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Going with the Flow

Posted on May 1st, 2014

by Shianne Gruss

From Colombia to Colorado, and finally to Iowa, IIHR Associate Research Engineer Ricardo Mantilla arrived just in time to witness the floods of 2008, which were to him a local natural disaster turned perfect research opportunity.

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Mantilla at Parque Tayrona in Colombia

This fall semester 2014, Mantilla will begin his position as assistant professor in the University of Iowa Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He will teach hydrology and hydrologic modeling.

At the time of the 2008 floods, Mantilla had just earned his Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder and was beginning his postdoctoral research in surface hydrology and water transport, supervised by IIHR Faculty Research Engineer Witold Krajewski.

Their collaboration was instrumental in establishing the Iowa Flood Center, the state and nation’s first academic center of its kind. Currently, Mantilla and IFC Director Krajewski – along with many others – research the theory of floods. Their goal is to uncover the physical mechanisms behind flood occurrence and how researchers can go about predicting the next major event.

“Iowa is like a lab,” Mantilla says. “Every theoretician needs a lab. You ask a chemist where is your lab? and they take you to an office in a building. In hydrology, it’s more difficult to have controlled experiments. Hydrology is huge. We cannot simulate hydrology in a building, so we need to look at the world.”

Luckily for Mantilla, Iowa is not just a lab but also his playground. He appreciates the state’s network of trails almost as much as its network of rivers and has participated in RAGBRAI several times.

“I get to know more of Iowa and see the landscapes,” he says. “Iowa is much more beautiful in bike than it is in a car.”

Before joining the IIHR team, Mantilla contributed to several surface hydrology and water transport geographical information systems, including HidroSig, HydroKansas, and CUENCAS, the latter two funded by the National Science Foundation. Mantilla’s own CUENCAS, however, focuses specifically on river networks, such as the many found in Iowa.

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Mantilla participating in Ragbrai 2013

Mantilla remembers back to his undergraduate engineering studies at the National University of Colombia, when he had to choose between pursuing a career track in structures, transportation, soil mechanics, or water.

“I had this thought that you become like what you do,” he says. “Water to me sounded very perfect. It’s very dynamic and fluid. Sometimes it’s water, sometimes it’s vapor, sometimes it’s solid. It changes. So I thought, you know what? I’ll be water.”

Mantilla says that – up until now – his life has been a great story. He jokes that reevaluation may be necessary after several years of teaching.

He plans to stay in Iowa City for quite a while and says it has been great to him, allowing him to see world-renowned musicians for just 10 dollars, among other things. However, he hopes to eventually retire in Colombia, where the majority of his family lives.

“The tough thing about life,” he says, quoting philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is that it can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

To Mantilla, water behaves in a similar fashion. He knows he cannot reverse the river’s flow, but he would like to someday be able to predict it.

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