By Sam McDonald

Geographers use high-tech tools and hard-nosed observation to connect the analytical with the personal.

What’s happening where? Who does it impact?

Answers will be revealed, conclusions debated November 18-20 when about 250 scholars, professionals, and students gather in Norfolk for a meeting of the Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers, or SEDAAG.

It’s said to be the first time in more than two decades the group has met here.

"We are thrilled that Old Dominion University is hosting SEDAAG in Norfolk, Virginia, where the city's history, geographical richness, and the pressing challenges of climate change all converge,” wrote Amy Potter, a Georgia Southern University scholar who serves as the vice president for the group.

This 78th meeting of the association gives experts a chance to share their research, consider collaborative efforts, celebrate successes, and spot up-and-coming talent.

“This vibrant coastal environment will provide an ideal backdrop for fostering insightful discussions and academic collaboration among geographers from around the Southeast," Potter wrote.

The group’s president, Bill Graves of University of North Carolina, Charlotte, is eager to hear ideas from the field’s next generation.

“I most look forward to seeing what the region's geography students are working on,” Graves wrote. “I am nearly always surprised by the creative and innovative approaches they use to explore the questions of space and place.” 

Field trips, keynotes, presentations, poster sessions, and panel discussions cover subjects ranging from “Exploring the Infrastructures of Pollution in Columbia, S.C.” to “The Urgency of Bringing Black Geographies Research into K-12 Classrooms.”

A “Status of Women+ in Geography” breakfast is scheduled along with a lunch for young professionals.

Throughout the conference, contributions by ODU’s geography faculty and students will be on display.

In a session devoted to “Advancing Physical Geography through Experiential Learning,” ODU Geography Professor Tom Allen will share observations from The Blue Line Project, an effort that gives students in Coastal Geography the chance to participate in a public community event that helps residents visualize the impact of sea level rise on future flooding. 

ODU’s Nicole Hutton, Wie Yusuf, and Jesse Palma will talk about “Resilience Planning for Climate-Influenced Hazards and Health Impacts for Virginia Tribes.”

Their findings are related to work by a coalition of researchers at ODU and two other Virginia institutions devoted to helping communities bolster their resilience to issues associated with coastal hazards such as flooding.

The Resilience Adaptation Feasibility Tool, or RAFT, was created to help communities prepare for flooding and similar hazards while also considering health, economic and social concerns.

Palma, a recent ODU geography graduate, works as an intern with the university’s Institute for Coastal Adaptation and Resilience. She was part of the team that used the RAFT framework to support the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, one of Virginia’s seven federally recognized Native American tribes, and the Mattaponi Indian Tribe and Reservation, one of four Virginia tribes recognized by the state but not the federal government.

“I grew up in James City County, playing in those swamps and wetlands,” Palma said. “So, this was a personal topic for me.”

Members of the Native American communities were highly motivated to protect their homelands from climate-related threats, she said. That made working with the residents particularly satisfying. “They live and work there. Their families have been there for thousands of years. They were very interested in our ideas,” Palma said. “That meant there was less sending of emails and more doing the work.”

Palma and the team saw an opportunity to build a resilience hub, or community facility that coordinates shared support services and communication to strengthen hazard response. “We want to help them maximize those resources,” Palma said.

The fact that the region’s geographers are gathering in Norfolk in 2023 is poignant for many at ODU.

In March, ODU geographer Donald Zeigler died after a battle with cancer.

Zeigler, a human geographer who was a major figure in geography education, arrived at ODU in 1980 and spent his entire professional academic career at the university.

For the geographer’s conference, the chairman of ODU’s Department of Political Science and Geography, Jonathan Leib, organized the panel discussion, “Honoring the Life and Legacy of Don Zeigler,” to be held Monday afternoon.

“He was one of the kindest, most selfless people I’ve ever met. And one of the smartest,” Leib said earlier this year.

“Academics can sometimes have a reputation for ego. But Don was the opposite. Don had no ego, was always willing to help whether you were an undergraduate student, graduate student, faculty member, geography teacher or anybody who’s interested in geography.”