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Senior Seminar Flows With Lessons About Mississippi River

Publication Date: 9/26/2011

For Rhodes students looking to learn more about the Mississippi River, the course taught by Biology Professor┬áDr. Rosanna Cappellato this fall is a good place to start. Eleven students are enrolled in the Mississippi River-themed senior seminar, and says Cappellato, “Most of them have lived here for at least three years and yet they know very little about the river.” This can said about many current residents of Memphis even though the city depends on the river for commerce, recreation and many other aspects of life.

Memphis native Blaire O’Neal ’12 explains, “I never really thought about the river. Then I found out Rhodes offered a whole course on it and thought that it would be a good opportunity to sort of catch up.” O’Neal is studying different forms of pollution that affect the Mississippi such as industrial metals, fertilizers, and pesticides.

The course kicked off with a field trip to Memphis’ Mud Island River Park which contains a scale model of the Lower Mississippi River flowing from the Ohio River to the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s really done very well,” says Cappellato.

As part of the course’s literature, students read a historical narrative piece by John McPhee titled “The Control of Nature.” The author vividly reflects on the struggle by the Corps of Engineers to keep the Mississippi River from changing course. The river would stray from its course near the delta and leave cities like Baton Rouge and New Orleans dry in favor of a more direct route through what is now the Atchafalaya River if not for a series of locks called “Old River Controls.”

Flooding also is a concern along the Mississippi, particularly considering the near-record high water level earlier this year, and all the farmland still underwater today. To prevent flooding and to make the river more useful for transport, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have installed river controls such as dams, levees, dykes and canals. “The levees actually held up pretty well from what I have seen,” says Cappellato.

However, the levees not only prevent rich sediments from depositing in the floodplain, but also may contribute to a significant loss of wetlands in Louisiana. It has been estimated that land area has decreased about 25 percent since 1932. The loss of wetland has “in recent years demonstrated a growing vulnerability of the Louisiana coast to hurricanes. In fact, the impact of [hurricane] Katrina on the gulf coast was much more severe because of the degradation of this ecosystem,” explains Cappellato.

The seminar course also addresses the environmental effects of industries operating near areas on the river. President’s Island on the Mississippi River, for example, hosts chemical manufacturers just southwest of downtown Memphis. Not far away is a coal-fired power plant and a wastewater treatment facility.

One student, Shannon Fuller ’11, took a particular interest in the effect of heavy industry and pollution on river health. She wrote a paper and gave a presentation on “Cancer Alley,”— a section of the Mississippi from Baton Rouge to New Orleans—with a history of industry and health problems caused by pollution. She later used the paper to apply to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Global Health Master’s Degree program, in which she currently is enrolled.

(information compiled by Rhodes Student Associate Nicholas Brydon ’13)

Tags: Campus Life, Faculty, Students

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