Hallway Conversations – Jaime Gómez-Hernández

A –Streams of Thought– contribution by Kevin Roche.

In our inaugural Hallway Conversations article we have the pleasure of learning about the most recent AGU Chapman Conference through the eyes of its principal organizer, Jaime Gómez-Hernández (JGH), a professor of hydrogeology from the Universidad Poletécnica de Valencia. Together with the Chapman planning committee, Professor Gómez-Hernández brought researchers from around the world together for a week of presentations, discussions and activities in his native Valencia, Spain. “The MADE Challenge for Groundwater Transport in Highly Heterogeneous Aquifers” highlighted current understanding and future needs to address the growing threat of aquifer contamination. Discussions centered on the Macrodispersion Experiment (MADE) Site, located on the Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, USA. Thirty years of experiments and site characterization have made it one of the most intensively-studied aquifers in the world; and although its sampling wells are no longer in place, MADE’s rich datasets are still used to test novel groundwater modeling theory.


Figure 1: Jaime Gomez-Hernandez at the reigns of the 2015 Chapman Conference

Recently, our very own Kevin Roche (KR) sat down with Dr. Gómez-Hernández to ask a few questions about the Chapman Conference and his outstanding academic career.

KR: What was the purpose of the Chapman Conference on Groundwater?

JGH: We have spent thirty years looking for ways to characterize transport in heterogeneous media. The truth is, there has been a lot of advancement, but the advancements we’ve made have been difficult to put into practice. MADE is an [overstudied] aquifer…. I certainly would like [for groundwater hydrologists] to make this a useful product for the real practitioner, such as people doing groundwater modeling for regulatory agencies. For me, that is one of the major goals of this conference. In the end, we need to sit down and ask, “Can we really transfer this technology to the enterprises, to the people who are doing real work, not just the academic work that we do?”


Figure 2: A well used for solute tracer tests at the made site (left); map of solute concentrations shows “anomalous” spreading of a tracer injection, with rapid propagation of the plume front and high retention of the solute near the injection location (right); Zheng et al. (2010).

KR: What will be discussed in a groundwater conference 20 years from now?

JGH: In 2000 there was an editorial in Groundwater titled, “It’s the heterogeneity!” (Wood, 2000). The editor at the time realized that all the problems we had predicting groundwater in the subsurface were related to the subsurface heterogeneity. He was very skeptical that we would be able—ever be able—to characterize an aquifer sufficiently enough to make reliable predictions [about contaminant transport]. From 2000-2015, we’ve come a very long way, largely because of the new tools able to make very detailed characterization of the subsurface, which weren’t available at that time. Today, in a relatively short period of time and in a relatively inexpensive way, you can get a lot of information about an aquifer. I think we are getting there. I think that we are going in the direction that this could be applied. I don’t know if in twenty years it will be routinely applied, but I think we will see more people understanding that all of this heterogeneity is important, and they will make an effort for better characterization and build models using this new stochastic framework.

KR: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

JGH: I’m a civil engineering graduate from Universidad Poletécnica de Valencia (UPV). At the time there was a Joint Committee for the Collaboration between the U.S. and Spain from which I got a fellowship and applied to Stanford…. I got my Masters in hydrogeology, then I moved into my Ph.D. with Andre Journel, one of the world leaders in geostatistics at the time. After 2-3 years [following graduation], I joined the faculty here in Spain.

KR: How was it returning home?

JGH: It was nice [returning home]. Spain is where all my family is, but after almost six years in the U.S., I should have come back with the same attitude as when I left, because I was returning to a different environment. Spain had changed a lot. I thought I was coming back home, but it changed so much. At the time I was in the U.S. there was the biggest economic boom [the country had ever experienced]. All of a sudden there were freeways everywhere. Everyone had nice cars. The country had changed a lot; and certainly, the people had changed. So you have to start again, make new friends, and find yourself again in this new country.


Figure 3: Our morning view from the UPV. A sliver of the Mediterranean Sea can be seen through the neighborhood buildings.

KR: Where do you find academic inspiration?

JGH: Academic inspiration is tough. You decide to start a program and take on Ph.D. students, and you ask yourself, “Am I going to be able to get new ideas to get everyone a project?” I don’t know how they come, but it’s a nonlinear process. It’s not like you just keep working and eventually you get ideas. You have no ideas, then all of a sudden you see the light, and there’s a well of production we didn’t realize we could be exploring. Sometimes it’s just trial and error, but so far, a lot of the ideas we’ve been trying have worked. I don’t think it’s related to my other interests; but I like to do a lot of things. I’m very much up to challenges. [Performing magic] was a challenge at the beginning; now it’s more of a hobby. Singing was a challenge when I started. Five years ago someone proposed I run a marathon, and now I’m a runner. I like to be challenged.

KR: What advice do you have for young hydrologists?

JGH: First, try to work in something that you like. Given the ease you can move around the world, there’s somewhere where someone is doing what you like…. I’m extremely happy for the fact that my Ph.D. served me so much in my career.

Don’t be scared about your ability to create. This, as everything else, is a matter of training. Just as with my other hobbies…it’s a matter of determination and willpower. You can train yourself to be creative.

You’ll try and it won’t work, but you have to keep training.

Wood, Warren W. “It’s the heterogeneity!.” Groundwater (2000): 1-1.

Zheng, Chunmiao, Marco Bianchi, and Steven M. Gorelick. “Lessons learned from 25 years of research at the MADE site.” Groundwater (2011): 649-662.

About the author
Kevin Roche is a PhD researcher at the University of Northwestern, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and active member of the YHS-AGU branch.

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