It’s been a year of challenges, but also blessings. One such blessing came in the form of a $167,592 grant from the National Science Foundation to support “data and security infrastructure improvements to advance biological research” at the University of Lynchburg’s Claytor Nature Center.
Claytor’s director Dr. Greg Eaton says the award couldn’t have come at a better time, given that the center’s usual visitor programs have been mostly on hold due to the pandemic.
“The activities to accomplish the grant project objectives are perfectly suited to 2020 because construction projects can be disruptive to visiting programs, and we are currently very much slowed down with educational programs — not wanting to encourage large group gatherings here,” Eaton said. “[This] grant addresses our greatest need, one we have been limited by for a long time.”
The NSF grant will bring Claytor, an 18th-century farm now used for research, education, and recreation, up to speed — literally — and better connect it to Lynchburg’s main campus. The whole project will take about a year.
“Claytor has always been constrained by its rural location,” Eaton said. “Connecting all the facilities with in-ground fiber-optic cable and WiFi capacity allows expansion of our research and academic capacity and our connectedness to campus.”
Greater WiFi capacity will allow for “data-intensive projects,” such as “environmental remote sensing,” transmission of sensitive data and images from the center’s Ramsey-Freer Herbarium or its network of wildlife cameras, and remote operations of research equipment, such as Claytor’s weather station and the Belk Astronomical Observatory.
“The new capacity will position the center to attract more and more sophisticated, scientific research from our faculty and those from other institutions,” Eaton said. “[It also will allow for] virtual classrooms, in addition to the experiential learning we are known for.”
Better WiFi also means academic resources can be shared more easily between Claytor and the main campus, which is about 24 miles away.
“We could even livestream video of the exceptional beauty of the Claytor Center to campus screens,” Eaton said. “We hope that better connectivity will reduce the distance between our center and campus.”
Another challenge the grant will help tackle is Claytor’s physical safety. As Eaton pointed out, it’s difficult to secure 491 acres. The NSF grant will support the installation of electronic gates at the center’s main entrances that can be opened with University I.D.s and special credentials provided to external users. Claytor staff will also be able to collect a time-and-date stamp of individual users’ traffic.
“This improvement will increase security and convenience at the same time,” Eaton said.
The grant will also ensure alarm systems are installed in buildings that don’t currently have them.
Faculty and student researchers especially will benefit from the WiFi and security upgrades. “Improved security will allow pre-approved researchers to enter the center at all times of the day, for example to track wildlife,” Eaton said.
These projects, he added, will address important questions about plant and animal species, wetland plant community dynamics, the effects of invasive plants, and impacts of past human agricultural and clearcutting activities. With the upgrades, researchers will be able to easily access and transmit data.
Eaton hopes the grant will help Claytor expand its relevance, not just as a beloved recreational site in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, but as a strong contributor to ecological and conservation research efforts in the region and beyond.
“The mission of the Claytor Nature Center is to enrich learning about nature through education and research, to promote and demonstrate sustainable human-environment interactions, and to preserve and enhance the diversity and function of ecosystems,” he said.
“As with the best biological field stations, Claytor plays a unique and critical role in creating a citizenry capable of understanding complex problems, such as global environmental change and making informed environmental policy decisions.”