In his knee-high steel-toed rubber boots Brian Alward looks like an anthropologist. However, the 60-year-old geography-anthropology major is more likely to be found in the Geographic Information Systems Lab on the Gorham campus than in a swamp collecting data.
This summer, after graduating from the University, Alward will participate in a prestigious internship at the National Geographic Society in Washington D.C. where he will work in the society’s online division.
“People say I look like I’m from the county when I wear these boots,” said a grinning Alward.
Alward is from the county. But he hasn’t lived in his hometown of Houlton since graduating high school. After a short stint in college Alward joined the Marine Corps and was assigned to the 2nd Force Reconnaissance Co., Pathfinder Platoon. According to Alward, the experience he gained during four years of active duty contributed to his interest in geography, but it would be over 30 years before he would put his knowledge of aerial photographs and map reading to work.
After his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, Alward worked as an underwriter for an insurance company. It was not until after he was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 that Alward fulfilled his life long desire to return to school.
“I had kind of an epiphany. When you jump out of an airplane at 19 you don’t realize your own mortality, but when you’re 50 you do start to realize it,” said Alward, “What if I died and I hadn’t done anything to benefit society?”
After his successful battle with cancer Alward decided to enroll in the geography-anthropology program where he hoped to address his concerns about the environment.
“I’m particularly concerned with urban sprawl and heat islands,” said Alward.
Alward explained that heat islands are pockets of warmer than normal air that occur when the natural landscape is replaced with things like buildings and parking lots. These heat islands can affect air quality and even local weather patterns. It is a phenomenon that Alward investigated personally, in a study that found a temperature increase in the area around the Portland Jetport.
According to Nathan Hamilton, Chair of the Geology-Anthropology Department, the study was an example the kind of work that made Alward an excellent candidate for the National Geographic Society internship.
“He’ll turn over every rock when he is looking for information. Every time he does something it’s with just a little bit more effort than the best students. I recommended him without reservation,” said Hamilton.
Alward believes that education is the key to improving the environment. This is an area he hopes to explore at the National Geographic Society.
“Whatever I can learn about how they educate the public through the Internet will be valuable,” said Alward.
According to Robert Dulli, director of the Geography Education Program at the National Geographic society, competition for internships at the society is fierce. He explained that Alward’s academic success allowed him to make the cut easily and added that he is eager to meet him.
After the internship Alward plans to work on programs benefiting the environment.
“I had a friend who said, ‘It’s not that important whether you go to heaven or not but whether you leave the earth a better place than when you found it,'” said Alward.
Staff writer John McCarthy can be contacted at: [email protected]maine.edu