Hydrologist Jesús “Chucho” Gomez-Velez is in the right place at the right time with the right tools and colleagues to explain how the smallest processes within river corridors can have a tremendous impact on large-scale ecosystems.
Life on the blue planet revolves around water. It is arguably our most important natural resource, yet there’s still a lot to learn about how the Earth’s water systems function, their influence, and how their makeup and movement affect the ecosystem and the economy.
Gomez-Velez of the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory combines expertise in river systems and mathematics with a civil engineer’s perspective and training to resolve big questions about water’s scarcity, quality and impact on the climate. He joined the lab’s Watershed Systems Modeling Group just six months ago and is already tackling several projects to better characterize these ecosystems, which channel rain and snow to larger bodies of water.
“My work centers on flow and transport processes—how mass and energy move through natural and urban environments,” Gomez-Velez said. “It’s a good fit with ORNL’s focus on fully understanding river systems and the watershed response. I’m working to integrate my understanding about rivers into some of the mathematical models we’ve developed at the lab to get to a higher level of fidelity about those physical processes.”
In one project, Gomez-Velez is identifying representative watersheds that serve as “analogs” for the southeastern United States. These analogs can be studied in more detail with the aid of field observations and high-performance mathematical models and used to predict the behavior of river ecosystems as land use and other conditions change. He is developing an approach to group watersheds that have a similar response to disturbance. Creating accurate representations will enable scientific hypotheses to be tested in different river systems without the need to characterize every component of each watershed.
Gomez-Velez is also creating a river temperature model for the DOE ExaSheds project. ExaSheds, which ORNL co-leads, is developing physics-based simulations of the nation’s watersheds using artificial intelligence tools deployed on vast datasets — hence the name, a portmanteau of “exascale” and “watersheds.”
To create the model, he uses data from some of the most heavily instrumented watersheds in the nation—the rivers and tributaries that drain the Delaware River Basin. The model will be integrated into the Advanced Terrestrial Simulator, or ATS, which ORNL developed with collaborators as a foundational platform for ExaSheds.
A third project has Gomez-Velez developing mathematical representations for the DOE IDEAS-Watersheds software project to better represent connectivity in river corridors. Relatedly, he is also developing software tools that will allow users to more easily gather information for their simulations, whether they’re modeling just a few processes or many.
Growing up in blue spaces
Gomez-Velez has had an affinity for water since childhood. He swam competitively beginning at age 10 in his native Colombia. He was a swimming instructor in college and played on his school’s water polo team. It was a love of mathematics and formative experiences with engineering professors that set him on his career trajectory exploring river systems.
He was the first in his family to attend college. As a freshman, he was enrolled in two separate universities in Medellín, one for civil engineering and the other for mathematics. “It’s just how the college system was structured at the time. I took the bus, about 30 to 40 minutes each way, to get between the two,” he said. “I was also working full time. I realized after a year it was all too much.”
With encouragement from his family, Gomez-Velez settled on civil engineering with a focus on hydraulics, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Colombia at Medellín.
After meeting a professor from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, or NMT, at an academic conference, Gomez-Velez opted to pursue graduate studies in the United States. He went on to earn two master’s degrees, one in hydrology and the other in applied mathematics, and then a doctorate in earth and environmental science from NMT.
“It’s funny that I ended up doing a lot of mathematics in grad school and now as a scientist. I sort of went full circle there,” he said with a laugh.
Gomez-Velez spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia, where he met world-renowned hydrologists and ecologists who continued to spark his interest in the field of ecohydrological processes.
“Being in a place like the USGS, where people have already been making an impact, you find that the staff are good scientists but also really good mentors. They care about the younger people in the field. It helped me make decisions later on in my career,” Gomez-Velez said.
He was an assistant professor of hydrology at NMT for about three years before moving on to Vanderbilt University as a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. During his four years at Vanderbilt, he worked on a growing array of hydrology projects and got to know more scientists in hydrology and biogeochemistry, including Scott Painter and Eric Pierce of ORNL.
From academia to big science
While he enjoyed teaching, Gomez-Velez said he was more interested in full-time research. He was attracted to the national lab environment as a place where he can meet big challenges with big science while still having the opportunity to mentor young researchers.
“At ORNL, you get access to a higher level of expertise and resources—what I call the human and physical infrastructure—necessary to address fundamental science questions,” Gomez-Velez said. “This was very attractive to me: the computational resources, the observational infrastructure, the opportunity to collaborate with people from many different fields and different labs, and the opportunity to focus on my science.
“One thing very clear to me is that the work I’m doing has important implications for human beings, for water availability and quality. Nearly every global challenge we’re facing right now has water quantity and water quality as a key component,” he said. A common thread through the work is to understand how these natural systems respond to changes in climate and land use, he added.
Gomez-Velez continues to mentor some of his former students pursuing degrees in hydrology at Vanderbilt and is looking forward to mentoring opportunities with students and interns at ORNL.
His advice for young scientists? “Many people who pursue science as a career have a misconception that you only become a professor. But in reality there are many different paths to take. I have friends who earned their Ph.D.s when I did, and now they are science writers working for the national academies or they are working at nonprofits. There are so many opportunities out there beyond academia that you can pursue and contribute to society. I would urge students and early career scientists to look for a variety of opportunities.”
Away from the lab, Gomez-Velez spends time with his family, including two young children, and enjoys being outside in East Tennessee.
“My 8-year-old has just developed a big interest in math and computers, and that’s become a lot of fun, having that in common,” he said.
He also tries to get his kids out in the green and blue spaces in the region, and to interest them in nature. “One of the many factors that drove my decision to work at ORNL is that it’s hard to beat the location,” he said. “We’re in a beautiful part of the country. You can go outside and then be five minutes from a nice hike.”
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science. —Stephanie Seay