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For Earth Day 2013, who better to feature than a woman who makes a living studying and teaching about our beautiful planet! Meet geology professor extraordinaire, Autumn Powell Yatabe! Autumn is a geology professor at Samford University and also teaches through several area home school organizations. I was first introduced to her through a mutual friend who dubbed Autumn “a geological badass.” And after meeting her, I must say I agree! We had so much fun chatting with Autumn as we walked along Jemison Trail, listening to her enthusiastically exude about all things earthy–even making the topic of storm water run off an interesting and engaging discussion! Autumn clearly loves her profession and is a wealth of knowledge on many scientific fronts.
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Where did you grow up? And what brought you to Birmingham?

I was born in Paris to American parents but grew up in Rome, Georgia. I first came to Birmingham to study Ballet at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. After graduation and a year at UAB, I moved to Atlanta where I earned degrees in Environmental Geology and Geochemistry. I returned to Birmingham almost two years ago with my daughters, Juliet and Ella. I have a lot of old friends here and it is such a beautiful city to live in.

What exactly does a geologist do?

A lot! It is a wide field with applications in the energy and environmental industries. I have worked as a geotechnical testing engineer, a storm water engineer making maps for water systems and a field geologist. I also did research on water-rock interactions as a graduate student. Now I am teaching Physical Geography at Samford University and high school science for a Christian home school co-op called Creative Scholars, Inc. in Homewood. I love teaching to encourage young people to be informed about environmental issues and to have a science education to understand the concepts. Thinking critically about science is vital to our roles as informed citizens.
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And why are you so passionate about the earth?

I grew up in the North Georgia Mountains and was very close to my grandfather, who was a great naturalist. He passed his fascination with nature on to me. The Earth is a great gift and we should leave it healthy for future generations.

Tell us why you would like to see more women in the science fields.

Because there are just not enough of us. I think girls are not encouraged to pursue science as a career option. Women bring a unique perspective to the field and we are natural communicators. The starting pay is very good in science and technology. Encouraging my female students to consider a career in science is important to me. Had it not been for a teacher who encouraged me in high school, I do not know if I would have even considered it myself. Most of all, it is just so much fun!
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So what’s up with all these hurricanes, snow storms, tornadoes, etc.?

The prolonged rise in temperatures due to excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase heating of the oceans, which increases evaporation and energy available to drive major storms. So increased precipitation and violent storms, including blizzards, are hallmarks of a global warming trend. Also, the warmer the planet, the more our polar ice caps melt. That white ice reflects a lot of energy back to space that would otherwise heat up the atmosphere even more. A negative feedback loop results. Climate change is complicated by many variables, but think of it this way, if you change one thing, it impacts everything else.

Want to weigh in on global warming?

Dr. James Hanson warned everyone 25 years ago about warming trends that are happening today. Now it is almost too late to reverse it. It will be expensive and take longer to reduce the accumulation of Greenhouse gases that are responsible for climate change. Even the USDA has had to revise their planting zones. I can now grow things in my garden year round that used to succumb to prolonged cold 20 years ago.
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Tell us your top 3 things that the average person can do to make a real difference in the earth’s sustainability?

Recycle, buy less plastic, and when you replace your roof choose a light colored one. Light colored roofs reflect a lot of heat and the home owner uses a lot less energy to cool their home. Since we use a lot more energy in the South to cool than to warm our homes, it makes sense. Using less plastic saves energy and is beneficial to wildlife that may ingest and die from it. Almost every piece of plastic ever made is still on the planet. That is horrifying. Buy a steel water bottle and fill it with filtered tap water instead of buying plastic bottles. This will save you money and is healthier.

What did your bedroom look like as a teenage girl?

When I got my first apartment on Southside as a 17 year old freshman, I covered my walls with National Geographic maps. I have always loved maps as much as I am fascinated by rocks and water, so it is no surprise I wound up teaching Physical Geography. I am still a map nut and rarely use GPS to find my way preferring a map and compass.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

“What would a man do?” Got that from my Mother many times when I was young and insecure.

What advice would you give to others?

I believe you can do pretty much anything if you are practical, hardworking and passionate. Oh, and when you get a job, learn everyone else’s job there, too. I cannot tell you how many times that has paid off for me. Learning new skills benefits everyone. Never stop learning.

What is your favorite thing to do to relax?

If I am working on a problem or need a break from grading mounds of papers, I go for a long walk. Everyone needs to be humbled now and then by the universe and my hikes remind me of that fact. I also do yoga and garden a lot to relax. I can get lost in my yard for hours planting or moving rocks around. I never tire of travel, exploration or looking at rocks and waterways. I definitely chose the right field!
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Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?

I like to go out to eat and talk with my friends. I am very stimulated by interesting, smart people. I learn so much from them. But I am not a night crawler. I turn into a pumpkin by midnight.

Favorite local restaurant?

For brunch I love Trattoria Centrale. They have the best café au lait in town. For dinner El Barrio has wonderful chorizo meatloaf and Chez Lulu is within walking distance of my house so I eat there pretty often. I practically live off cheese, eggs and coffee.

What music are you listening to these days?

A fantastic local artist, India Ramey, who just happens to be my sister, The Tragically Hip and Zero 7. I love Latin music since I do Salsa dancing when I get the chance.

What books are you currently reading?

In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders and Coming into the Country by John McPhee. I am a big McPhee fan. I am also reading about 10 other books depending on my mood.
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Do you have any personality quirks or irrational fears?

I lead a rather quirky life, but then I come from a family of artists, musicians and eccentrics, so I fit right in with our tribe. I am terrified of snakes which I commonly encounter in my line of work. I still screech every time I run across one, which amuses my children to no end.

If your house was on fire what’s the one thing you would grab?

Other than children and pets, nothing at all. I am not very materialistic and keep my memories in my heart. Besides, my rock collection would survive the fire so no worries.

Name three things you can’t live without (excluding friends, family and God!).

Café au lait, yoga and something to read. I keep books everywhere “just in case.”

Thanks for sharing, Autumn! We’d also like to give a shout out to hair stylist Ashleigh Silas of Hopson James Salon in Homewood for styling Autumn’s hair for this shoot. And a big thanks to Beth Hontzas for todays fabulous photos!
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