Minerva Mentoring Award 2008
Trying to understand and make sense of nature is completely awe-inspiring. The whole time I’m out there, I’m thinking that I can’t believe someone’s paying me to do this.
Faye Hicks remembers the time she went skating on a frozen river near her childhood home in New Brunswick. Today, the river ice researcher wishes she had paid less attention to making figure eights and focused more on the frosty surface.
“Now that I know how ice forms on rivers, I can’t imagine how it was possible for us to skate on the river that winter. It was a fluke,” says Hicks, a professor with the University of Alberta’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “Of course, as a kid, I was totally oblivious. Back then, it was probably just about fun.”
Being close to a river still offers a degree of fun for Hicks, who is working to advance current knowledge about river ice processes and hydraulics, especially as it pertains to water flow and flood forecasting. Her most recent field work involves studying the Hay River in the Northwest Territories and the Athabasca River near the oil sands of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
“Our Fort McMurray study looks at the potential impact of ice, industry and climate change on the reduced winter water supply of the Athabasca,” she says, noting that the complex project involves numerical computer modeling, experimental studies and year-round field work.
“We watch the river during freeze up and then do winter surveys to try to understand the ice formation process. It’s interesting how rivers form their ice covers because of the moving water beneath; it’s really quite different from a lake.”
Even bone-chilling temperatures can’t harden Hicks’ enthusiasm when she has an opportunity to get out in the field.
“I love being able to see rivers totally angry or to witness the awesome power of nature up close as an ice jam builds and releases,” she says. “Trying to understand and make sense of nature is completely awe-inspiring. Imagine being on the Athabasca in the middle of February with the wolves and the deer. It’s so quiet, so pristine, so wild. It’s a fabulous worksite. The whole time I’m out there, I’m thinking that I can’t believe someone’s paying me to do this.”
Whether by destiny or design, Hicks developed an early interest in engineering.
“I loved to build things and I still do. My dad has a photo of me from when I was five helping to build our house. And there’s another photo of my sister and I; she’s in a dress and I’m wearing blue jeans and river boots. It’s like, gee, guess which one is the future engineer?”
As a student, Hicks naturally gravitated toward science and math courses, believing it would lead her to a career in architecture.
“I started out taking architectural technology and quickly found out that I was not the artistic type. My drawings looked more like the box the building came in,” she laughs. “But part and parcel of that was engineering, which was much more suited to me. Civil engineering is what I ended up taking and in the course of that, accidentally discovered that I was much more interested in rivers than structures.”
After working for the Alberta government for a number of years, Hicks came to the University of Alberta in 1989, becoming the engineering faculty’s first female professor. “It was a bit weird, but the wild thing is that it was immediately comfortable – everyone was so incredibly welcoming and supportive,” she recalls.
When she is not in the classroom or on a river bank, Hicks’ hobbies include woodworking and winemaking because, as she says, both pastimes offer their own reward. “I’m someone who likes to see results. I need to know my time has not been wasted so having something enjoyable at the end of the process is gratifying.”
Not surprisingly, that same attitude is reflected in Hicks’ work as well.
“I’m really lucky to have come upon something I find so incredibly interesting,” she says.
What I enjoy most is knowing that what I do has a very real impact on people. Writing journal papers is fine and dandy, but when there is an opportunity to do work that helps someone, fills a need or solves a problem – that is most exciting. That is very meaningful to me.