Legacy of science, gadgetry genius lives on
NORTH DAKOTA – One of the first things Morgen Burke did as the manager of UND’s Geographic Information Systems/Remote Sensing Laboratory was ask if he could hang a Canadian flag in his new office.
“Yeah, absolutely,” answered Dean Brad Rundquist of the College of Arts & Sciences. “It’s your office. You can do whatever you want. Of course, I was thinking something little, and he came along with this flag — a giant maple leaf — that nearly covered the whole wall in front of his desk.
“From then on, we always joked about his office being Canadian territory. ‘Can I cross? Do I need a passport to enter?’ Now, I can’t help but smile and think of him every time I look at that space.”
The Manitoba native known by fellow students and academic colleagues alike as the ever-humble and affable genius died in April — less than a year after he was diagnosed with brain cancer and just four months after he had powered through the rigors of both treatment and research to earn his doctorate in Earth System Science & Policy. He was 30 years old.
“His untimely death just seems so unfair. He was incredibly brilliant and had so much promise,” said Rundquist, who served as Burke’s academic advisor for his master’s in Geography and co-advisor for his doctoral degree along with ESSP Associate Professor Jeff VanLooy.
“He was a fantastic student — one of the best grad students I’ve ever had — and such a positive influence for other students,” Rundquist continued. “He treated people with such respect and care and always was wanting and willing to help out. Even if he didn’t know the answer to something, he never was one to throw up his hands. He was going to do the research and figure it out.”
VanLooy agreed, calling Burke “the nicest, most humble and gentle person” he’s ever met.
“Add to that his intelligence, dedication and determination to his research interests, and you have a dream student for any faculty,” VanLooy said.
A living legacy
Now, the College of Arts & Sciences and the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences are partnering to nurture that same legacy of kindness and dogged scientific exploration by establishing the Morgen W.V. Burke Memorial Graduate Fellowship. Once fully funded, the endowed fellowship will be awarded each year to an outstanding graduate student in either Geography or Earth System Science & Policy.
The fellowship is a way to memorialize Burke’s great courage and his scientific contributions while also inspiring future scientists to hunger for discovery, said ESSP Department Chair Soizik Laguette.
“Morgen was extremely curious and had a very strong capacity to nourish that intellect,” Laguette said. “He had a simple way of explaining difficult topics and was a natural at connecting the dots to understand the complexity of our world.
“For him, it was never just one thing. He looked at how the economic, environmental and societal factors all impact one another. Not everyone is capable of thinking that way. It’s incredibly challenging but very important when you’re really trying to solve a problem.”
The learning never stopped
And Burke frequently was trying to do just that. He was a prolific researcher and published four peer-reviewed scientific journal articles between 2018 and 2021 — a feat Rundquist said is far from typical for a student.
“It’s a long and difficult process to get that final seal of approval and get published,” he said. “Many times, articles are simply deemed unworthy and rejected, but Morgen had four research articles published as a student — and he was working on two more.”
In one important project, Burke used historic aerial images from as far back as 1962 to study density trends in Grand Forks County’s rural shelterbelts. He found that density increased until it hit a downward trend in 2014 — a decline he attributed to the natural lifespan of the trees and the active removal of them to make room for expanded row crops. The conclusion? Certain agricultural areas now stand at an increased risk of wind-induced soil erosion at a level similar to that experienced in the Midwest in the 1930s.
In yet another study, Burke used a special digital camera called a “phenocam” to monitor changes in grasslands and other vegetation at UND’s Oakville Prairie near Emerado, N.D. The time-lapse camera — along with others throughout the United States and Canada — captures images every half-hour and has done so for roughly eight years. That’s a lot of data, Rundquist said, and scientists are using it to learn how weather and climate patterns are impacting the environment.
But Burke took his research even one step further. He found a way to calibrate satellite data using phenocam data from multiple grassland sites, allowing researchers to better characterize highly dynamic grassland processes.
None of this was easy, Rundquist said, considering the entire system was set up in a field about a half-mile away from any source of electricity. Relishing the challenge, Burke powered it with marine batteries and then rigged solar panels and a wind turbine to charge them. He later added a weather station to measure temperature, precipitation and humidity.
“Morgen kept suggesting things we needed to add until we got to the point where there was no room to add anything more,” Rundquist said with a laugh. “He was a techno wizard who loved all the gadgetry.”
Seeing is believing (and understanding)
For instance, he also was key in building an Augmented Reality Sandbox — a high-tech, hands-on device that helps students understand geographic information system mapping. With a sweep of the hand, students can create a digital tsunami, or make it rain in the valley simply by opening their “cloud” fist over the landscape.
“It’s a great teaching tool to take out to middle schools, and he loved to do that,” Rundquist said.
Anyone who knew Burke said he was always full of ideas. The only thing he wasn’t full of was himself.
Laguette put it this way: “There was no arrogance, no pretention. It was never about him. He was just very caring, and that’s what made him such a great human being. Students were never afraid to ask him a ‘stupid’ question because there was never any judgment with Morgen. They had a lot of trust in him.”