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StoriesMina Burton ’21

Mapping out a future in ecology

With a fellowship at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Mina Burton builds new connections between emotional wellbeing and environmental conservation

Mina Burton '11

As a child, Mina Burton visited Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge every fall with their family to see the spectacular foliage.

“I always think of it first as an arboretum,” Mina says, recalling memories of stately trees too big to encircle with their arms.

As a Lesley undergraduate majoring in Environmental Studies, Mina, who uses they/them pronouns, returned to the cemetery, working with researchers to create Geographic Information Systems (GIS) maps documenting everything from bat and amphibian habitats to cyclical changes in the cemetery’s flora and fauna. Two years later, a Barnett Fellowship, named after Mount Auburn’s former president, will allow them to continue and expand their work to create a StoryMap showcasing the citizen science and biodiversity studies taking place at the cemetery.

StoryMaps are designed to enable online storytelling by integrating GIS maps with text, images, and videos, making the information accessible and engaging for a wider audience, regardless of their expertise.

“Getting the average person interested in environmental work is such a huge part of advocacy,” Mina says. “When people develop a passion for and knowledge of the natural world, that’s when they get involved.”

Engaging more people with nature is essential, they believe, not only for the health of the planet, but for their own personal wellbeing.

An ecological path to mental health

Mina transferred to Lesley from Hampshire College in 2019 to pursue a degree in environmental studies. They had studied psychology, planning to become a therapist, but they discovered a growing interest in a different approach to emotional wellbeing.

“I felt as if a lot of what we see as emotional issues like anxiety or depression are sometimes tied to very valid concerns — social ills, the climate crisis,” Mina explains. “Sometimes we pathologize what I consider a normal response to mayhem.”

Growing up in Massachusetts, Mina always felt a deep affinity for natural places. Preserving and protecting trees, open space, and wildlife seemed not only essential on a global level but for emotional health as well.

“So many of my peers were feeling a lot of stress and anxiety related to climate change,” Mina says. “I thought maybe I should be devoting attention there.”

A fresh start at Lesley

Transferring to Lesley was easier than Mina had imagined.

“Lesley is really supportive of transfers and returning learners,” Mina says. “When I submitted my application, I was worried because Hampshire does a narrative-based evaluation system — there are no grades. But Lesley took all my credits and I was able to finish in three semesters, which I hadn't anticipated.”

Associate professor Jeff Perrin’s class, Psychology and the Environment, confirmed for Mina that they would be able to combine ecology and mental health. An internship at a Somerville nonprofit, Earthwise Aware, introduced Mina to the concept of citizen science, loosely defined as scientific research conducted by amateurs. Another class, New England Field Studies, taught by Dr. David Morimoto, chair of the Department of Natural Sciences and Math, gave Mina hands-on experience observing and engaging with natural areas around greater Boston.

A page from Mina Burton's New England Field studies journal
A page from Mina's journal for their New England Field studies class

Mina's capstone project incorporated both the citizen science work Mina was doing at the internship and GIS mapping at the Middlesex Fells Reservation just north of Boston.

“Mount Auburn was one of the sites that we visited,” Mina recalls. “That’s where I first learned that they also do conservation and wildlife research there. And that was when I realized that this was what I wanted to be doing specifically in terms of conservation work and ecology.”

A sanctuary in the city

Mount Auburn, created as a “garden cemetery” in 1831, occupies 175 pastoral acres nestled between Cambridge and Watertown. A National Historic Landmark, arboretum and wildlife sanctuary, the cemetery contains ponds, meadows, over 17,000 trees, and more than 150 bird species. Lesley’s partnership with Mount Auburn has enabled educators and students to study the biodiversity of the site, collaborate with citizen scientists, and develop new research-based education opportunities.

For Mina, the contemplative ecosystem of Mount Auburn, integrated into an urban environment, presents a perfect opportunity to help city dwellers engage with the natural world.

“As more and more people live in cities, finding ways to support wildlife, in trees and canopy cover and creating corridors for wildlife to move, is so important.”

New directions in conservation

The Barnett Fellowship, designed to train a new generation of leaders in the fields of horticulture, urban ecology, and climate action/sustainability, checks all Mina’s boxes.

Ecologist Mina Burton '21 with a spotted salamander
Mina examines a spotted salamander

As the inaugural fellow, Mina will use StoryMaps to document and share scientific research, encouraging collaboration between researchers and citizen scientists. Mina will also receive hands-on training from Mount Auburn staff, which will complement the time they spend working with Lesley professors Amy Mertl and Chris Richardson, who research Mount Auburn’s pollinators and bats.

Mina notes that spending time observing and engaging with the natural world has made a difference to their sense of wellbeing.

“When I first learned to identify some of the trees and plants here, I realized that I was much more present,” Mina says. “Normally when I was outdoors I’d have my headphones on and be thinking about what I have to do today or what I did yesterday. It's a totally different kind of mindfulness, a totally different mental space.”

And it’s a space that they're happy to inhabit.

“There are so many fantastic researchers and staff in the education and visitor services departments,” Mina says. “I'm attending every event that I can to just soak it up. With nature, there's so much more to learn, always.”