitment to Service

In Baldwin County, the Mapps remain active in the Fairhope Christian Church, where Louis offers computer support. He helped the pastor set up livestreaming so quarantined members can join Sunday services from home. He also took a series of photographs for a church display, using his iPhone as a technical and artistic challenge.

He has a passion for automobiles that is also related to engineering and technology. He loves to drive his Audi Q8, especially at night.

“I’ll tell you what it’s got,” Louis says. “This Audi has night vision with infrared cameras and thermal imaging. If I’m going down the road in the dark and there’s a jogger or bicyclist, they light right up.”

For many years, Melinda volunteered at hospitals in Mississippi and Alabama. She preferred working with staff and patients in the emergency room.

“It was always interesting,” she said. “If there was a family that was worried or distressed, I could run errands or do whatever they needed me to do.”

At Children’s & Women’s Hospital in Mobile, a tour of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit touched Louis’ heart. Like Melinda, he wanted to work in the busiest wards of the hospital. Last year, he also volunteered to work with the families of patients in the Trauma Center at University Hospital in Mobile.

“I knew there were some really sick people and they were getting great care,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

Closer to home is their land grant to USA Health. The couple don’t often lend their names to a project, but this is an exception. They’re invested in the Mapp Family Campus.

They see a need for everyone in Baldwin County, themselves included.

“We’re at an age where it’s not so easy to go back and forth across Mobile Bay,” she says. “I’ve had so many people tell me, since the announcement was made, how excited they are to have this in Baldwin County.”

This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 edition of South Magazine.

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

5 months ago

Small satellites, big learning opportunities

University of South Alabama engineering students and SWARM-EX satellite project Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, in Mobile, Ala. (Mike Kittrell)

Dr. Saeed Latif and a group of engineering students at the University of South Alabama are preparing to explore space with a satellite project called SWARM-EX.

The plan is to launch three identical CubeSats – miniaturized, light-weight and low-cost satellites – to form a small constellation orbiting around the Earth. The satellites will feature new technologies for advanced data downlinks, radio communication among satellites, and onboard propulsion for autonomous operations within the swarm. The mission includes public outreach and science education for undergraduate and graduate students.

“Typically, satellites cost millions of dollars and take years to send, so most researchers don’t have access to them,” said Latif, an associate professor of electrical engineering. “With this one, we’ll build it in three years, fly in the third year, and in the fourth year we’ll do the experiments.

“This is good experience for the students. They get to participate in a big project with different phases and processes.”

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SWARM-EX stands for Space Weather Atmospheric Reconfigurable Multiscale Experiment. Latif participated in a National Science Foundation Idea Lab Cross-Cutting Initiative in CubeSat Innovations with colleagues from Stanford, Georgia Tech and the University of Colorado.

Work on the satellites began in January. Launch is expected in 2023.

The latest student engineers to join SWARM-EX at South describe the program as an out-of-this-world opportunity.

Josh Yang, a junior from Gulf Shores, learned about the project from a classmate.“It just seemed cool to me, to build an electrical power system for something like a satellite,” he said. “I’ve never had practical experience like that.”

Aaron Mattox, a junior from Semmes, found the satellite work demanding but rewarding.

“It can be overwhelming,” he said. “We’re at the very beginning of the project, so I try to take it one task at a time. I think of it as a really good learning experience.”

Latif was awarded a $218,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to run the program at South.

The CubeSats will orbit the earth at an altitude of 300 to 600 kilometers, measuring ionized and neutral gases in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Each CubeSat will include an atomic oxygen sensor and a Langmuir Probe to study the evolution of the equatorial ionization anomaly and equatorial thermospheric anomaly.

Large groups of satellites offer an opportunity to understand these anomalies and predict space weather. Yet the actual spacecraft are small, measuring just 10 by 10 by 30 centimeters.

“Each of them,” Latif said, “would be the size of a shoebox — actually, smaller than a shoebox.”

The What-If? Stage

Latif is involved in another satellite project, called JAGSAT-1, that could launch next year.

Crystal Pitts, an engineering senior from Daphne, has been working on JAGSAT and SWARM-EX.

“With the first one, I jumped in after it started, so I didn’t get to see a lot of it,” she said. “This one just got started, so I get to plan out what I need and what I can provide. That’s a lot cooler than coming in when it’s almost finished.

“For SWARM-EX, we’re still at the stage of what-ifs, so we have more questions than answers. We’re figuring out what components we need and how to fulfill our requirements.”

Pitts’ father, Paul Barrios, earned an engineering degree from South in 2001. Now he works in California for the aerospace industry.

His daughter is more interested in solar cells than satellites, though she can’t deny the appeal of “shooting stuff into space.” She believes it’s important to develop solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels. Most solar cells are made of silicon, but the CubeSats will use gallium arsenide, which is more efficient — and exciting.

“These are the big boys of solar cells,” Pitts said. “They can put out a lot of power.”

Lab and Home Work

In Shelby Hall, which houses South’s College of Engineering, a sign on Room 3217 says “Microwave/Antenna Lab.” This is the home of SWARM-EX.

Just inside the door stands a closet-sized mesh cube called a Faraday cage. It’s used to prevent external electromagnetic interference.

There are a few pieces of equipment in the lab, but most of the space is occupied by conference tables and computer stations. Latif meets with students once a week to plan work and review progress. South students also are collaborating with students at other institutions.

“Even before the coronavirus pandemic,” Latif said, “most of our work in this project was done remotely, as it involves students at multiple universities.”

The exception to that rule is the corner work station of Muhammed Mubasshir Hossain, a graduate student from Bangladesh. That’s a long way from Mobile, but for him it makes perfect sense.

“My undergraduate thesis was on small satellites,” he said. “I learned online about Dr. Latif and his work at South Alabama.”

The working title for Mubasshir’s master’s thesis at South is “Circularly Polarized Antennas for CubeSats for Deep Space Missions.”

The undergraduates who have joined SWARM-EX carry laptops that allow them work anywhere.

At home in Semmes, Mattox, 20, studies satellite technology in the evening and on weekends. He likes to have a little country music playing the background.

“Almost all of this is new to me, so there’s a learning curve, but it’s a lot more fun,” he said. “You’re contributing to a project that’s actually doing something. You’re actually doing some engineering.”

Yang, 21, has something in common with Mattox: both are members of the Honors College at South. And he has something in common with Pitts: his father is a South engineering grad, too.

In his west Mobile apartment, he’s more of a morning person.

“If it’s an off day with no classes, I work on the SWARM-EX project during the day,” Yang says. “I find it easier if it’s quiet.”

Pitts, a 29-year-old single mom, lives on the Eastern Shore with her two sons. Her research follows a different kind of afternoon schedule.

“After my kids get off the bus, they have a snack and do their homework,” she said. “I do at least two hours of satellite work a day.”

Pitts enjoys collaborating with students and professors at the University of Colorado and other colleges. There are a lot of bright engineers working on SWARM-EX. The only problem is that she’ll graduate this year and move on from the program.

That’s why she’s training her replacement. Soon she hopes to land a job that is just as challenging.

“If there was an opportunity to do this kind of project for a company,” Pitts said, “I’d love to do that.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

1 year ago

University of South Alabama artist wins Girl Scout award

(University of South Alabama/Contributed)

Grace Richardson, a University of South Alabama freshman, has won a Girl Scout Gold Award for the art work and environmental advocacy she combined in a high school campaign called “Project Aquarius.”

The 19-year-old from Hoover was inspired by a ninth-grade visit to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, a research and educational facility comprised of institutions including the University of South Alabama. She did paintings, created a website and spoke to community groups about ocean conservation.

“My thing is the Girl Scouts and art,” Richardson said. “I wanted to do something big with that.”

“Project Aquarius” wound up winning the Girl Scouts’ highest honor, which was announced this month.

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“By earning the Gold Award, Grace has become a community leader,” said Karen Peterlin, chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of North-Central Alabama. “Her accomplishments reflect leadership and citizenship skills that set her apart.”

Richardson chose to study art at South Alabama because of its animation program. Her dream is to work at Disney on the kind of animated movies she loved growing up. She’s seen her favorite films dozens and dozens of times.

“‘Tangled’ – ‘Tangled’ is my favorite,” she said. “And ‘Treasure Planet.’ Nobody knows that one, but it’s one of my favorites, too.”

Richardson’s website welcomes visitors with a beach close-up and simple slogan: “The ocean needs you.”

A gallery of paintings offers titles such as “Red Tide,” “Bleached Reef” and “Plastic Jelly.” A section called “What You Can Do” recommends that people conserve water, refuse plastics and consume sustainably fished or farmed seafood. There are links to green retailers and marine advocacy groups.

At her high school, Richardson recruited fellow students to help paint an ocean mural on a cafeteria wall, which wasn’t even part of her project. At her church, she turned a gallery opening into an environmental program, convincing elders to stop using Styrofoam products.

At South, she keeps busy with classes and activities with the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. She enjoys spending time around the courtyard of the Visual Arts Building. She likes living near the Gulf Coast.

This summer, Richardson will return to the Girl Scouts as a camp counselor. She’s known many of her scouting friends since they were in kindergarten. She’s a lifetime Girl Scout member.

“Project Aquarius” might not be her last attempt at art and activism. She isn’t sure where her career will lead.

“Animation is storytelling for all ages,” Richardson said. “You see it all the time in small ways.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)