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Geography students take top honors at meeting

November 2, 2006

UW-River Falls geography students took on the issue of environmental racism and presented their research, taking top honors at a regional conference early last month.

Seniors Amy Fox and Peter Tufigno won awards for Best Undergraduate Paper at the 2006 Association of American Geographers Joint Annual Meeting of the Great Plains-Rocky Mountain Division and the West Lakes Division, which took place Oct. 5-7.

Fox won first place and Tufigno took second for their research on environmental racism, which was conducted during spring semester in their Geography 401 (Senior Capstone) course.

Assistant professor of geography John Heppen taught the course and encouraged many of his students to present their research at the 2006 regional conference.

Fox and Tufigno were the only ones who pursued his recommendation.

The students’ research findings were part of an assignment for the course that had students collect data and make analyses.

"[Environmental racism was chosen as the research topic because] geographers are interested in how humans interact in their environment,” Heppen said.

The class defined environmental racism "as the discriminatory geographic distribution of polluting, dangerous and hazardous waste industries near and next to minority neighborhoods or communities.”

Fox and Tufigno’s research was very good, he said. “With the research they did, they could go to graduate school.”

Tufigno and Fox, however, said they are undecided about attending graduate school.

Both used data from various sources, as well as a Geographic Information System, to analyze the geographic patterns.

Tufigno researched the different ethnicities coming in and out of the Lake Street area in Minneapolis.

“I noticed a lot of ethnic diversity and change in the area,” Tufigno said. “I thought it would be interesting to look at that change.”

Tufigno said he chose to research Lake Street because he lived and worked in the area for a couple of years.

“What I found was there was a lower standard of living,” he said. “There were more vacant units in the area and a higher turnover rate.”

What he also found was a higher concentration of black people in the area.

Although he discovered this, he couldn’t directly relate ethnicity to the standard of living. “I could take statistics of what neighborhoods were worse, but I couldn’t say race was related,” Tufigno said.

Fox conducted a research study on the race composition of the communities surrounding nuclear power plants in the United States.

“[I chose this topic] because I am interested in the human side of geography, and finding out why people are where they are and how their environment affects them,” Fox said.

She focused on Native American communities and nuclear plant locations because she wanted to see why Native Americans are the only racial group inequitably affected by nuclear power plants.

Fox found that in comparison to the Native American population, it seemed nuclear plants most disproportionately affected them.

Both Fox and Tufigno said the conference was a good experience.

Tufigno said he chose to attend the conference to get experience and network with others.

Fox said she thought it would be a good way to have her research heard.

“I figured, as a senior this was my last chance to present my information and share my research with someone else,” she said.

Undergraduate students, graduate students and professors from around the United States attended the conference, which was located in Lincoln, Neb.

Fox and Tufigno were the only UW students who attended.

Heppen also went to the conference, and said 96 papers were presented.

“What I liked about Amy and Peter was they each gave 20-minute presentations,” Heppen said. “Most undergrad students just used posters rather than a formal oral presentation.”

“I chose to do an oral presentation because I thought people would more likely listen to my research,” Fox said.

Fox and Tufigno said the conference provided them with a good experience.

“It was my first conference,” Tufigno said. “I gained more confidence in my work, and feel more comfortable presenting things in front of people.”

By attending the conference, “I was able to find out about a variety of topics that geography can cover,” Fox said.

This is the second year at least one UWRF student has attended the conference.

“As far as I know, no other UWRF student have won awards at geography conferences,” Heppen said.