Maria Laura Beninati: The Iowa Embrace
When Maria Laura Beninati visited IIHR and the University of Iowa, it was love at first sight. Beninati says she felt instantly embraced and could immediately see herself working and thriving at IIHR.
When IIHR Research Engineer Forrest Holly later called Beninati to tell her she had a full Iowa Presidential fellowship, Beninati didn’t hesitate. She was on her way to Iowa.
A Scientific Home
Beninati grew up near Philadelphia, one of three daughters. Her parents, both professionals, had immigrated to the United States from Argentina. Her mathematician mother and physician father raised the girls in an organized, scientific home. Beninati followed in their footsteps, excelling in math and science.
She enrolled in college at age 17 at Drexel University with a double major in architectural engineering and civil engineering. It was a five-year dualmajor cooperative program, and after earning two BS degrees from Drexel, Beninati worked full-time for a municipal water company and started work on a master’s degree in civil engineering and hydraulics. “I felt like hydraulics was very challenging,” Beninati says. “Every problem is distinct and you have to build a method to solve it. It kept me entertained and challenged.”
Beninati discovered she loved hydrodynamics and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Her faculty advisor suggested that if she wanted a PhD in hydraulics, there was only one place to go — the Midwest.
That was enough to get Beninati in her car and on the way to Iowa. She signed on with Professor Jeffrey Marshall to do work on vortex-dominated turbulence that yielded four publications.
“I had a wonderful time there,” she says. A successful team-teaching experience with Marshall revealed a natural talent for teaching. If she did not pursue it, Marshall said, she would be throwing her gift away.
Nine years later, Beninati is now a tenured faculty member at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, a selective private liberal arts institution with a highly ranked engineering program. Teaching is central and highly valued at Bucknell. “Research is important, but it’s not the most important thing,” she says. “Teaching is first.”
Beninati leads a thriving research program in marine renewable energy. She took over a research hydraulic flume that had been unused at Bucknell for some time and made it her own. Beninati wrote a proposal and received $200K in funding to study the environmental effects of marine hydrokinetic technologies, specifically how sediment behaves in and around support structures near turbines placed in river currents. “I would say my research has taken off,” Beninati says.
At Bucknell, getting students involved in the research is key. “If you’re training undergraduates using sophisticated fluid diagnostic equipment in the lab, [Bucknell] values it,” Beninati explains.
Nostalgia for Iowa
Beninati’s husband Ahrmed Lachhab now teaches at Susquehanna University, just 12 miles from Bucknell. They have three daughters, Sophia (11), Layla (9), and Nadia (7). “We’re trying to train them to be young women scientists,” Beninati says.
Beninati and her husband are both nostalgic about their time in Iowa. They miss everything, from Iowa beef to peaches ’n‘ cream sweet corn to Hawkeye football games. “I had a wonderful experience,” Beninati says. “We had that sense of belonging to the institute.”
She adds, “I think we carry a piece of Iowa City with us.”