Dr. Mac Alford is known for his cheery disposition and omnipresent smile. Lately, he’s had a good reason for both.
An assistant professor of biological sciences and curator of the university’s herbarium, Alford learned last week he was the recipient of a prestigious and highly competitive Fulbright Foreign Scholarship. The award allows Alford, whose areas of expertise include tropical plants and plant diversity, to teach and conduct research at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. His nine-month appointment begins in October.
“There are lots of applicants for these scholarships, and the review is multi-level and rigorous and therefore not many get approved, so I’m delighted,” Alford said.
Appointed by the president of the United States, the Fulbright Scholarship Board is responsible for the selection of award recipients. The program supports the mutual understanding between the American people and those of more than 150 countries that participate through educational and cultural endeavors.
Alford, who has participated in international academic research in the past, will teach tropical biology and theoretical aspects of botany while at Novi Sad. “Novi Sad has a strong program in wetlands biology, and I want to complement that program and serve as a resource for that area,” he said.
“We’re very excited for Dr. Alford,” said Dr. Glen Shearer, chairman of the Southern Miss Department of Biological Sciences. “This is a tremendous professional development opportunity for him and will have positive impacts on our department, the College of Science and Technology and the university.”
Serbia and other countries that comprised the former nation of Yugoslavia continue to recover from the Kosovo War that marred the Balkans during the late 1990s, hindering investment in scientific research. Because of this, Alford said there is a dearth of available information about the region’s plant diversity as well as plant migration during the ice ages.
“Because of the concern about stability in that region following the wars in the late 1990s, there has been limited field work there,” he said. “Also, there have been other priorities that the country has been focused on in recovering from the wars that have prevented investment in scientific research infrastructure.”
Alford plans to help improve that situation by leveraging his research expertise and work as herbarium curator, in which he uses the latest technology for establishing databases and specimen imaging for its more than 25,000 plants. He hopes his Fulbright-sponsored work will increase opportunities for mutually beneficial international research for Novi Sad and Serbia.
“This area of the Balkans is biologically one of the richest areas of Europe, primarily because of its rugged terrain,” he said. “It has diverse animal and plant life, including lynx and bears and even African violet relatives, which we have none of in North America. But this has been untapped through research since the late 1990s, and my goal is to provide them some tools for getting that information out.”
Through the program, Alford’s own research will benefit from the opportunity to study plant life in the temperate elements of the region. He also wants the relationships he builds to lead to student exchange opportunities between the two universities.
Alford likens the Fulbright program to an educational version of the Peace Corps. “We’re exchanging academic knowledge, and at the same time I as a person am representing the U.S. and acting as a bridge between the two countries to promote mutual understanding.”
Building that bridge has its challenges, especially since Serbia and the U.S. were on opposite sides of the Kosovo War in the late 1990s. But Alford is optimistic. His wife is a native of Serbia, and through her he’s gained a unique perspective and increased knowledge about the region.
“We haven’t had such a positive relationship with Serbia in the recent past, so another part of my going there is to help, in my own way, to improve that relationship by building positive relationships with real people through academic research and teaching,” he said.
Alford joined the Southern Miss faculty in the fall semester of 2005. He said the university has provided him with a platform that made getting the Fulbright Scholarship possible.
“Southern Miss has allowed me a unique research experience through my work with the herbarium and lots of opportunities to teach classes I wanted to teach in botany,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from students and colleagues that I have collaborated with in my department. I’ve had a great experience here.”
Angie Dement, a Southern Miss senior majoring in molecular biology, said that aside from her parents Alford has been one of the most positive influences in her life. “He’s been my mentor here at the university, and I don’t believe I would have made it this far without him,” she said.