A Force of Nature

Monday, Apr. 28, 2014 9:38 am

Tayler Chicoine ’14 often can be found on an environmental mission, testing the waters of Little Bear Creek in Grinnell, Iowa.

Like many Grinnell students, Chicoine has taken full advantage of Grinnell College’s exceptional array of internships, Mentored Advanced Projects, and volunteer opportunities in the community. In spring 2014, she became Grinnell’s first Newman Civic Fellow, recognized for her work to protect local waterways. The fellowships — presented by Campus Compact, a national coalition of 1,100 college and university presidents committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education — are designed to honor and support the next generation of public problem-solvers and civic leaders.

The Des Moines, Iowa native always enjoyed being outdoors. “Some of my best memories were creek stomping and catching frogs,” Chicoine says of her childhood.

Now, her purpose in visiting waterways has evolved into the kind of socially responsible, results-driven work one expects from Grinnell College students.

Which stands to reason. She is the great-granddaughter of former U.S. Rep. Neal Smith, whose name adorns the National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City, Iowa, about 35 miles west of Grinnell. Her great-grandmother, Bea, Smith’s wife, graduated from Grinnell in 1945.

Chicoine visited Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge regularly as a child to see the bison herd. All her creek-stomping and interest in ecology led to a biology major at Grinnell, a highly ranked national liberal arts college. She returned to the refuge for an internship in summer 2011.

Chicoine plans a special project through Grinnell’s Center for Prairie Studies: she will interview her great-grandfather about prairie, the environment, and his long political career. Chicoine is on the center’s advisory board.

Checking for pollution, calling for action

Checking a sampleMuch of Chicoine’s environmental work has involved monitoring, and trying to curb water pollution in the Poweshiek County area. She has won several awards and grants.

As part of a fall 2013 Mentored Advanced Project with Doug Caulkins, professor emeritus of anthropology at Grinnell, Chicoine designed and conducted a community survey on watershed awareness. The survey showed that most members of the local community didn’t know where their water came from or that there were pollution threats to the local water supply. Following the survey, Chicoine told children in elementary school classrooms about watershed issues, presented water-quality information to civic organizations, and, with the support of IOWATER, founded and trained a group of students to regularly test and monitor various sites in local watersheds.

She helped established eco-coalitions among local organizations.

“I learned to translate my own biological background into common knowledge and to help people care about a watershed that, before they knew its name, was an unimportant landscape,” said Chicoine.

In spring 2014, Chicoine helped organize teams that will label storm-sewer drains so local residents know that anything they dump down the sewer goes straight into Little Bear Creek.

In summer 2014, she will head to Namibia on a Grinnell Corps assignment that will involve work in information technology and as a research assistant.

Chicoine is “indefatigable”

Her adviser, David Campbell, Henry R. Luce Professor of Nations and the Global Environment, says there is something special in Chicoine’s approach.

“I am awed by Tayler; she’s indefatigable,” Campbell says. “She’s a force of nature. I don’t think that it ever crosses her mind not to be busy, not to be learning, not to be working, not to be fully engaged in her community."

Mindy Sieck, watershed coordinator for the Poweshiek Soil and Water Conservation District, welcomed Chicoine’s drive, too. “Tayler Chicoine is very passionate about water conservation and has been an asset to the Little Bear Creek Watershed Project,” Sieck says.

While interning at the district in summer 2012, Chicoine encouraged residents in town to install rain gardens and to use other practices that are gentle on waterways.

Service in Africa

Now, Chicoine turns her attention to Africa.

After a year in Namibia, Chicoine plans to pursue graduate school, probably in geography or ecology. "I want to understand how people interact with the landscape and help discover how we can form a more sustainable relationship between nature and human needs," she says. “In Africa, I will look for the question that will inspire me for the rest of my life.”

Grinnell has made that inspiration possible.

Tayler Chicoine ’14 is a biology major from Des Moines.

Tayler Chicoine in waders reflected in water's surface