JSU Biology Department Mentors Munford High School Students


Munford High School students gather specimens with the help of the JSU Biology Department. (courtesy/Kimberly Murray)

Jacksonville State University has long been called the “friendliest campus in the South,” an honor which extends to the professors of the university’s biology department, according to the teachers in the Munford, Ala. school system. Beginning in 2012, several biology professors partnered with teachers and students at Munford High School to give students a new and exciting outlook on science. Professors regularly took their personal time to visit and assist students in experiments and research ventures, and have since helped cultivate a love of learning in students and exemplified what it means to be selfless and passionate educators.

The partnership formally began in 2012 when Stacey Dotson, a former aquaculture teacher with Munford Schools, contacted Dr. Mark Meade, a fisheries biologist at JSU, for help with tending to the 2,000 tilapia Dotson and her students were raising in the school’s aquaculture training facility.

 “I got involved with Munford based on the work I do in the Talladega National Forest,” said Meade. “I do census work sometimes documenting fish populations, particularly threatened and endangered species. I was asked if students could come along, and we eventually had a team of students working with me on a yearly basis. The opportunity has allowed the students to learn more about biodiversity in the Southeast—one of the most biodiverse temperate regions in the world, actually—as well as get the opportunity to participate in science meetings and compete for college scholarships.”

Since Meade’s initial involvement, other biology professors have contributed their time and talent to the blossoming Munford program. Dr. Lori Tolley-Jordan, a biologist specializing in invertebrate biology, became involved in fall 2014 with helping the students conduct a study on snails collected from Mount Cheaha and Terrapin Creek. Tolley-Jordan guided students through the lab procedure of analyzing the snails under a microscope to check for parasites and infections. The students were then responsible for digitizing their findings and recording them to their own digital portfolios.

“[The kids] were wonderful and taught me to observe the animals we were studying in an entirely different light,” Tolley-Jordan said on working with the outstanding students at Munford. “It was a fantastic experience.”

As if the experience itself wasn’t enough to keep students keen on discovering the wild and sometimes microscopic world around them, students were also invited to participate in this year’s Undergraduate Research Symposium at JSU, and many have competed at the Alabama Junior Academy of Science Symposium. Dr. James Rayburn, a toxicologist at JSU, has been responsible for not only working with students at Munford raising South African Clawed Frogs, but also for organizing students to present and compete at the various symposiums. Here, students present their research to a panel of judges and have the opportunity to win collegiate scholarships.

To the professors, there is no amount of money as rewarding as seeing their students develop and follow their passions. “I have been involved for three years now,” Meade said, “and a few of the students claim our program influenced their future educational directions.”

“I think it is important to show the community that science is more than just wearing a lab coat, or that going to college with a degree in biology is just for going to med school,” added Tolley-Jordan. “We teach kids [and] teachers that science is done every day in the world around us.”

Kimberly Murray, a teacher at Munford Elementary School, wrote a letter on behalf of the Munford school system to university president Dr. Bill Meehan expressing her gratitude to the gifted professors of the JSU Biology Department. In her letter, Murray wrote, “I want you to know that these professors have gone above and beyond for our students and they make a difference. They have made a difference in our students’ lives. They have made a difference in us. Therefore, we at Munford High School enthusiastically thank Dr. Mark Meade, Dr. Lori Tolley-Jordan, Dr. George Cline, and Dr. James Rayburn for helping our students achieve greatness.”

Students can only succeed with the encouragement and guidance of adult teachers and mentors, and the students of Munford High School have found both in the biology professors of JSU. Because of their tireless dedication and relentless passion for education, they are helping ensure the next generation of equally passionate capable scientists, students who are one step closer to making a difference in the world.