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$5,000 prize honors fresh thinking about rivers

“Opportunities like this are the reason I love going to a small liberal arts school like Augustana.”

April  09, 2012

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The Fick file

Scott Fick is busy. He is president of STAND, a student organization that helps raise awareness of genocide around the world; he is involved with Augustana dining services’ Farm2Fork connection with local farms; and he plays cello in the Augustana Symphony Orchestra. He just returned from an Augustana term in Australia, where he used Augie Choice to help pay expenses while he held an internship in environmental management at Lane Cove National Park. In 2010, he won the Tredway Library Prize for his first-year research paper, "Household Compost in Rock Island."

Here at the confluence of the Mississippi and Rock rivers, the population tends toward one of two schools of thought:

1) Life is good here on the river, so I'll take my chances; or,

2) Life is good here on the river, so I'd better learn how to live well with it.

Geography major Scott Fick '13, winner of the 2012-13 Hasselmo Prize for Academic Pursuit, is on his way to becoming a leader in the second school of thought.

When he nominated Fick for the prize, Dr. Reuben Heine, chair of the geography department, said, "More than any student that I have known, Scott has a unique ability to synthesize ideas, articulate his thoughts, and find missing pieces in the gaps in knowledge."

Dr. Heine is Fick's advisor. In class, he has been using Fick's work to illustrate how Augustana students might pursue a complex problem that can overlap a number of areas of geographic change: landscape, climate and cultural.

Fick already has put his skills to work on two commissioned research projects: a study of the freshwater mussel population of the Mississippi River for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Rock Island Ecological Services Field Office, and a map project of the east and west districts of nearby College Hill for Cool Beanz coffee shop owner Annette Zapolis '09. The second commission was an individual project through his cartography class taught by Dr. Jennifer Burnham of the geography department, while the mussel study was a group project.

His newest project concerns the river — specifically the Rock River, though his results will benefit anyone who lives near any river with a history (or a future) of flooding. It's his Senior Inquiry project, and it will put the funding of the Hasselmo Prize to good use.

Hasselmo Prize + Senior Inquiry

Dr. Nils Hasselmo

Dr. Nils Hasselmo '57 served as the president of the University of Minnesota from 1988 until his retirement in 1997. From 1998 to 2006, he was president of the Association of American Universities.

Begun in 2011, the prize he funded awards $5,000 to an Augustana student who intends to pursue a career in higher education teaching or research. Award funds can be used to buy books or other resources; support travel to conferences, professional meetings, special collections, laboratories or graduate schools; or otherwise provide access to relevant, academically rigorous opportunities to encourage the pursuit of academics as a vocation.

In his letter of thanks, Fick told Dr. Hasselmo, "Opportunities like this are the reason I love going to a small, liberal arts school like Augustana. At Augie, I feel like I am provided with the resources and encouraged to challenge myself to achieve the best that I possibly can."

A similar line of thinking is what moved Dr. Hasselmo to fund the Hasselmo Prize. He came to Augustana as a Swedish international student after earning the college's Mauritzson Memorial Scholarship. To recognize the ways in which his Augustana education transformed his life and informed his vocation, Dr. Hasselmo decided to help current Augustana students see their own academic excellence lead to a future in higher education leadership.

Scott Fick intends to use the award to help him pursue his Senior Inquiry topic, "Floodplains and Flood Risk: Risk on a Continuum." Using geographic information systems (GIS) technology, he is trying to improve the public's understanding of flood risk areas.

Most people see the risk for flooding as beginning at certain boundaries. Fick argues those boundaries should not be determined as fixed lines, but rather as a continuum that shows changing levels of flood risk.

"There is a current discussion on how risk exists as a continuum, and yet current policy is based on those fixed boundaries," he said. "It can be a big problem for people who have an inaccurate perception of the risk.

"For example, we tend to think of a ‘100-year event' as an event happening once every 100 years. But talking about it that way isn't accurate; really we should be thinking in terms of a 1 percent chance of it occurring each year.

"The common language is to talk of a 10-year flood, or a 50-year flood," Fick said.

He wants to put GIS to new use and change the public's understanding of flooding toward levels of risk, rather than risk/no risk.

Mapping the way ahead

The results of his research could go one of two directions. "One has to do with the academic or ideological discussion, and the other has to do with what the U.S. Geological Survey currently is doing," Fick said.

This means he can see himself working on new interactive maps of floodplains, which could be accessible online and more readily available to the public than the current USGS maps. Or, he may try to publish a paper about floodplain households' perception of flood risk.

"I may tackle both," he added. Since the award money can be applied to designing, conducting and publishing or publicizing his research, the Hasselmo Prize will help either way.

Fick has developed the researcher's abilities to both think and do through his experiences at Augustana — particularly off-campus coursework and field trips with the geography department's research boat, the Stewardship. He said his immersion term in hydroecology, co-taught by Dr. Heine and biology professor Dr. Kevin Geedey in fall of 2011, was invaluable. (See "On the Mississippi with Dr. Reuben Heine")

"I really enjoyed the hydroecology term because of the original research," Fick said. "Using data and finding results that were new... it felt like a real contribution to the discipline."

As a junior, he is beginning to feel at home doing work that could advance his field in significant ways. He is already at home on the river.