Profile: Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe: The Critical Role of Water in Environmental Problems

Carol Peters ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

Ignacio Rodriguez-Iturbe who has been a member of the Princeton Environmental Institute faculty for thirteen years, is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering. His research areas include ecohydrology, environmental engineering and water resources, surface hydrology and hydrometeorology, and the water embedded in the food trade among nations.

Arriving in Princeton from Texas A&M the summer of 1999, Rodriguez-Iturbe has been dedicated to the work of the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI) from the beginning. He became a PEI faculty member in 1999 and served as Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies (CEES) from July 1999 until 2002, when CEES was divided into two research groups, the Energy Systems Analysis Group (ESAG) at PEI, and the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School.

Rodriguez-Iturbe served as acting director of PEI in 2002, and from 2002 – 2008 he was on PEI’s executive committee. In 2001 he became the first recipient of a new professorship gifted to PEI from the Pitney family, the Theodora Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Sciences, a title he held until 2006. He joined the Grand Challenges faculty in 2007, and has also been a participating faculty member in two of PEI’s research centers, the Center for Biocomplexity and the Cooperative Institute for Climate Science.

Rodriguez-Iturbe teaches several very popular environmental studies (ENV) courses, including the senior colloquium in environmental studies, and the freshman seminar (FRS 105) Water: Keystone for sustainable development. He also teaches ENV courses cross listed with the civil and environmental engineering department, including (CEE/ENV 587) Ecohydrology, and (CEE 599) Special topics in environmental engineering.

In addition to his scholarship, research, and teaching, he is credited for his ability to inspire in his students a lasting appreciation for the natural world and their impact on it. “Ignacio inspires students to think about natural systems in the broadest terms and to reach for their highest ideals in understanding the complexity of nature,” said Lars Hedin, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of PEI’s program in environmental studies (ENV). In addition to teaching, Professor Rodriguez-Iturbe advises many students on their senior thesis research projects, and mentors untold numbers of other undergraduate and graduate students.

The author of over 200 journal publications and 6 books, Rodriguez-Iturbe has received numerous international awards and honors, including the National Academy of Sciences (2010); National Academy of Engineering (1988); the Bowie Medal (2009), Horton Medal (1998), and Macelwane Medal (1977), all from the American Geophysical Union; Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican (2007); Spain Royal Society of Sciences (2003); Prince Sultan Abdulaziz Water Prize (2010); and the Stockholm Water Prize (2002).

Below, PEI speaks to Rodriguez-Iturbe about PEI, his current research interests, advice to freshmen, and more.

Does your association with PEI enhance your research and teaching? If so, how?

Indeed it does! It brings me in close contact with a large number of superb researchers in many different but interconnected fields of the environmental sciences as well as policy which have do have strong links with my own research in hydrology, particularly in ecohydrology. PEI has been great for me in terms of its encouragement and support of research and teaching that explores a wider spectrum of issues connected with water.

In the years ahead, how do you plan to continue addressing environmental problems?

I am more enthusiastic than ever about the importance of research in environmental problems and I am also more convinced than ever of the crucial role that water plays in these problems, both from the scientific viewpoint as well as from the point of view of public policy. I am currently very interested in these two areas:

  1. The thermodynamic principles governing the spatial organization of river basins. We have made advances regarding those that govern the organization and spatial structure of the drainage network, but how about the spatial organization of vegetation? I am interested in the same question regarding wetlands. In both cases the hydrologic dynamics is crucial in the spatial organization of functional vegetation types. How can we establish quantitative principles governing this spatial organization?
  2. The structure and modelling of the global virtual water network. All food has an embedded amount of water used in its production which we call virtual water. This water may be direct rainfall (known as green water) or water from irrigation (called blue water). Countries import and export different types of agricultural and livestock products which effectively constitute a network of water flows among the different countries. I am very interested in the statistical structure of this complex network and also in the development of models which may allow us to predict the impact on the network of different climate and policy scenarios.

Please describe the most important global environmental challenge undergraduates and graduate students need to understand, and why.

I am sure there are many which will be long to describe, but I just want to emphasize here from the “global” point of view the challenges involved in the relationship between water and food as well as the consequences on water related issues of climate change. These issues cover crucial aspects ranging from changes in the dynamics of droughts and floods to water supply for cities or requirements for irrigation.

What advice would you give a freshman interested in pursuing a career in the environment?

Get involved with the programs that PEI has to offer. There are many, and they are open to students from all disciplines. Princeton is truly a great place for interdisciplinary studies.

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