URI professor awarded prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship

Providence resident is first URI faculty member to receive honor

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Austin Becker. Photo by Nora Lewis

KINGSTON, R.I. – February 23, 2017 – Austin Becker, a professor of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, has been named a Sloan Research Fellow in Ocean Sciences by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, one of the most prestigious fellowships available to early-career scientists in the United States. He is the first URI faculty member to receive the honor.

The two-year, $60,000 fellowship is awarded to 126 scientists each year to stimulate fundamental research by scholars of outstanding promise in a variety of disciplines.

“Dr. Becker proposes unique approaches to applied research that bridge the ocean sciences with real-world decision making,” said John Kirby, dean of the URI College of the Environment and Life Sciences, who nominated Becker for the fellowship. “He advances these issues through interrelated research projects, all designed to engage stakeholders in a collaborative process designed to effect positive change and better policy decisions around climate adaptation. Dr. Becker will continue to be a leader in his field as he seeks to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges and train the next generation.”

Becker, who joined the URI faculty in 2014, said his research is motivated by climate change and helps make coastal communities stronger and more resilient to the effects of storms, sea level rise and other natural hazards. He considers himself an interdisciplinary scientist, working between the social and ocean sciences.

“I was pretty excited when I got word that I was selected for the fellowship,” said Becker. “I’m truly honored. This award recognizes the importance of bringing the latest ocean science information to the public and the decision makers who need it in order to make choices that benefit society.”

The tools that Becker and his team of graduate students and research associates are developing include a virtual disaster impacts model, techniques to visualize the impact of disasters, techniques to better understand the relative vulnerability of North Atlantic seaports, and methodologies for engaging stakeholders in resilience planning.

“My group develops tools that engage people in thinking about the long-term implications of natural hazards,” he said. “Stakeholders need to understand how they share the burden of risk. Often, stakeholders assume that the responsibility to invest in resilience lies with someone else – the insurance company or the emergency planners or the private business owner. Our tools help people understand how results from hydrodynamic models developed by oceanographers translate into social and economic costs. That, in turn, helps us to make smarter choices in planning and policy.”

The funds he receives from the Sloan Research Fellowship will enable him to hasten work on developing and testing these tools.

“It will enable us to bring more students into the group and purchase new technologies so we can move ahead more quickly on the development of the visualization tools and the virtual disaster impacts modeling,” he said.

Katharine Hazard Flynn, executive director of the URI Foundation Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, said, “It’s always exciting to help support the remarkable work of our talented faculty at URI, and to help secure investments from Foundations, like Sloan, looking to facilitate research and discovery.  We congratulate Professor Becker and express our gratitude to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for recognizing his work and the potential impact of his research at the University of Rhode Island and beyond.”