Home Tags April 2019

April 2019

Making a Living in Marshall County

Michelle and Bubba Wade

Farmers, Boaz

Michelle: “This is Sand Mountain dirt — it’s the best around. Our produce has a really good taste. That’s probably what our focus is — on the taste. The soil produces a richer flavor. We will pick produce and deliver that same day to the market. Working on the farm is relaxing. It can be a lot of hard work — well, any job can be a lot of hard work. We try our best. I think some people have forgotten what hard work is. They have forgotten that food comes from the farm. It doesn’t come from the factory — you can’t just make it. People have forgotten that. I didn’t realize there were so many people that don’t know what a pinkeye purple hull Southern pea is. We like to educate people. It makes your heart smile when you see kids really appreciate tasting the flavor of a good strawberry or tomato or peach.”

Bubba: “I enjoy working with my mules. I love it, and I love my mules. I think I was born 150 years too late. I like the old ways. It’s relaxing. My great grandfather was a big mule man. I guess that’s where I got it from. Farming gets in your blood, I guess. I can’t imagine doing anything else. We definitely love the farm life. It’s hard, hard work, but you don’t have anyone pounding on your head all day long. You’ve got to treat it just like a normal job. We work hard — a lot of hours. You get out what you put in.”

Michael Banks

Artist, Guntersville

“Being a self-taught artist, it’s trial and error. You’re experimenting and using things one way and if you find that it doesn’t work, you try something else.

“I stumbled upon some roofing tar one time. I was using it as a medium to draw on. A lot of my paintings at that time they were all over the place, because I was doing so many different things. But you try to experiment to make original art. The roofing tar was like a primer. Once it dries, it’s hard enough to paint on but soft enough to etch on. I don’t do them anymore, but that’s what separated me from other art and artists.

“You know that saying, ‘Wherever you go, you take yourself with you?’ It’s the same with art, but having been in different environments, you can lose some of the strength of your art. When the environment changes, you adapt to it. I love painting here in my home. I don’t have a studio. When I was in bigger cities, you were constantly on the move. You get worn out just by going to the art supply store. In a small town, you get away from the crowds. When I go back home, I go back to the basics. Less is more.

“I don’t ever get tired of making art. Art is a gift. It’s given to you for a purpose. And if you can hold onto that vision — as long as you know there’s a purpose behind what you do, the other stuff doesn’t matter. Just do what you do and be the best you can be and let everything happen. I learned a lot over the years. If you put money first, it can influence the way you make art.

“I used to be cocky. But I got humbled. I had to humble myself. Now, I can be an old man and just paint and not have to worry about all the rigors of everything else. I can enjoy it.”

Laura KapplerRoberts

CEO of Kappler Inc., Guntersville

“We manufacture all our garments out of Kappler proprietary fabrics. I think that sets us apart from most of the industry. There are only half a dozen to a dozen people that do what we do in the world. For us, not only making the protective clothing, but also developing the fabrics, is unique — there’s not many that do that.

“I can’t think of anything better than to serve firefighters, law-enforcement, military personnel. It’s such a fulfilling thing to know that we are protecting them.

“I was two years old when my dad started this company. We were a small, little factory downtown. He would take me into the factory, and I just loved being around. I loved being around the Coke machines, the sewing machines — I loved the old calculators and typewriters. I loved everything about it.

“The culture of the factory is like a family. That’s where I wanted to be. Right out of college, I wanted to work here. My father tried to talk me out of that. He really wanted me to work elsewhere.

“Finally, he gave in and allowed me to come here after college. I spent the first two or three years working in every department for a couple of months. I built relationships with people, and I learned the operations of the company. That was his choice. Looking back, that was one of the greatest things he could’ve done for me and my development. Because, a lot of the people I knew and had relationships with prior to becoming an employee — well, it was very important to me that I was treated no different. I needed to earn their respect. I had a great sense of what my father had built. It was not mine. I had to earn the ability to stay and work here.

“The whole manufacturing process is where my passion is. The sound of the machines running, the operators — I have such fond memories of them taking me under their wing. To maintain manufacturing here in our country and, in particular, in a small town community, is getting harder and harder. But, it is just a passion of mine. I will go to my grave trying to maintain manufacturing.

“I am motivated to continue the manufacturing here in the small town of Guntersville. It’s the people. It goes back to those memories and stories. When I think of the company, I don’t see the financial statements; I don’t see bricks and mortar; I see faces. It’s the people I see at this company. And they have allowed me to transition from a little girl to their leader. That’s what motivates and challenges me.”

Heather Green

Executive Director, Kate Duncan Smith DAR School, Grant

“In 1924, this rural area did not have access to a formal school. The Alabama Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution thought it would be a good thing to do in this part of the state — it’s mountainous and travel was challenging. So, the Alabama Daughters decided building a school would be something they wanted to take on. We are a privately owned public school. The buildings and the land are privately owned, but the principals, teachers and curriculum is all done through the Board of Education. It’s a very unique relationship. It’s one that really benefits the children.

“I was born and raised right on the mountain. My parents are graduates of the school. I was the first one in my family to go to college, due, in large part, to the scholarships I received while here. I went to Auburn University. It was culture shock from going from such a small town with classrooms of 25 to auditoriums of 300, where you’re afraid to ask a question. You’re not in that protective bubble anymore. But I thrived. I loved it. I vowed that I would not come back here, because, as kids, that’s what you said. You want to go to a big city — somewhere different.

“When this job came open, my mom called me and said they were looking for an executive director of the school. And I told her it’d always been men who had moved up through the ranks. She said, ‘No, the ad says marketing, public relations, fundraising.’ And that’s exactly what I’d been doing for 12 years. So I applied, and it led me back here.

“Pine logs were used in the construction of this gymnasium. This is where they played basketball, from the 1930s to the 1960s. We’ve had a couple renovation projects the past few years. We had a structural engineer come in and check everything out, and he was beyond impressed with the architecture and how they fitted it altogether. Central air and heating was put in in 2005. There was no heating or cooling prior to that. There were wood-burning stoves at one point.

“Alabama history is taught in the fourth grade and ninth grade as part of the state curriculum. But the history of the school and the town is one of the things we want to incorporate. I think it’s important. You need to know where your state came from and what those events were. For a lot of kids, this mountain is their history. These are the things that helped make them and their families who they are today.”

Randall Blackwood

Naturalist, Cathedral Caverns State Park, Woodville

“I taught science in school — middle school, high school and college.  When I retired from teaching, I switched from a 50 x 50 classroom to a 500-acre classroom — a 2-mile cave. This is an interesting cave. All of this is limestone rock formed at the bottom of the ocean millions of years ago. There was a big collision between the American continent and the African continent that shot this area above the ocean and created the Appalachian Mountains.

“When the limestone shot straight up in this area, rain water got into the limestone. Rainwater becomes a very, very weak acid. So the raindrops get together and form rain puddles. The rain puddles form cracks and crevices, and, before long, you have a big underground river that carved out this cave. The river is still here. We call it Mystery River.

“I love to see the reaction of people. We go for the ‘Wow’ factor. They don’t know what to expect. We go around the corner and we hit formation walls that are breathtaking. It’s the sense of curiosity — a sense of exploring. I’m still looking for things beyond the next corner. You never know. You never can tell.

“We’ve gone up in visitors every year since it reopened. We’re having about 60,000 visitors a year. It’s that sense of discovery. It’s just that experience. You go out and grab your friends and bring them in. And then, they go and bring their friends. That’s why our business grows every year. And we don’t have an advertising budget. You can see what’s drawing them here.

“Even though I’m a park naturalist, I’m also the tour guide — the guy who cleans toilets, setting up the campground. Everyone does a little of everything.”

Rick Lovelady

Fiddle Maker, Fiddle Player, New Hope area

“The fiddles started with me, probably as a youngster. I was born on Sand Mountain. Daddy bought us a TV in 1953 or ’54, somewhere around there — a black and white Zenith. They put it in the living room, but they wouldn’t turn it on until Saturday night. So, Saturday night, the four of us — me, my sister and mom and dad, we’d watch The Grand Ol’ Opry. Wonderful.

“I can still see us sitting there in front of that TV and watching that Grand Ol’ Opry. I thought, ‘My gracious, this is wonderful.’

“Mama was always busy ironing clothes, snapping beans, folding clothes, and Daddy was over there smoking his cigar and reading the newspaper. So we would talk about the music. And I said, ‘Boy, I sure do like that fiddle.’ My daddy said, ‘You know, son, that’s a hard thing to learn to play.’ But, I liked it. It just drew me in.

“So, I guess I took an interest in it at that time. I always had an interest in nature — I love the birds, the animals, wildlife — I’m a naturalist at some degree. And I love wood and trees. I thought, ‘I’m going to be foolish enough to try to make one.’ I never had a lot of woodworking experience. I think my daddy had a hammer, screwdriver and a handsaw, and that was it. I’ve never made a bad fiddle, but I’ve made some better than others. My whole objective is to make an instrument for me, but I’ve sold a few. I’ve got people all over here that’s got some of my fiddles. One guy has three of them. I’m not a musician; I’m a backwoods fiddle player. There’s something about that fiddle that just grabs you. I’ve got fiddles made of hickory, cherry, mulberry, oak, birch, walnut — all types of maple.”

Donald Edmund

Chicken Grower, Horton

“I was born on this farm. I was raised in the house just over the holler. I’ve never lived apart from the land I’ve owned, and I’m never going to move anywhere else.

“I started catching chickens when I was 11 years old, for a fellow just north of here. And I will be 60 years old in March, so I’ve been doing this 50 years. Chickens didn’t weigh but a pound and a half. When you’re 11 years old you can handle that. But, what we raise now are 5 ½, 6, 7 pounds.

“My mom had chicken houses for a long time. She built two chicken houses just for some supplemental income. We’ve progressed from there. When she got too old to actually work them, I had to do a lot more work around here. I built four more houses, then four more, and then four more. We enjoy it. We eventually bought her out. That was 17 or 18 years ago.

“The chicken industry has progressed so much in the last 15 years, it’s unbelievable. When we started growing, it took us 63 days to grow a 7-pound chicken. Now, we can grow that same 7-pound chicken in 49 days. There are less chicken growers here than there used to be. Typical chicken houses held about 22,000 or 23,000 chickens. The new chicken houses are more computerized. The computer runs everything. Now a chicken house holds 50,000 chickens, so it takes a lot less houses to produce the same amount of chickens. For a long time, I was one of the youngest chicken growers around. But now that they’ve built these mega houses, you’re seeing a lot more young people get in it.

“At this moment, we have somewhere around 1 million chickens. We just progressed and progressed and kept working. It’s been good to us.

“Farming is a great life if it’s for you. But if farming isn’t in you, it’s a miserable life. We like it.”

Eric Dusenbery is a documentary photographer who lives in DeLand, Florida. He is currently at work on a book project called Sidetracked: Travels Across the Undiscovered South. Emphasizing the traditions of documentary photography, the project fieldwork is accomplished through the lens of large-format, black-and-white film photography. Dusenbery’s work in this issue of  Business Alabama is the second part of a three-part series. The first appeared in the November, 2018 issue and focused on Crenshaw County.

New Book Highlights Alabama’s Beauty

Bend in the Alabama River at Montgomery

A big book of photos of Alabama is one of the best tributes to the state on the occasion of this bicentennial year. Rolling off the press of NewSouth Books next month is “My Alabama: John Dersham Photographs a State.”

It’s a great selection of photos from the collection of a master photographer who chose Alabama as his home after 30 years in sales with Kodak Co.

“I got into photography at age nine, joined camera clubs, was on the yearbook through high school and college,” Dersham says.

Working in a camera store in Pennsylvania led to a job as a Kodak rep.

“In order to move up, you had to move, so we got to see a lot of the country and I did a lot of photography,” he says. “Kodak ended up using some of my photos on the walls of their buildings and factories across the country.”

Dersham’s book is also an odyssey of his travels around Alabama, beginning within a 50-mile radius of Birmingham, where he landed at the end of his extended Kodak gig — at a regional office in a photo finishing factory in Fairfield.

Rickwood Field, Birmingham

When the digital age and layoffs hit, he and his family already had picked Fort Payne as their new home, where Dersham is now president of DeKalb Tourism.

From Lookout Mountain in his backyard, Dersham says his Alabama photography took him first to north Alabama and the Mountain Lakes region, then, as the book project took shape, on to cover “the Black Belt, then the coastal region and the Wiregrass, all 67 counties. But the book ended up being organized by seasons, not counties.”

A horizontal book suited for the coffee table, 8.5 inches by 11 inches, “My Alabama” is a big book by any measure.

Port of Mobile, on the Mobile River

“It’s the first folio book covering the whole state, in my memory,” says Dersham. “Because of the cost of producing them, you don’t see that many these days.”

This extraordinary book, which carries a foreword by Bo Jackson, is made possible with the support of the Alabama Bicentennial Commission.

“My Alabama” will be available on May 1 through local or online retailers. It is 224 pages and priced at $40. For more information visit: newsouthbooks.com.

Church in a bend of the Coosa River, Wetumpka, Elmore County

Chris McFadyen is editorial director of Business Alabama. John Dersham is president of DeKalb Tourism and lives in Fort Payne.

Top Business Clusters Lure Two Major Data Centers

Huntsville and Birmingham are the sites of major data center expansions by Georgia-based DC BLOX — colocation facilities that put the state’s most concentrated clusters of technology companies in strategic location to their data.

DC BLOX, which builds data centers in underserved markets across the Southeast, supports area businesses of all sizes by connecting them with high-speed optical networks and hosting cloud services to efficiently grow their technology infrastructure.

With data centers in Atlanta, Chattanooga and now Huntsville, DC BLOX is currently building a new data center facility on 27 acres near downtown Birmingham. The former Trinity Steel site will be DC BLOX’s flagship location, spanning more than 200,000 square feet at full capacity and creating a multi-use campus for enterprise, hyperscale cloud, Software as a Service (SaaS), government, network and content providers.

“High speed connectivity is very important to the value proposition we provide our customers,” says Bill Thomson, who leads marketing and product management for DC BLOX. “Our data centers represent a great way for customers and businesses to get the kind of connectivity they’ll need to grow that they might have difficulty getting on their own.”

Targeting Alabama

Alabama was attractive to DC BLOX for several reasons, starting first with the state’s growing, high-tech economy. Because Alabama had a limited number of existing data centers, Thomson says the company began aggressively targeting both Birmingham and Huntsville for expansion.

DC BLOX couldn’t find the land or facilities it needed in Birmingham initially, so the company turned its focus to Huntsville instead.

“We ended up building in Huntsville first, which we also felt was a very growing and dynamic city — a very high-tech city in need of the kind of services we wanted to provide,” Thomson says.

Phase I of the Huntsville data center, built using lean construction techniques in 22 weeks, operates at 333 Diamond Drive N.W., near Redstone Arsenal, Marshall Space Flight Center and Cummings Research Park. The facility covers 9,000 square feet of expandable data center and 3,600 square feet of office space.

When all phases of the project are complete, the Huntsville center will expand four-fold to include 36,000 square feet of data hall space.

A ‘win-win’ for Huntsville

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle says DC BLOX’s decision to open a data center in Huntsville is proof the city’s economic plan is working.

“Ten years ago, we created a diversification strategy that leveraged all the technical know-how we have here and found new applications in new industries,” he says. “Companies (today) are generating vast amounts of data from consumers and business. The data needs to be stored somewhere, and that need for storage is only going to increase.”

Battle says data centers are capital intensive, which produces significant tax revenues for the cities where they operate. And the jobs — while not numerous — provide high wages to employees.

Because Huntsville is rich in high-tech companies, Battle says many businesses want to be located near their data, so they can address issues quickly if something goes wrong.

“I’m proud we are able to deliver a solution for existing industry while also generating jobs and new revenue for the city,” he says. “It’s a win-win.”

Birmingham investment

DC BLOX will deploy the same design and lean construction techniques it used in Huntsville for its facility in Titusville, a historic neighborhood in Birmingham. Phase I construction began last September with the promise of delivering 31,000 square feet and up to 5 megawatts of customer capacity by early 2019.

Speed to market is key in keeping up with the latest technology challenges, says DC BLOX Vice President of Design and Construction Carlton Parker. “It’s imperative we get up and running as quickly as possible,” he says. “The process we employ with pre-cast building enables that and gives us a lot of flexibility.”

DC BLOX’s Birmingham and Huntsville centers are “colocation” facilities, allowing providers to get the high-density power they need within minutes — not weeks or months. Companies also can choose to pay only for the services they use or opt for a fixed-fee and service structure for more predictable billing.

The Birmingham data center represents the single largest project investment in Jefferson County in recent memory. The $785 million development will span 10 years and have an estimated economic impact of $99 million on Alabama.

‘Music to our ears’

When DC BLOX began its site search in the Magic City, Birmingham Business Alliance President and CEO Brian Hilson says the company wanted to be near downtown Birmingham, the Innovation District, UAB and other entrepreneurial activity where early-stage, advanced technology companies are thriving.

“That was music to our ears because it would be great to have them anywhere, but especially at a location that would be part of our innovation and technology activities rather than being disconnected from that part of our local economy,” he says.

Hilson says landing such a significant project is a “shot in the arm” for the Titusville community, which reportedly competed against dozens of other markets across the Southeast for the multi-purpose facility.

Thomson says DC BLOX’s modular design and lean construction techniques can meet the unique needs of a larger enterprise or content provider, making it competitive in the growing network and connectivity space.

“As we expand, we can do quite a bit of building to suit to customize to a particular enterprise’s needs and still build it efficiently,” he says.

Workforce needs

Thomson says DC BLOX data centers don’t directly employ lots of workers but enable other companies to expand IT tech usage and hire new staff. The company is always hiring, but requires only a limited number of employees for the first phase of its new Huntsville facility.

Hilson says about 20 workers will staff the new Birmingham center when Phase I of construction is complete, with the potential of up to 100 new employees over the next decade.

He is confident Birmingham’s large, diverse labor pool is prepared to meet workforce needs of DC BLOX and other technology employers — but acknowledges there’s still work to do at the state and local levels.

“Employer expectations are ever changing,” he says. “Workers, trainers and educators have to be more knowledgeable about changes that are taking place in the economy and specific workforce needs and skill requirements so they stay abreast.”

Because Google and Facebook also are building data centers in Alabama, Thomson says it can be difficult to find the high-skilled talent they need locally to staff DC BLOX facilities. The company must occasionally hire workers across the region to fill important staff positions within its centers.

Thomson says DC BLOX has considered joining some of its competitors to partner with workforce development organizations in Alabama to create specific training for data center employees.

“I know I’ve already reached out to those organizations to try to get some conversations going,” he says. “We look forward to those kinds of opportunities.”

Lucy Berry DeButy is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Decatur.

A New Universe of Medical Research

Dr. Haydeh Payami is relating the microbiome to her longtime study of Parkinson’s disease.

In Birmingham, a researcher wants to discover what specific microorganisms in the stomach cause Parkinson’s disease.

In Mobile, the goal is finding new and better treatments for cancer.

And in Huntsville, they’re trying to create better antibiotics by looking at hot springs, thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean and other extreme conditions.

This is top-tier medical research going on throughout Alabama, and though the projects are not related, they do have something in common — all of these researchers are focusing on the microbiome, which at its simplest is defined as the microorganisms in a particular environment. In humans, that’s primarily bacteria in the gut.

It’s a relatively new field of study, particularly when it relates to complex diseases, says Dr. Haydeh Payami, professor in the UAB School of Medicine Department of Neurology and the John T. and Juanelle D. Strain Endowed Chair.

“At first, microbiome was pretty much ignored in all of the studies of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” she says. “Everybody first was looking at diet and exercise. Then people concentrated on genetics. No more than 10 years ago, maybe six or seven, literature started picking up on the importance of the microbiome. There’s a whole other world that we’ve been ignoring, and that’s all of the bugs that are living in symbiotic relationship with us.”

Payami now is studying that “whole other world” as it relates to Parkinson’s, but it’s her previous three decades of experience studying the disease that prepared her to do it. She is lead investigator for the NeuroGenetics Research Consortium, which has assembled one of the largest datasets of Parkinson’s patient information in the world.

“When the genomics era rolled in, we were ready to go with a large sample size,” Payami says. “We had data on 2,000 people with Parkinson’s disease and 2,000 without it.”

Payami and her colleagues are putting that data to work with a four-year,      $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. They’re looking for a “missing link” between genetic and environmental causes of Parkinson’s disease.

“Hopefully, we’ll find what we’re after, which is microorganisms in the gut that might be the trigger for susceptibility,” Payami says.

At the University of South Alabama’s Mitchell Cancer Institute, the institute’s division director of hematology oncology is continuing microbiome research that he had started at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

“I was following up on some observations that had been made in Chicago and Paris,” says Dr. Arthur Frankel. “They had studied mice and showed that particular bacteria in the gut of mice predicted whether the animals’ melanoma would respond to immune checkpoint blockade. They found particular bacteria that were in the gut of the mice were linked to whether or not the mice would respond to treatment.”

Dr. Arthur Frankel says his study of “what you eat and the gut bacteria” promise advancements in immunotherapy.

Frankel, who had done immune therapy research and also was seeing a lot of patients, saw that while many patients can respond to immune checkpoint blockades, many did not.

“My interest was whether there was some way we could improve the percent of patients that responded to the therapy,” he says. The two researchers who won 2018’s Nobel Prize for Medicine were doing research that helped him along the way.

“It wasn’t until I adjusted what I was studying based on their discoveries that the role of what you eat and the gut bacteria became clear and important,” Frankel says.

Frankel was working on this with a company named Vedanta, and when he left Dallas for Mobile, the relationship continued, and there has been some success.

“Vedanta has developed a cocktail that, at least in animal models, appears to markedly improve the response to immunotherapy,” says Frankel. Further research shows that it may translate to human response, too.

“The first thing that excited me was that what we find in patients we find in mice and vice versa,” he says. “Many experiments on humans don’t work on mice and vice versa. Surprisingly, this has worked both in the animal and the humans.”

Clinical trials should start within a few months, Frankel says, but more patients are needed.

“We desperately need patients to call us and work with us,” he says. “I have enough funds to analyze people’s gut bacteria from all over the country, but we need to find them. We have a way now that they can ship samples to us that we can analyze. People think they discover things with 10, 20 or 40 patients, but really you need hundreds of patients to know if any treatment or bacteria is good for people.”

Frankel doesn’t expect to find a cure for cancer, but he is happy to contribute in any way he can.

“I would love to tell you that I make major discoveries, but I don’t think that is true,” he says. “I try to help and advance it just a bit. If we can improve the response rate incrementally, I believe that’s saving lives and giving people a better quality of life.”

While Payami and Frankel are doing research on standard microbiome in the human gut, Dr. AJ Singhal, senior research scientist at Huntsville’s CFD Research, is doing something a little different.

Dr. AJ Singhal is researching the microbiome in extreme environments to develop new antibiotics.

“It’s not what you typically talk about when you talk about microbiome,” he says. “We’re talking about the microbiome in extreme environments. We’re looking in hot springs, thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean and places like that. It’s different, but it’s the same. Microbiome is simply the world of microbes. That can be anywhere, on the side of the road or in an intestine.”

Singhal is hoping to develop better antibiotics through his research, and, like Payami, he’s doing this through a grant from the Department of Defense (the research includes developing antibiotics that can fight biological weapons, as well as superbugs). He started the research at iXpressGenes, but last year, CFD Research acquired his division. Both companies are affiliated with Huntsville’s HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.

Specifically, Singhal and his team are extracting DNA in certain places — soil samples from the bottom of the ocean, for instance — and recreating microbes that haven’t been able to grow in a lab before.

“We take all the DNA out of the soil, then you have access to all the microbes and you can put that DNA into the microbe that will grow in the lab,” he says.  “We’re trying to figure out exactly what the chemistry is and increase the yield of it. The kinds of enzymes there that can synthesize antibiotics are not like anything we’ve seen before.”

Singhal and his team have had about 15 potential “hits,” meaning “potential compounds that may be promising as antibacterials,” he says.

“In general, it is going very well,” Singhal says. “The hypothesis was that since these environments have not been exploited for drugs, there will be a lot of potential there.”

Alec Harvey is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He is based in Auburn.

How I Got My Start: Tuskegee University’s Shaik Jeelani

Shaik Jeelani has crafted a career at Tuskegee, from his days as a fledgling professor to his current role as dean of the graduate school and vice president for research. Photos by Robert Fouts

As a smart child growing up in India, Shaik Jeelani really had no control over what he might do with his life.

“There, you have a system,” Jeelani says. “I was first in my school. If you rank at the top, you go into engineering. Doing anything differently was like you were committing a crime. It was already decided.”

And that was just fine with Jeelani, who became the first person in his family to go to college.

It was after college that his life diverted from the script, eventually leading to Tuskegee University, where Jeelani, now as vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, has forged a dual career as one of the country’s foremost researchers in advanced materials and as a mentor to hundreds of students.

But if the original plan had worked itself out, he’d still be in India.

“I was supposed to get my master’s degree in the United States and then go back,” Jeelani says. “But I came here for graduate studies at North Carolina State University, and the school encouraged me to stay.”

A master’s degree was followed by his doctorate in mechanical engineering. “My professor persuaded me to be on the faculty, and he found a job for me,” Jeelani says. “I always had a fascination toward teaching, and there are a lot of opportunities here in the U.S. for one to be a faculty member and to conduct research.”

That job was at Tuskegee, where Jeelani has raised a family and made a name for himself in engineering research. “It was the first place I had a job, and it’s hopefully my last,” he says with a laugh.

Jeelani’s research has focused on advanced materials. “It’s not your garden variety materials, like iron, steel, copper, aluminum and plastic,” he says. “With advanced materials, you actually synthesize materials from scratch to meet certain requirements. For example, you’ve got to have strong and stiff materials for infrastructure and stiff and light materials for aircraft. It all depends on who your customer is and what the grant requires.”

While a number of Jeelani’s grants have been with the Department of Defense — he’s worked on materials for tanks, submarines and soldiers’ flak jackets — he’s also conducted or overseen a great deal of research applicable to Alabama’s emerging industries.

“A lot of the research has been for the aviation and automotive industries,” he says. “We do a lot of research with biodegradable materials, and there’s a lot of work going on in laboratories in material science that is applicable to the aviation industry, the automotive industry and also the marine industry. How can you make a boat lighter and stronger?”

As his job at Tuskegee has changed, Jeelani has spent more and more time out of the lab and more involved in landing research contracts for the university.

“I have two jobs here,” Jeelani says. “The first is to oversee the research throughout the campus, not just in engineering. I motivate the faculty to write grants and implement them throughout all disciplines. The other job is as dean of the Graduate School, where I manage with my staff the graduate program for the entire campus. We offer four doctoral degrees and 16 master’s degrees in all STEM disciplines, as well as the liberal arts.”

The amount of research going on at Tuskegee surprises some people, Jeelani says. “We do more per capita research, based on the faculty and the student body, compared to any other historically black institution in the country,” he says. “We do much, much better.”

As noted as he is for his research, Jeelani says his first love has always been mentoring students, dating back to his high school and undergraduate days in India.

“I always wanted to help disadvantaged people, work with them, help them out,” Jeelani say. “Back home, it was a class structure. I always wanted to help them out, and I did. I had a lot of success there.”

That mentoring success continued throughout his time at NCSU and, now, at Tuskegee.

“The research is great, but what I do has always been because of students,” Jeelani says. “I’m really proud of the graduate program I’ve created here. I love teaching, and that is my strength. I love the support from the students. We work with them so when they graduate they are marketable and they do well wherever they go.”

Jeelani’s work has brought kudos from near and far, including the Presidential Award for Mentoring from President Barack Obama.

His work has not gone unnoticed by his peers and others at Tuskegee.

“During Dr. Jeelani’s three-plus decades of service to Tuskegee University, he has mentored students and colleagues alike,” says Roberta Troy, Tuskegee’s interim provost.

“His many research endeavors have provided undergraduate and graduate students opportunities to gain valuable laboratory experience that has proven instrumental in their post-graduate success. Furthermore, through his work as a faculty member, associate dean and now as vice president for research, he has strengthened our STEM education and research efforts. His efforts continue to help our faculty — not to mention the institution as a whole — increase our competitiveness for the vital external support that makes research innovation at Tuskegee possible.”

Jeelani, who lives in Auburn, has three grown children. His two sons are both engineers, and his daughter is a physician, though she earned an microbiology degree at Auburn.

Over the years, Jeelani has had chances to leave Tuskegee, but he’s stayed put at the place where he felt so welcomed in 1974.

“I had other offers then, but when I came, the dean of Engineering convinced me this was the best place for me,” Jeelani recalls. “He said they’d set up the lab for me. He really, really sold it and made it happen. And I’ve had lots of opportunities in 45 years to go somewhere else, but Tuskegee wouldn’t let me go. The job has been very challenging and very interesting.”

Alec Harvey and Robert Fouts are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Harvey is based in Auburn and Fouts in Montgomery.

Superlative Burbs: Pike Road

Getting out and about is a hallmark of life in Pike Road, which prides itself on planning, education, quality of life and services. The town is only 22 years old. Photos by Robert Fouts

One of Alabama’s newest communities already has built the sense of community that places it among the most appealing in Alabama.

The Pike Road community first emerged as 20 new and historic neighborhood developments, created and built on agricultural land adjacent to the City of Montgomery. When the area incorporated as a town in 1997, it had only 350 residents. Now the fast-growing area is home to more than 9,000 people in 70 neighborhoods, says Mayor Gordon Stone, who was first elected in 2004.

Stone points to the residents’ vision and energy as the driver behind the community’s success. The town has gone through two intensive growth reviews with significant input from residents working in study groups and idea sessions. Those efforts produced two comprehensive plans, the second a thorough update. “We want to keep looking and planning for where we are going for the next 20 or 25 years,” Stone says.

The town officially adopted its “Four Pillars” for growth more than a decade ago. Those pillars are planning, education, quality of life and services. “Our community had the opportunity to start organizing from scratch, benefitting from being able to study what had worked and what hadn’t in other communities,” he says.

Pike Road’s current plan is to encourage developers to create small community commercial centers in the seven distinct neighborhood areas of its 160 square miles, Stone says. A 30-mile walking and jogging trail is nearly complete.

Based on feedback from other areas, Pike Road opted to outsource a number of its major services, providing a more efficient use of the town’s revenues. “We learned from other municipalities that it’s best not to try to reinvent the wheel,” the mayor says. “If someone can do the job more efficiently and cost effectively, we let them do it rather than spending extra money trying to do it ourselves.”

Kathy Hagood and Robert Fouts are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Homewood and he in Montgomery.

Swedish Steel Makes Alabama Its North American Home

Chuck Schmitt, president of SSAB Americas, which just moved its North American headquarters to Mobile. Photos by Mike Kittrell

Worn-out cars, childrens’ retired little red wagons and beaten-down bicycles are some of the sources of the scrap metal that turns into steel at the SSAB Americas mill in Axis in north Mobile County. It’s a recycling plant of sorts.

“We do bring a lot to the environment,” says Tom Toner, vice president of operations for SSAB. “It’s a cleaner, friendlier, more efficient operation.”

And with a planned investment of up to $100 million in the mill and the relocation of corporate headquarters from the Chicago area to the RSA Battle House Tower, Toner says, Mobile County is becoming the flagship of the SSAB Americas division of the Swedish-based steelmaker.

Basically, SSAB uses scrap metal rather than the more traditional iron ore to make stronger but lighter steel plates and coils that eventually are used in new automobiles, trucks, ships, cranes, tractors, booms and bridges among other heavy duty items. The $100 million investment will go into improved technology rather than a physical expansion of the plant, although administrative offices also are being built near the Axis mill.

Scrap metal arrives by rail, makes its way to the mill’s electric arc furnace and emerges ready for a new assignment.

“The overall output of the mill does not increase. We will just be able to make more of the higher-value, high-strength steel than we currently can,” Toner says.

About 600 people work at the mill. It operates 24/7, shutting down one day each month for maintenance. Sixty corporate jobs are in the process of being moved to Mobile, while up to 50 more may be added as a result of the upgrades in Axis.

It’s all a result of what once was considered a gamble by the steel industry, according to Chuck Schmitt, president of SSAB Americas. At the time, older plate mills using older technology were going out of business in Alabama and in the rest of the country.

“Over time we really grew our product mix, and we’re making new plate products today that no one ever thought a steel mill could back 15 or 20 years ago,” he says. “We placed a big bet on the technology, a big bet on the location to Mobile.”

The enormous SSAB mill in Axis, on the Mobile River.

SSAB Americas runs two plate and coil production steel mills, the one in Axis and one in Montpelier, Iowa. There are three cut-to-length facilities in St. Paul, Minnesota; Houston, and Toronto. The corporate headquarters had been in Lisle, Illinois, some 25 miles west-southwest of Chicago.

“When I walked around our corporate office in Chicago, I was a bit shocked at the number of people that had not been to our steel facilities, weren’t terribly acquainted with exactly what we do and how we make money in this business,” Schmitt says.

SSAB executives considered a completely new location, but Schmitt says an important consideration was being somewhere where they would be more directly engaged with their products.

“We’ve had quite a bit of success on our investment in Mobile up to now that we thought we could leverage. Once we engaged the city of Mobile and the chamber and the state of Alabama, we found a very receptive audience in terms of promoting our company and the pride of our company.”

The Axis mill was the more technically advanced of the two, and transportation options were more flexible. Transportation was a crucial factor. Finished products can be trucked out, shipped by rail, barged by river or shipped overseas through the Port of Mobile.

“We have a growing business globally, as well as out of Mobile,” Schmitt says. “We enjoy that flexibility. We transfer a lot of our products from Mobile to other operations, whether to Houston, Iowa, Minnesota, Canada and so forth. We rely very much on the ease and availability of transportation in Mobile.”

While the company shifts its headquarters south, it has offices on the 16th floor of the RSA. The move to permanent digs on the 17th floor is expected to be complete about June 1. More than half of the corporate employees have agreed to move to Mobile, as SSAB has worked on selling the area to its existing staff and their families.

SSAB’s environmentally friendly reputation is a national one. In three of the last four years — 2015, 2017 and 2018 — the company won the American Metal Market Award for Steel Excellence in Environmental Responsibility/Stewardship.

So how does scrap metal get recycled into steel?

According to Toner, about 200 tons of scrap metal at a time from those junked cars, wagons, bikes and such is put into the mill’s electric arc furnace to be melted into 180 tons of liquid steel. The traditional iron ore blast furnace used in steelmaking creates considerable air pollution, and the entire process is less efficient. The electric arc furnace is much less expensive to operate and more flexible in its operations when orders are slow, Toner says.

Liquid steel goes into a caster that resolidifies it into six-inch thick slabs of steel. In turn, the slabs go into a rolling mill that rolls it into various thicknesses. The finished product is usually a plate but can also be a coil of steel. The process takes four to five hours.

The Axis mill has the ability to quench and temper steel, which creates a stronger product via heating and rapid cooling. The Iowa mill does not have that capability, Toner says.

The planned upgrade includes installation of a new accelerated cooling system. All the changes are scheduled to take place between 2019 and 2021, but exactly what will be done and when depends on customer needs and other factors.

Toner calls the technology involved “the latest and greatest.” He says the original design of the Axis mill helped position it to move forward now.

“Over in Sweden — I was in production operations — they’ve been making these type of products for many, many, many years. So they played an integral part in the design of that facility, because they’ve had years and years of experience that we didn’t have at the time,” Toner says.

The proposed improvements will increase the mill’s capacity for high-strength steel production by 130,000 metric tons a year.

While an economic incentive package was provided by state and local governments for the headquarters relocation, discussions are ongoing about possible incentives for the potential $100 million investment.

The equipment purchases and further advances in technology are factors, in addition to what customers in both the United States and globally want, Schmitt says. Global trade issues may also have an impact.

“We’ve come out of a tough period a couple of years ago for all steel companies. There’s been a better economy, a lot of trade talk,” he says.

“I won’t necessarily get into the gory details of all of that. But with the improvement in the economy, a better steel demand than we’ve seen in quite some time and with some of the trade actions that have identified companies that have been dumping in the U.S. and North America and not playing by the rules, and some of those restrictions being put in place today, have improved our opportunities.

“We think both now and certainly through 2019 and the future that we’re set up for a pretty good run, to outperform most of our competition.”

Jane Nicholes and Mike Kittrell are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Fairhope and he in Mobile.

Huntsville Coffee Trail Joins Growing Beer Trail

Combining its Craft Beer Trail with its Craft Coffee Trail is one reason why they call it the Rocket City.

Last month Downtown Huntsville launched a new promotion for its growing cluster of gourmet retailers.

The Downtown Huntsville Craft Beer Trail, in its third year now, is still growing in brewery members and participants. And March this year it is joined by the Downtown Huntsville Craft Coffee Trail, a string of seven java shops in the city center.

Like the Beer Trail, the Coffee Trail features a Passport/Card you pick up on one of the stops featured on the trail. At each stop, order any drink you wish and get your card stamped. Collect all seven stamps and you’re rewarded with a free Downtown Craft Coffee Trail Mug. Top prize on the Beer Trail is a Trail Boss collectible bottle opener.

“Of the 11 craft breweries in Madison County, seven are in downtown Huntsville,” says Chad Emerson. “It ranges from nanobreweries to the second largest in the state, Straight to Ale.

“The budget for the Beer Trail is less than $1,000 a year. Any city could afford this. We get groups from Nashville and Chattanooga just to do the trail. We do it through our social media outreach, and we’ve had features in magazines, such as the Tennessee Craft Beer Magazine.

“We worked with the brewpubs, and it became so popular there are over 6,000 (participant) cards out there. That success made us decide to do this with craft coffee shops also.”

Common to the craft beer and coffee trails is synergy around a lively downtown and younger crowd.

“We are starting to see a lot of startup tech companies relocate and open downtown, because they know that will help attract the employees they want,” says Emerson. “The fastest growing tech growth, as well as the fastest in retail shopping growth, is in downtown. The shopping is distinctive on Clinton Avenue.

“We’ve had a huge growth in retail and restaurants and drinking establishments — food, beverage and boutiques. What happened in downtown Huntsville is what you would have if you can imagine Mountain Brook or Fairhope or Spring Hill (Mobile neighborhood) in downtown Huntsville.

“We have a lot of historic homes and antebellum homes. In a lot of cities those were torn down, but Huntsville is a young enough city that that never happened. And some of the nicest public schools are downtown, so that helped a lot, but downtown is truly a neighborhood, as well as a tourist destination.”

For more information on Huntsville downtown trails visit downtownhuntsville.org.

Dog’s Nose Inspires Diabetes Detector

A new wearable device by AerBetic Inc. lets diabetics keep up with their blood-sugar levels.

Arnar Thors, CEO of Birmingham-based AerBetic Inc., has heard countless tragic stories of diabetes patients going blind, suffering organ failure and losing limbs to the insidious disease. That’s one reason he’s driven to succeed in bringing wearable technology for diabetes monitoring to market.

In this technological breakthrough, nanosensors measure gases indicating high or low blood sugar for diabetics. Using the wearable device with a smart phone app, patients can observe changes and adjust accordingly.

“Over time, the device will learn their chemistry and track their highs and lows,” Thors says.

It’s early days yet for such a device to eliminate the need for needle-sticks, but that’s the direction AerBetic is headed. Next steps will be taking the device to the FDA.

The idea was sparked more than a decade ago when Thors brought home his Labrador retriever from a kennel that trained diabetic alert animals. He learned then that a dog’s keen nose can detect changes in blood sugar to the parts per trillion.

“I had known the concept of animals doing that for 12 years,” Thors says. “Fast forward to three years ago, and through a partnership with a company in San Diego that makes a gas sensor that can sense to the part per billion level, we were asked to develop equipment for mass manufacturing.”

The device’s sensors are designed and manufactured by California-based AerNos. Thors, co-founder of Fitz-Thors Engineering Inc., which specializes in design-build engineering projects, automation and high-precision manufacturing services, worked out an exclusive agreement for the diabetic product.

“They’re a pretty young company, as well,” Thors says. “We were working parallel with them to be able to move our product forward with their product. They are cutting edge on the sensor, and we are cutting edge on the solution. Both products are revolutionary.”

The device is in the final stages of development, with testing slated to begin early in the first quarter of this year. The first production units are expected to ship late this year or early next year.

Launched in July 2018, AerBetic was awarded a research grant from Southern Research and, in November 2018, won a $50,000 award for the concept track prize in the Alabama Launchpad competition.

“The funds we received from winning that were instrumental in getting us to where we are now and in paying for prototype,” says Thors, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. “It helped us springboard this idea to the world.”

With this new product’s promise, Thors has doubled down on his commitment to Alabama. He’s planning a manufacturing operation in downtown Birmingham at Hardware Park on 5th Ave. N., a space designed to develop small start-up manufacturing operations that need warehousing.

Auburn Soil Lab Gets $43M Infusion

Rail equipment allows for minimum-impact testing at Auburn’s Soil Dynamics Lab.

A venerable soil research facility at Auburn University with roots stretching back to 1935 is expecting a $43 million funding infusion from Congress for a new facility that will continue its work of improving global food production.

The funding will establish a new USDA Agricultural Research Service Soil Dynamics Laboratory at Auburn as part of the agency’s capital improvement strategy. Its work will focus on improving the productive and sustainable use of soil and water resources for increased crop and livestock production.

“The new facility will further Auburn’s drive to inspire through life-changing innovation,” says Auburn President Steven Leath. “Auburn will deepen its relationship with the USDA, more opportunities will emerge for our students and faculty, and Auburn will be in a better position to solve real-world problems.”

Leath notes that U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, lent his full support to the effort. “We’re grateful to him for making it happen.”

Originally known as the Farm Tillage Machinery Laboratory, the facility was built with nine outdoor soil bins, each about the length of a football field, containing soil with compositions varying from sand to clay. The outdoor bins, resembling huge outdoor bowling lanes, were needed to conduct research on the impact of full-scale machines on farm soil, according to H. Allen Torbert, NSDL research leader.

Test equipment that evaluates tillage implements and traction devices slides along on beams above the bins so that the soil isn’t disturbed.

The Soil Dynamics Lab has yielded research to further an amazing variety of efforts, from improving military tank tracks during World War II, when generals wanted to ensure their progress wouldn’t bog down on the shores of the South Pacific, to improving the tire design of the Lunar Roving Vehicle.  Research in the soil bins by Bell Lab engineers provided design information for a track-laying vehicle and “plows” to bury communication cables in the ocean floor.

Scientists from England, Germany, Greece, Turkey, Australia, South Africa, Uruguay, China, Japan, Brazil, Paraguay, Italy, Poland and Russia have studied at NSDL over the years. The facility was the brainchild of Mark L. Nichols, then head of the Agricultural Engineering Department at what was then Alabama Polytechnic Institute.

The lab has continually contributed to the USDA mission of increasing food production. Farm-level sales of agricultural products produced in Alabama exceeded $5.5 billion in 2017.

Given the world’s growing population, some estimates suggest food production must increase by 25 to 70 percent by 2050. Agricultural research and advances are required to meet this growing demand in a sustainable manner.

Get the latest

Alabama business

news delivered to

your inbox

What's New