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Jacob Odgaard: Making an Impact

Jacob Odgaard says his guiding principle has always been to go where he can have the greatest impact.

Jacob Odgaard says his guiding principle has always been to go where he can have the greatest impact.

One phone call has been known to change history. For IIHR Research Engineer Jacob Odgaard, such a call changed his life.

Odgaard was traveling worldwide through his work for the Danish Hydraulics Institute (DHI), and these travels brought him to Cal Tech, where he had been invited to present a seminar. Then-IIHR Director Jack Kennedy was at Cal Tech on sabbatical, hoping to recruit a talented engineer for IIHR. Someone suggested Odgaard might like the job.

“I remember saying, ‘No, I’m not interested,’” Odgaard says. “I didn’t even think about it.”

No Means No …

Strangely, the day after the seminar, Odgaard got a phone call from Kennedy. “How he got the number, I have no idea. He was not at my seminar – he wasn’t even at Cal Tech that day,” Odgaard says.

Jack said, “I hear you want to come to Iowa.” Of course, Odgaard wanted no such thing — but he is a polite man, and he agreed to discuss the matter with Kennedy at an upcoming conference. In the meantime, Odgaard intended to write a polite but firm letter declining the position.

“Then I got busy,” he says. “The whole thing completely slipped my mind.”

When Odgaard arrived at the conference in Baden Baden, Germany, it was already too late. A message from Kennedy was waiting for him at the hotel desk, inviting him to coffee. “By that time, the whole institute [DHI] knew,” Odgaard explains. His director at DHI advised him to take the job for one year, go and learn, and then return.

“My wife was not very happy about it,” Odgaard recalls. “I had to promise her it was only for one year.”

One Year Becomes Two …

But after one year, there was another project.  After that, it was another year, another project, and before long, Odgaard was firmly ensconced at IIHR.

Odgaard accepted the position planning to focus solely on research. “I never thought I would get back into academia,” Odgaard says. But when Kennedy asked Odgaard if he would teach a course for him — starting tomorrow — Odgaard rose to the challenge.

“Apparently, I did a reasonably good job,” Odgaard says. “It was quite typical of Jack. I learned to be on the toes all the time.”

When a faculty position opened up at the University of Iowa, he accepted it with the newfound recognition that he enjoyed teaching. Odgaard’s career, which he says has meandered like a river, has been guided by a philosophy of doing the most that he can do. “The guiding principle has always been, go where you can have the biggest impact,” he says. And as he now knows, teaching is that place.

A Danish Farm Boy

Odgaard was born in Denmark, where he grew up the son of a local politician and farmer. He studied engineering at the Technical University of Denmark, where he graduated with degrees in civil engineering.

Odgaard’s professional career took him from the Technical University of Denmark to a position with the United Nations, and later, a postdoc at Cambridge, U.K. Next came a job at the Danish Hydraulic Institute, which took him to nearly all corners of the world. His only regret, he says, is that he didn’t take time to see more of the countries he visited — his focus on work was too intense.

At IIHR, that focus did not relent. Odgaard has worked on an astonishing number of research projects, including some of the institute’s most influential work.

Submerged Vanes

For Odgaard, perhaps the most exciting moment of his career came unexpectedly one afternoon at Oakdale, where he was running experiments in a curved sediment flume. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had commissioned him to study bend scour and bank erosion, and ways to prevent it. Based on an earlier model study, Odgaard and Kennedy wondered what effect small submerged vanes or foils might have on the bend scour if correctly aligned. Odgaard asked Mechanical Shop Supervisor Jim Goss to cut seven pieces of metal, which he placed in the flume, slightly angled to the flow.

Odgaard was astonished by what he saw. “They actually started moving sediment out to the bank!” He called Kennedy and asked him to come see for himself. The vanes completely flattened the bed, eliminating all the scouring. “It was fantastic!” Odgaard says. “Neither Jack nor I really thought they would work that well.”

Together, they wrote the first journal paper on submerged vanes and the complex flow patterns they create, which can reduce scouring along riverbanks. It was groundbreaking work, still in use today, although Odgaard says vanes are not the solution for all bank erosion problems. “For certain problems, they can certainly do the job,” he says.

Odgaard also started fish passage research at IIHR in 1981, which has grown to be one of the institute’s most important research areas. “We started out knowing absolutely nothing about how to deflect these baby salmon,” Odgaard says. Odgaard and his team worked with clients in the Pacific Northwest to help guide fish safely through hydroelectric dams. “This was very rewarding, because we learned so much about complex flow patterns in water intakes,” Odgaard says.

When Odgaard was approached for a position as associate dean in the College of Engineering, he did not accept right away. “I didn’t want to be a paper shuffler,” he says. “That was not me.” He preferred to do work with more concrete results. But when he learned that he could influence the college’s plans for expanding and renovating the engineering facility, he saw that this work could have a tangible impact on generations of students. “It really became interesting,” he says. “The more impact, the better.”

Odgaard continues his teaching and research, and shows no signs of slowing down. When he’s not at work, he enjoys serving as a flight instructor and spending time with his family.

Even today, when faced with a dilemma, Odgaard thinks about the man who brought him to Iowa and IIHR. “What would Jack have done?” Odgaard asks. “I learned so much from him.”

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Last modified on June 29th, 2015
Posted on November 13th, 2013

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