Engineering alumnus creates a scholarship in his grandfather’s memory
By Rick Lewis
At only 12 years of age, under the sweeping hood of his mother’s Cadillac Seville, Dr. Mark Berry, vice president of environmental and natural resources at Georgia Power, first tried his hand at engineering.
“Dad told me to go fix the cruise control,” Berry says. “So, I popped the hood and started looking around, found the culprit, went to a junkyard, got the part, put it on—and it worked.”
“I kinda like this,” he admitted, but he wasn’t interested in being a mechanic. Well, he thought, what about the people that design these systems? While there were no technical or mechanical professionals in his family to shadow, Berry’s father had a Ph.D. in education, and so he had an example to follow. Berry also had a mind for measurement, math and the working of systems, remnants of his grandfather’s life that would inform so much of his story to come.
What would follow over the years was a winding road toward becoming an engineer in his own right. Berry earned his bachelor’s degree at Alabama A&M University, where he majored in math, after discovering that a mechanical engineering technology major still wouldn’t have made him eligible to become a licensed engineer. Then, he joined the Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, needing to support his young family. He soon left, however, to try and get a post-grad degree in engineering, putting him on track with his childhood goal. But he was met with rejection from program after program.
“‘You don’t have a degree in engineering,’ they’d say,” Berry says. “But by this time, I had two kids, so I decided to enroll in UAB as an undergrad.” He started from the bottom as a mechanical engineering major this time, working in the reserves and at Lawson State Community College.
Eventually, Berry earned his B.S. degree (’97) and was hired in the research group at Southern Company. But that didn’t mark the end of his journey. He came back to UAB to earn a master’s in engineering, an MPPM from Birmingham Southern College, a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary engineering (2012) and a professional engineer’s license.
Berry had come a long way along an indirect path, creating a new professional achievement in his family. What struck him was a sense that a template for his engineering skill had been created before. It’s a thought that his mother, Gwendolyn Nell Berry, confirmed.
Her father, Marion Lucius Nell, was a carpenter by trade—passed on to him by his own father. She remembers the sounds of his hammer, “bam, bam, bam,” as he added on to her childhood home, building new rooms and adding intricate molding detail.
“My father had great perception,” she shares. “This great knowledge of mathematics and knowing how things should be done. When you have perception, you can see what needs to be done. His commitment is something that my son, Mark, shares as well. We were poor people. Black people didn’t have much, only what we could bring home to survive, but he was cheerful, he just focused on what he could do.”
What he did do was provide for a family and establish a strong sense of work ethic for his descendants. “He was just as poor when he died as when he started out,” Gwendolyn Berry says. “His value was based on his work. My mother was a tailor by trade; together, they worked.”
Her father would say: “I worked for what I have. I don’t have much, but what I have, I share.”
And it’s this same sense of generosity that inspired Berry to establish an endowed engineering scholarship, the Marion Lucius Nell Scholarship, in his grandfather’s name. The scholarship focuses on supporting underrepresented engineering students as they chart their careers—providing to future generations an opportunity that wasn’t available to people like Berry’s grandfather.
“I want people to think, Who was this guy? when they receive the scholarship,” Berry says. “There are many like him that didn’t get to add as much value to society as they could, but now people have these opportunities, and you can realize your potential, and this money will help people do so.”
It’s a commitment with importance and meaning that represents so much to Berry’s mother. “When I was in eighth grade, I was making my dresses out of curtain fabric,” she explains. “Now, today, our family is able to put monetary value into what we stand for...I have outlived everybody in my family. So, it’s important for me to see what our legacy has done. …It is a tribute to tradesmen for us to be able to have an endowment for the trades. My father wasn’t able to do it, but his heirs were able to do it.”
The endowed scholarship will live in UAB’s School of Engineering and will benefit countless generations of students. “UAB Engineering could not be more proud to count Dr. Berry among our alumni and to partner with him to enhance diversity in Engineering,” says Jeffrey Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Engineering. “Mark is a leader in his field of energy and the environment, and he is a passionate supporter of UAB Engineering through our Mechanical Engineering and school-wide advisory boards. He is also dedicated to giving back through mentoring and community involvement. This gift will allow future generations of students to follow in Dr. Berry’s footsteps.”
In fact, the scholarship has already had an impact on its first recipient, Jared Stinson, a biomedical engineering major from Lithonia, Georgia. Stinson, like Berry, also sees his academic pursuits as linked to family.
“The pandemic affected my family pretty hard, and this scholarship will assist me in focusing on my undergraduate [studies] and pursuing my career in cardiac electrophysiology,” Stinson says. “My family deals with a lot of heart-related issues, and I would like to research the topic further to help others.”
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