Adapted from

Ally Van DeurenMy name is Ally Van Deuren and I am pursuing a BFA in theatre and a BA in journalism from SMU in Dallas, Texas. I am originally from Southern California, where I caught the “stage bug” at age three when I performed in my first dance recital. From that point on, I knew performance would always be a part of my life. As I got older, my interests slightly shifted and I got into writing and serving on my school newspaper’s staff. Ultimately, I would like to work in a job that will combine my passions in both fields.

Through my blog site, my goal is to promote the interests of artists at Southern Methodist University and in the greater Dallas area. By keeping up-to-date listings, advances and reviews of local performances, I hope to provide a place Dallas audiences will feel comfortable spending time before and after seeing a show or other arts-related, performance-oriented content. I also hope to offer valuable and thoughtful criticism of the performances in the area, as I see them.

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Tree Detectives

Jewel records observations about the sample plot

Jewel records observations about the sample plot

Shannon measuring DBH of the tree

Shannon measuring DBH of the tree


Left: Ash leaf (Fraxinus) Middle: Winged elm (Ulmus alata) Right: Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra)

Left: Ash leaf (Fraxinus)
Middle: Winged elm leaf (Ulmus alata)
Right: Slippery elm leaf (Ulmus rubra

The month of May felt like a whirlwind! During the last two weeks of school, including finals week, I spent about twenty hours in the forest. I now have data for 26 plots, which covers 2600 square meters of forest.




Besides measuring the size of the tree, an invaluable part of the data is the species identification. This turned out to be a little more difficult than I originally expected; trees can be surprisingly tricky. Some species have very similar leaves, and sometimes the leaves were too high up on the tree to get a good look. I would feel the leaf to compare its roughness, memorize the bark pattern, or examine the patter that the leaves grew off the branches. It felt like detective work.



Sometimes a tree would simply stump me. In these cases, I saved leaves in a plant press for later, so I could ask a botanist or detailed botany books. The video shares what it was like to use a plant press in the field.





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Wildflower Season

Jewel with wildflowersLately it seems like my entire life is about trees. I have been going to the Trinity River Audubon Center (TRAC) two to three times each week since Spring Break. When I’m not there, I spend a lot of time reading about them or googling them. The tree icon is even one of my most used emojis.Tree emoji
I wanted to take a quick break to say that I also love springtime for the wildflowers. They are quite lovely and it’s been fun to watch the flower species change over the past month. Just goes to show that you don’t have to delve deep into the forest or brave poison ivy to find beauty at TRAC.




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Mysteries of the Forest

If I could be a little presumptuous, I would award Shannon and myself ribbons for being dauntless. The forest is lovely, yes, but it’s also wild. We’ve encountered a pack of feral hogs, thickets of thorns, poison ivy, bugs, and more, but we still go on.

Jewel with large pecan treeOne group of plots was especially peculiar and difficult to maneuver. The section of forest is on the other side of the Trinity River from all the other plots. It is strange to me because there are old, huge pecan trees here (>100 cm diameter), but the vast majority of the other trees are saplings (<3 cm diameter). We had a tough time walking through all the skinny trees, and it took a really long time to measure them all.

The site history of this spot is still a bit of a mystery to me. We saw that a few trees had tarp around the base which shows they had been planted by people, surely before all the saplings sprung up. Anyway, this section has very distinct characteristics from the forest on the other side of the river, where the trees are further apart and bigger.

The differences confuse me right now. Why can I cross a bridge and be surrounded by a new set of trees? This forest seems so “patchy.” Does that mean anything? I think it might, but I have more data to collect before drawing conclusions.

Some forest sample plots looked like this, filled with very young, thin trees.

Some forest sample plots looked like this, filled with very young, thin trees.

Across the river, the forest looks like this sample plot. The trees are larger and farther apart.

Across the river, the forest looks like this sample plot. The trees are larger and farther apart.


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Tree Hugging

Essentially, my job is to hug trees. I love it! In the video I show what I do for my research. I repeat this for hundreds of trees!

Finding the tree’s diameter at breast height (DBH) is a standard, important measurement in forestry and ecology research. Just by taking that number along with the tree species name, I can calculate how much space each species occupies in the total area, how dense the forest is with each species, and how frequently each species occurs. I can also determine which trees are most important, along with the forest’s diversity, age, and disturbance history.

I will be analyzing my data this fall. For now, I’m focusing on hugging the Great Trinity Forest trees in all my sample plots.

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Trail Blazing

Let’s make something clear- the Trinity River Audubon Center has a lot of forest land. To give you an idea, I’ll tell you a little about my experience designing my project.

Jewel Lipps and Shannon Hart working at the Trinity River Audubon Center

Jewel Lipps and Shannon Hart working at the Trinity River Audubon Center

I spent months on background research, just reading forestry and ecology studies in order to develop a method appropriate for the TRAC forest area. There’s surprisingly many ways someone can study a forest! It’s not scientific (or smart) to wander into the woods aimlessly, so researchers randomly sample the area.

I decided to have 28 sample plots. They are each 100 square meters. I will be identifying and measuring every tree in a total 2800 square meters of forest. For a really loose approximation, that’s the area of just over half of a football field- but totally filled with trees!

My total area sampled is only about 1% of the forest at the Trinity River Audubon Center…

…and the Trinity River Audubon Center is maybe 0.01% of the Great Trinity Forest. Maybe.

Anyone feeling adventurous? There’s a lot to explore!

Something else I want to make clear- there are no trails, no signs, and no easy way to get to my randomly selected sample plots. My fantastic field partner Shannon Hart weaves through the trees with me each time, creating our own path to discover the stories of the forest.

Shannon Hart exploring the Great Trinity Forest

Shannon Hart exploring the Great Trinity Forest


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Finding the Forest in the City

forest trailFirst, you need to leave Southern Methodist University. Drive south on North Central Expressway. Pass downtown Dallas. Merge onto Interstate 45 and soon you’ll see bright green treetops on both sides of the highway. Take Exit 179 to travel east on Loop 12. Take a right at the Trinity River Audubon Center.

This isn’t even a 20 mile trip and you’ve found access to the southern end of the Great Trinity River Forest. It’s 6000 acres of hardwood bottomland- wait, what’s that? Don’t worry, I’m an Environmental Science major and even I had to google it. Pretty much, it’s a forest in a broad floodplain along a river. Further east, these kinds of forests are also swamps, but since we’re dry Dallas, we have a unique forest that is adapted to being dry some of the time but flooded at other times. Our forest is perhaps the largest urban forest in the nation, and there’s growing interest in it from a variety of groups. Including groups at SMU!

The Institute for the Study of Earth and Man (ISEM) at SMU hosts the Gaffney Family Interdisciplinary Initiative that has provided a fantastic opportunity for undergraduates to work on projects related to the Great Trinity Forest. As a freshman, I got involved with the ISEM to create a list of organizations working in the forest and what’s being planned there. That’s how I found out about the Trinity River Audubon Center (TRAC) and what eventually led me to decide to work there for my Engaged Learning project.

Less than two decades ago, TRAC was an illegal dumpsite. Now it’s a 120 acre hotspot for birdwatching, nature walks, and environmental education. It’s an awesome story of reclamation, a dramatic change from humans abusing the forest to humans appreciating it. TRAC opened in 2008 and six years later, its restoration story continues. My part in the restoration story is to characterize TRAC’s ~40 acres of forest. My research will inform conservation management and support educational initiatives.

This spring, I have started ‘trekking through the trees’ to identify and measure their sizes. I used a computer program called ArcGIS to randomly chose 28 forest plots to sample. With GPS coordinates, measuring tape, and granola bars in tow, into the woods I go!

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Clinton Global Initiative University 2014

I get it—our generation has its flaws. I just read yet another article about how we’re up to our old tricks again, what with our incessant texting and tweeting. Yes, we were the generation with an undying love for boy bands and grew up to thumb away on our smartphones, but we’re also trying to change the world. Where does one find a young person making a difference, you ask? You might try the Clinton Global Initiative University. CGI U is completely recasting the distressing portrait of today’s youth from estranged and neurotic to upbeat and intelligent. We’re a stubborn bunch. Call us what you want – Generation Me, Millennials, Generation Y – it doesn’t change that fact that we’re rebelling against cultural ennui by going out and getting things done.

SMU students at CGI U 2014

SMU students at CGI U 2014

Last weekend, I had the opportunity of attending the seventh annual CGI University meeting with over 1,000 students from all 50 states and over 80 countries. CGI U, an initiative of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, is devoted to inspiring the next generation of leaders to tackle global challenges. The goal of CGI U is not just to discuss issues at hand, but rather to make specific Commitments to Action to address pressing challenges faced all over the world. CGI U unites students and challenges them to take on these global problems through innovation and collaboration. “We’re the generation that has volunteered most in history — even more than my parent’s generation,” said Chelsea Clinton in the opening session.

I was one of six SMU students that travelled to Arizona State University to take part in CGI U 2014. My commitment, which falls under the Peace and Human Rights focus area, involves The Nari Project. Nari kits, which are transitional crisis kits, provide battered women with basic necessities as they transition from critical situations to a secure environment. The kits, which have been implemented in Dallas, Texas and Comilla, Bangladesh, include items such as food, clothing, gift cards, a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other items. This year, I have committed to complete the last stage of research for The Nari Project by engaging in scholarly research to determine the psychological and physiological efficacy of the kits. Using this research, I will conduct seminars to spread awareness about domestic violence, and scale up the Nari initiative.

With over 1000 of the brightest minds in attendance, the weekend was an unparalleled amalgamation of innovation and stimulation. The conference, which was held at Arizona State University in Tempe, examined issues such as environment and climate change, education, peace and human rights, public health and poverty alleviation. The meeting featured a cast list brimming with prominent speakers by the likes of Gabrielle Giffords, Jimmy Wales, Reeta Roy and Jimmy Kimmel.

While I attended last year’s CGI U Meeting in St. Louis, I was admittedly overwhelmed by the sheer evolution of the student commitments. This year surpassed my expectations yet again, as I met a host of likeminded and unwavering students that are taking concrete steps to confront global issues. Whether it was another student appreciating the work I put into my project, or someone that was interested in working with Nari, I came away from the weekend with numerous valuable contacts.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight with you. Then you win,” said Barefoot College’s Bunker Roy at one of the sessions, quoting Gandhi. CGI U has provided me with a sense of self-actualization that has helped me better realize my place in the world.

Kids these days.

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Clinton Global Initiative University

Thomas Schmedding, SMU ’16, is working with Adam Goff, SMU ’16, on a micro-finance loan project, PropeLend Economic Empowerment Ventures, which will harness public support for economic development by empowering impoverished residents of developing nations to seek loans for entrepreneurship.  

This past weekend I arrived in Phoenix, Arizona for a convention with some of the brightest minds of our generation. Many of the students who attended are on the cutting edge of social innovation and policy making. This culmination of over 1000 students and their ideas was brought together by the Clinton Foundation, an organization spearheaded by Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton.

Each student or small group of students addressed specific social problems by creating a commitment to action. Our commitment to action regarded microfinance loans in developing countries. Once paid back, these loans will be bundled into grants for the Dallas community.

The event featured many guest speakers including The Clintons, Jimmy Kimmel, John McCain, Jimmy Wales (Founder of Wikipedia), and several prominent activists. In between the speakers were meetings with CEOs and innovators at the top of their fields. Each student had the opportunity to gain insight and perfect their plan for start-up and initiation.

Overall, I would say the experience my research partner and I gained at CGIU will prove very influential in our coming business planning.

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