Henry Pitts ’21, Environmental Science

Henry Pitts
Henry Pitts

Henry Pitts is a senior environmental science major and Blount minor from Tuscaloosa, AL.  After graduation, he plans to pursue a graduate degree in water or environmental policy before entering law school.

How did you choose your major? What sparked your interest in the field?

As a child, I believed in magic — that every rock, tree, stream, and hill was alive and listening to us. I spent my summers growing up on the southeast coast of Ireland, where local legend told of tree spirits and water spirits defending their homes from nosy and invasive humans.

As I got older, this fascination with the natural world turned to science. Science is our way of processing our infinite world into definable, finite boxes; hence, it is always changing, always evolving, adapting as new methods and data become available. The talking trees, sprites, and magic of my childhood were simply manifestations of undiscovered science, a way to process the unknown.

So, when I began my studies at UA after years of backpacking and camping, science fairs, and citizen science projects, majoring in environmental science seemed like the perfect fit. The magic and wonder that I felt as a child, traipsing through the woods and sleeping beneath the stars has persisted, and drives me to learn all that I can about the natural processes behind our world— and in turn how to protect them.

What do you like about studying environmental science at UA?

The environmental science program has given me the freedom to pursue an incredibly broad range of subjects, allowing me to cultivate a more holistic understanding of our natural processes. While working in the Forest Dynamics Lab, I learned to conduct field surveys at sites in the Talladega National Forest. I studied water policy under our Assistant State Geologist, Dr. Bennett Bearden. This culminated in the organization of the first annual UA Water Policy Workshop with my fellow cohort members in the American Geophysical Union’s Voices for Science Program.

I’m currently working in the Cartography Lab, scanning, and editing historical aerial photographs of Alabama for an online, open-source database. The interdisciplinary design of the ES coursework also allowed me to complement my degree with the Blount Scholars Program, where I learned invaluable writing and critical analysis skills. After my first year, these skills were applied in a wide range of seminars from dendroclimatology to quest literature.

What are your career goals?

Water is my one great love. In ten years, I envision myself fighting on the front lines working within a federal or international agency, negotiating transboundary water disputes, advocating for sound policy regarding licensing practices for dams, filing suit against polluters in protected watershed systems, and litigating contamination class action suits. I want to help bridge the gap between science, policy, and law. An effective policy must be science-driven, and as such the science must be easily understood and applied by those who will write and implement the policy. To manage global systems, we must supersede manmade geopolitical boundaries and holistically manage our shared natural systems.

To effect these changes, I plan to pursue a Master of Science in water or environmental policy before attending law school. The dream is to one day work for UN-Water, or a similar internationally oriented water organization.

Talk about any career-related experiences you’ve had. How did you find these opportunities? 

The summer after my sophomore year, I spent three months in the mountains of North Carolina as a camp counselor. While there, I played a lot of Capture the Flag, tried and failed to perfect my high dive technique, and developed and taught a curriculum that addressed climate change, sustainability, and the concepts behind watershed management and water purification. Though I taught Outdoor Skills, which directly related back to my coursework, I learned more from playing gaga-ball with my youngest campers after the programming than I did while prepping for the lesson. The best jobs are sometimes the ones that offer the most opportunity for growth and fun — not just a stepping stone towards a career goal.

What surprised you the most about college?

I met my idol, the singular E.O. Wilson! When I was a little kid, my mom took me to hear him speak. I remember excitedly fidgeting in my seat, but then he appeared: a tall, wrinkly old man in a button-down and sweater stood on the stage in front of me. And for the next two hours, Dr. Wilson captivated me with stories of frog hunting in a pick-up truck, studying termites in the African savannah, canoeing through the Amazon, and parading through woods on the long Alabama summer nights of his childhood.

We left that night and my world had radically shifted. The natural world was a magical place again — its mysterious interconnectedness fascinating me. The inclusion of his writings on the Blount first-year curriculum helped inspire me to apply to the program and meeting him my junior year at a Blount event in Oliver-Barnard Hall was a dream come true. He was still a tall, wrinkly old man in a button-down and sweater, and I was still an enamored and eager fidgeting kid — we were both just slightly older and more wrinkled.

It’s rare that one gets to meet their idol, and rarer still for these giants of our imaginations to live up to expectations. I can confidently say Dr. Wilson’s talk exceeded any and all expectations, and I have a picture of me beaming next to him to prove it!

How did you make friends and find community on campus?

The living-learning aspect of the Blount program left me no choice! When you sleep, eat, breathe, and study with the same group of people, bonding over the shared procrastination of our weekly essays, you can’t help but develop an inseparable bond. My best friend was my next-door neighbor, my current roommates lived down the hall, and several co-workers lived a floor below me. Though we were all different majors, from different states and backgrounds, the Blount program taught us to critically discuss and analyze our world in a classic liberal arts framework.

After living within the duality of the Blount dorm, in which spontaneous jam sessions broke out in the lobby while students discussed Freud one room over, and epic games of assassin interrupted office hours with professors, tackling the rest of campus felt infinitely less daunting.

What advice would you give to incoming students?

Dive in! Your time at UA is what you make of it, and the four years you have here will flow by before you know it. Everyone here is in the same boat their freshman year, and the rest of us were there not that long ago. So, don’t be afraid to fully embrace the people around you, be they professors, fellow newbies, or upperclassmen. It will yield the most unexpected opportunities and results, leading you to the wildest places and friends. Enjoy it! (And go to class.)