Christopher Nerone, Distinguished Naturalist 2007

Nerone PicIn 2007, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey presented its Distinguished Naturalist Award to Christopher Nerone—“Mr. Nature”—at its 12th annual conference, “Invasive Species: A Threat to Rhode Island’s Biodiversity,” held at the University of Rhode Island (URI) Bay Campus in Narragansett, on March 22, 2007. The award was presented by Peter Paton, URI natural resources science professor and chair, and Keith Killingbeck, URI biological sciences professor and member of the RINHS Board of Directors:

The moniker fits; Mr. Nature. Disregard the fact that the Mr. Nature sign on Chris Nerone’s door at URI is from a health food store in Los Angeles (motto, “good nuts are good health” … honest), the name fits perfectly. This native of Bristol, R.I., has earned the title Mr. Nature by enthusiastically sharing his vast knowledge of the natural history of our state with everyone lucky enough to have taken a course from him or gone on a walk with him. An article in the Providence Journal announcing Chris as the recipient of the 2002 Rhode Island State Award from the New England Wildflower Society also found the name Mr. Nature to be the perfect binomial to describe this year’s winner of the Distinguished Naturalist Award.

After graduating in 1968 with a B.S. in mathematics, Chris returned to school to acquire formal training in what had become his passion; botany. He graduated with an M.S. in Botany in 1990 from URI. His research specialty was plant physiology and he has used that knowledge extensively to excite others about the intricacies of plant life.

Professionally, Chris has been a member of the departments of Botany and Biological Sciences at URI for more than 25 years. During the academic year, his primary responsibility is running all the labs for introductory courses in the Department of Biological Sciences on the Kingston Campus. He also teaches Introductory Biology courses at the Providence Campus during the evenings. However, it is in the summer months that his true passion blooms, teaching Field Botany and Taxonomy, BIO 323. This four-week course meets four evenings per week and provides students the opportunity to learn about the flora of Rhode Island from a master.

Chris is an outstanding educator. Glowing remarks abound from the students who have taken his summer-session Field Botany and Taxonomy course. If you ever have had the pleasure of accompanying Chris on one of his field trips, you know why students love spending time in the field with him. In a region of the country known for its abundance of talented naturalists, Chris stands out among them as one New England’s most enthusiastic, fun-loving, knowledgeable naturalists. He is literally a fountain of knowledge about the flora of southern New England. Not only that, but he also has a wealth of knowledge about the fauna of southern New England, so much so that “plant labs” and “plant walks” truly become “natural history sessions.”

Perhaps even more importantly, Chris gets others excited about natural history. He has a booming voice, a great sense of humor, an infectious laugh, and the skills to make students excited to be in the field and learn about the flora and fauna around them. We know one of the highlights for undergraduates is the chance to get to know Chris, as he is such a wonderful person. At the end of each course, he invites all the students over to his house for a feast, where he feeds all the students and provides them with the opportunity for a fond farewell. Most students hate to have the class end. Few mentors forge such strong bonds with their students. This relationship is truly the mark of an exceptional educator.

Chris is also an accomplished scientist who has published three articles (two co-authored with R.G. Sheath) and whose chief expertise is the taxonomy and physiology of plants. He has incredible field skills and is often sought after by other scientists for his expertise. For example, when one of us (Peter) needed a botanist to help survey lands owned by the Weekapaug Foundation for Conservation (WFC), Chris was hired to supervise all botanical surveys on approximately 1,000 acres of land. There he identified 519 species representing approximately 25% of the flora of Rhode Island, even though the parcel of property studied was a mere 0.15% of the land area of the state. During these surveys, Chris discovered nine rare plant species, as designated by the Rhode Island Natural Heritage Program, during fieldwork on WFC lands.

Because Chris has a deep passion for the flora of the region, he jumps at every opportunity to pass his knowledge along to the public. This is reflected in the fact that he has led innumerable field trips throughout the state for conservation organizations such as the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society and the Rhode Island Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. These trips fill up fast, as people always anticipate the high quality of the lessons in store for them. One of us has had the distinct pleasure of partnering with Chris on walks and workshops (Keith) and can attest to the fact that his ability to capture the attention of an audience is uncanny. Chris’s enthusiasm is contagious and many botanists throughout the region have gained their passion for the flora of Rhode Island by spending time in the field with Chris.

In the unprecedented number of letters received by RINHS nominating Chris for the 2007 Distinguished Naturalist Award, all praised Chris for his contagious exuberance. That exuberance is often revealed in a resounding, signature laugh that alerts those within earshot that a Neronian classroom, formal or otherwise, is in session. Lessons are being learned, and friendships are being formed. As one student so eloquently put it, one gets the strong sense that Chris “is not just teaching, but bestowing you with a very personally meaningful gift.” Those gifts are the reason that Christopher Nerone is the 2007 RINHS Distinguished Naturalist.