Exchange student examines social vulnerability through Natural Hazards Center internship

March 28, 2013 •

When Hurricane Sandy hit Washington, D.C. last October, the usually teeming capitol became a ghost town. Few people braved the whipping winds and stinging sheets of rain on the streets of the nation’s capital. Holed up in his hotel, Laurence Hawker, a CU-Boulder exchange student from Lancaster University in England, witnessed the psychological reactions to an extreme storm that he had up until then only read about.

Hawker, who was in Washington participating in a Model United Nations conference, is studying how social vulnerability, such as a lack of communication, can transform a natural hazard into a social disaster.  

“It was a surreal feeling,” said Hawker. “Throughout the conference people were rushing out early and a general state of panic ensued. It showed me how a natural hazard can cause powerful emotions in people.”

The social effect of natural hazards is just one area of interest for Hawker.  A junior at CU-Boulder, Hawker is majoring in geography. He chose CU-Boulder because of the geography department’s ranking as one of the top programs among the nation’s doctoral-granting geography departments. Faculty and students conduct interdisciplinary research and are affiliated with other programs and centers at CU-Boulder, as well as nearby federal labs, which is valuable to students as they build professional contacts and seek the unique experiences that will launch their careers.

“I picked CU because it’s got a great geography department with faculty who are well-known in their fields,” said Hawker. “Colorado is a good place for a variety of geography. Coming here is a natural fit for me, really.”

Through Career Services at CU-Boulder, Hawker learned about the Natural Hazards Center on campus, where he received an internship. The Natural Hazards Center serves as a national and international clearinghouse of knowledge concerning the social science and policy aspects of disasters. Hawker is in contact with a statistician to help with research on psychological effects caused by the Chernobyl nuclear accident that occurred in the Ukraine in 1986.

“The internship gives me more knowledge about the discipline and contact with people who are focused on the topic,” he said. “An internship adds another layer to my studies.”

What Hawker likes about the study of geography is how it bridges social sciences with natural sciences.

“Geography is earth writing. It explains how the world slots together,” he said. “But there is so much more to geography than just knowing where places are on a map. It puts the study of social and physical processes in a context of landscapes and environments that include population, globalization, movement, cities, and buildings.” 

Hawker views a map as “a key to a locked door,” representing opportunities to explore unfamiliar territory. This is his first time in the United States, and he’s taking advantage of travel opportunities, which have included visiting the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Chicago, San Diego, the Northwest, Vancouver—even Wichita, Kansas.

His biggest piece of advice for students is to check out the opportunities available through Career Services.

“Pick their brains, because they can open up a lot of avenues,” he said. “I would never have found the Natural Hazards Center on my own in a million years. It’s brilliant for finding opportunities. This is a time in our lives when opportunities are available right on our doorstep, and I would encourage students to go out there and take them.”

To read more about Hawker’s adventures as a CU-Boulder student, visit his blog at