Highlander Highlights: Week of March 18, 2024

Every two weeks, Highlander Highlights shares with readers some of the extraordinary research and accomplishments happening on and off campus through the tireless work and curiosity of our students and faculty. 

Radford University students set Selu afire – on purpose!

By Karen Powers, Ph.D.
Professor of biology in the Artis College of Science and Technology

On a beautiful spring afternoon, students in Radford University Professor Karen Powers’ fire ecology course set a small part of the world on fire – 8 acres, to be exact. Ten students were guided by a wealth of fire experts and safety personnel to successfully complete a prescribed burn at the university’s Selu Conservancy.

This parcel of land was replanted in native grasses in the early 2000s with the goal of bringing back native grassland birds, like the bobwhite quail and smaller songbirds that depend on this habitat type. This land has been purposely burned on a three-year rotation (barring 2020 during COVID-19) for at least the past 20 years. Powers has been a part of this burn since 2008 and took over its management about seven years ago. The prescribed fire was conducted according to Virginia state burn rules and under safe weather conditions (e.g., temperature, days since rain, relative humidity, wind speeds and direction).

Students in the 10-member class have spent the semester preparing for this fire, creating a burn plan to maximize safety and achieve the wildlife goals. Two weeks prior to the burn, 20-foot fire breaks (bare soil devoid of fuel) were created around the parcel’s perimeter by Radford’s facilities staff. These breaks ensured the fire did not jump into adjacent forested parcels and Selu’s managed garden. 


Completed with the leadership and guidance from an experienced fire crew from the Virginia Department of Forestry and with the blessing of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation (because Selu is managed under a conservation easement that protects the natural environment in perpetuity), students used drip torches and special firefighting tools to control the spread of the fire. Water trucks were on standby in the fire breaks in case the fire behaved unexpectedly.

In all, the 8 acres burned completely in about 20 minutes, with the blaze monitored by a drone. Members from Radford’s Office of Emergency Management, Office of Environmental Health and Safety, Riner Fire Department and Montgomery County EMS were in attendance, ready to step in as needed. The burn was completed without incident and deemed a success.

“I am proud of the way my students handled this fire – our class well-prepared us for this day,” Powers said. “I am extremely grateful to the Virginia Department of Forestry for leading the group and for all the administrators at Radford University who helped this fire to be conducted in a safe manner. This burn is so much more than textbook learning – a photo or video just does not do it justice. This is a real-world experience for our students.”

Students in fire ecology also are enrolled in wildland firefighter training offered through the Department of Forestry. They are taking online training models throughout the semester, followed by a one-day intensive field training event in which they work toward obtaining their red card certification. After completing a pack test (a hike carrying weights), they would be immediately marketable and eligible to join state or federal teams that fight wildfires. Past students have been hired to fight fires in the western United States.

“Helping with the controlled burn was a really exciting opportunity that not many people will experience,” biology major Amber Gordon said. “It was so cool to learn fire ecology in a hands-on way.”

Biology major Caleb Smith added, “Going from the classroom to a real-world situation seemed incredibly intimidating at first, but after seeing how a prescribed burn is executed in the field, it made the whole ordeal seem far more approachable. This experience is vital to doing the job safely and correctly.” 

Department of Biology Chair Jamie Lau was on-site to watch, learn and support the students.

“I was proud of our students who demonstrated a calm, highly collaborative team as they communicated well with each other and team leaders while setting the site on fire,” Lai said. “Professor Powers’ leadership in coordinating the burn and providing a space for students to learn these skills is exceptional!”

A sincere “Thank you” to all the agencies and offices who made this burn so successful!

Radford hosting Esports Big South Tournament this weekend

The Big South Conference’s esports tournament is coming to Radford University.

Teams from High Point University, Charleston Southern, University of North Carolina Asheville and Presbyterian College will compete with the Highlanders March 23-24 in Radford’s Esports Center. Seventy-five competitors are expected on campus to battle for championships in four different game titles: Rocket League, Overwatch, League of Legends and Valorant.

Seminal matches are scheduled for Saturday, March 23. All finals and third-place matches are set for Sunday, March 24.

Radford students have organized and will run the tournament. A year ago, Radford students operated the Big South’s inaugural esports tournament between games of the conference’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments inside the Bojangles Coliseum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Located on Radford’s main campus, the Esports Center is an 1,800-square-foot facility designed to accommodate esports competitions such as the Big South Tournament, as well as the individual gaming and educational needs of Radford University students.

The tournament can be seen at Twitch.tv/RadfordEsports.

Two faculty members honored with emeritus status

Radford University retired faculty members Lisa Allison-Jones and Robert Reese (posthumous) have been awarded emeritus status.

Allison-Jones served as a professor in Waldron College’s Department of Public Health and Healthcare Leadership before retiring in 2023. Reese, who died on Jan. 13, served as a professor in the Department of Psychology within the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences.

College chairs, deans and the university provost recommend individual retired faculty members for the emeritus honor.

Emeritus faculty members share the same rights and privileges regarding participation in Radford University activities as active full-time faculty members, such as use of McConnell Library, access to athletic facilities available to faculty, use of a university computer account, a university identification card and special event discounts and attendance at university functions that are open to all regular faculty.

They said it

“Besides just having the opportunity to learn more about important parts of our history, I hope this trip will make students truly appreciate the enormous work and contributions made by many past individuals to save lives and to make our current world a better place. Hopefully, through these examples, students will be inspired and believe that their own work in their upcoming careers can help better the lives of others.”

-          Neil Sigmon, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, following a trip he and 12 students in his cryptography course took to visit Bletchley Park in London, where during World War II, British codebreakers cracked what German engineers thought was their unbreakable Enigma enciphering machine.


Neil Sigmon (center, red shirt) and students enrolled in his cryptography course stand in front of Bletchley Park in London.

Mar 21, 2024
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761