Hallway Conversations – Alberto Viglione (February 2023)

Contribution by Paola Mazzoglio (PM)

Alberto graduated in Environmental Engineering at the Politecnico di Torino (Italy) with a thesis on “Turbulence structures in the canopy layer”. He carried out his Ph.D. on the theme “Non-supervised statistical methods for the prediction of hydrological variables in ungauged sites” at the Hydraulic Department of Politecnico di Torino (2004-2007). He worked as a Research Fellow at TU Wien (Austria) in the field of “Flood Hydrology” from 2007 until 2018. Since 2019 he is an Associate Professor at the Politecnico di Torino. He is currently EGU HS Division Deputy President and, in April, he will become EGU HS President for the years 2023–2025.

PM. Was becoming a scientist your career plan when you were a student? Did you envision yourself as a professor at any point? If not, which events led to where you are now?

AV. I can say I have been fascinated by science since I was a kid. “Il mondo di Quark”, a popular Italian science television show, was always in my allowed daily ration of TV (I had to sacrifice a cartoon for it, but it was worth it). And I liked scientists in comics, books, and movies. For sure I didn’t imagine I would have ended up being a scientist, though. Well, I don’t consider myself a scientist anyway… but I couldn’t imagine I would have become a professor at the university, and that has happened!

How? Nobody’s fault but randomness. Well, I come from a little village in the (North-Western) Italian countryside, close to the Alps, and for a long time I thought my life would have been finding a job after school and living there. The problem was: what job? I did pick a scientific high school because I couldn’t decide about any professional school. I was postponing the decision. In my last year of high school, we visited CERN in Switzerland and that was a revelation for me: I decided I was going to become a “nuclear engineer”! The day I went to Mondovì, close to my village, to register as a Bachelor’s student at Politecnico, they told me that Nuclear Engineering was available only in Turin. “And what do you have here?”. They read to me all the engineering branches available and I picked “Environmental Engineering” that day, “close enough”.

A similar thing happened with my PhD. After graduating, in the middle of the summer, I started sending my CV around but nobody responded (it was holiday time) and I spent the summer picking zucchini full-day, every day including weekends. When a friend at Politecnico told me that Prof. Pierluigi Claps was searching for someone for a project on hydrology, I told myself “Anything but zucchini!”, and that is why I started with hydrology! 🙂

PM. And then Austria, right?

AV. Yes, after my PhD I was convinced that I wanted to do research and, if possible, to stay in academia. In Turin a position was hard to get, at that moment, and therefore I tried to find a Post-Doc position abroad. Austria was not in my initial plans. Actually I started discussing possibilities in the US and in Australia. One day I received (as many others) an e-mail from Prof. Günter Blöschl who was searching for a PhD candidate on the very topics I had studied in my PhD (regional analysis of hydrological variables). I wrote him back saying I was available, even though as a Post-Doc. One week later I did my interview in Vienna and there, at TUW, I spent the following 11 fantastic years, that made me grow as a researcher and more.

PM. A few years ago, you moved from Austria to Italy. Was it a difficult decision? How did it feel to be back in Italy? What are the main differences between Austrian and Italian academia, if any?

AV. Yes. It was difficult because Vienna and TUW gave me so much. And I would have soon become Associate Professor, which was then quite new at TUW and a hard position to get. The decision was mainly driven by family reasons. However, I must say that I ended well in the very dynamic group of young people at the Politecnico, some of which I knew from my student days, and some that became new friends. The beginning of the new adventure has been tough, as always is in new places, and made tougher by COVID-19, but it’s getting better and better (as my friend Duro Parajka would say).

Differences? In Austria I was privileged, having a few hours of teaching and a lot of time for research. That would have changed anyway if I had started the new position there. In Italy I have to teach much more than what I was used to, and only now I am starting again with some research time, having reached enough material for my courses. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching, but I love trying to solve riddles (i.e., research) even more.

Regarding other differences between Austria and Italy, bureaucracy is something that, although expected, surprised me. It took me months to have a new laptop at my start in Turin. The same procedure took me one day some years earlier in Vienna! 🙂

PM. What major challenges are you most interested in tackling as a hydrologist?

AV. Coming from the Turin and Vienna schools, I am interested in merging statistical hydrology (that Profs. Claps and Laio taught me in Turin) with process hydrology (that Profs. Blöschl, Merz and Parajka taught me in Vienna). My work has mainly been in the field of flood hydrology and I can give you some thoughts on that. For floods, we use the wording “Flood Frequency Hydrology” as opposed to “Flood Frequency Analysis (Statistics)” to indicate data analysis that accounts for process understanding and exploits unconventional information (Merz and Blöschl, 2008a, 2008b; Viglione et al., 2013). This is needed in flood hazard estimation, I believe, for extrapolating from observed events to the more relevant extreme events, and for getting hints on what floods will be in the future given that the world (climate but not only) is changing. When dealing with flood risk, understanding how this changes in time, i.e., the flood risk long-term dynamics, is still a major challenge because of the complexity of human behavior. A wider, more interdisciplinary research is needed for that, and this is not only true for flood hydrology but in any branch of hydrology. If you think of it, how many “pristine” rivers are there in Europe, for example?

PM. How do you think hydrologists should innovate for accurate predictions and estimates in view of the increasing frequency/intensities of extreme events? Do our models still hold up to the challenge?

AV. Hydrologists are producing innovative research (as they have always done). They are including processes into flood frequency analysis that are subject to change under climate change. They have a long history of accounting for uncertainty in their estimation (and often being able to see that we do not know is better than pretending to know about the probability of extreme events). There is still a lot to do but one fundamental step that is still missing is how to move from science to practice. How to come up with methods (and recommendations) that account for the change that can be useful to society. And how to account for uncertainty in decision-making, i.e. how to guide practitioners to use that “knowledge”.

PM. In the EGU Autumn 2021 elections you have been elected new EGU HS President. On which aspect of the overall EGU HS structure and initiatives would you like to focus? Do you already have some plans in mind?

AV. Some time has passed already. In April it will become true and I will have to take on the responsibilities of Helena. I really hope she will help me because it will be hard to keep the bar as high as she kept (e.g., considering the extremely difficult times in which she served as President). As HS President, I will try to work towards improving the effectiveness of the hybrid format of the General Assembly, keeping in mind the community-building perspective that must guide the Union, promoting a more complete engagement of participants. I would also like to contribute to strengthening the present ties with other societies, particularly IAHS, as an additional way to forge an even stronger community of hydrologists on a global scale.

PM. Can you be more specific? How do you think EGU can best balance accessibility to the EGU with face-to-face interactions? Are hybrid conferences here to stay?

AV. Starting from the latter: yes, hybrid conferences are here to stay. In fact, for many reasons, EGU was planning to eventually go hybrid before COVID, which just accelerated the process. In the coming GA, we are trying to offer the best possible experience both on-site and online, making presentations and PICOs 100% hybrid. Hybrid posters are still a challenge though, and on-site and virtual posters will be unfortunately not fully integrated in a hybrid way.

But hey… this year posters are re-introduced! We believe they are key for face-to-face interactions (your first question). And they are valuable for early-career scientists who are searching for feedback and for network building. Also other activities planned for EGU2023 will help that (networking pop-up events, short courses, etc.), hopefully both for on-site and online attendees.

PM. What are the avenues for early career hydrologists to engage with EGU HS Division?

AV. Many. Propose sessions (in autumn) and participate in the SD meetings (contact the SD chairs, https://www.egu.eu/hs/structure/). And engage with the ECS representatives for HS (btw they are now searching for a new representative, see the HS blog, https://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/hs/2023/02/15/ecs_rep_call_for_applications/). They are very actively organizing events and trying to better link early career scientists with the “experienced” ones.

PM. What advice do you have for early career hydrologists?

AV. Starting from my experience, being fundamentally a shy person, big conferences scared (and still scare) me. I felt intimidated by the big audiences and the big professors. I was insecure but I still am and I know that many “experienced” participants are. The point is, I (and many others) are not that different from you early career scientists. So, don’t consider yourself as different (and less important) from the rest of the community of hydrologists. Don’t be intimidated. We are all together studying and working in a fascinating and complex field and everybody is still “young” and with plenty of things to discover and learn (together). That’s the nice thing about research, isn’t it?


Merz, R., and Blöschl, G. (2008a). Flood frequency hydrology: 1. Temporal, spatial, and causal expansion of information, Water Resour. Res., 44, W08432, doi:10.1029/2007WR006744.

Merz, R., and Blöschl, G. (2008b). Flood frequency hydrology: 2. Combining data evidence, Water Resour. Res., 44, W08433, doi:10.1029/2007WR006745.

Viglione, A., Merz, R., Salinas, J. L., and Blöschl, G. (2013). Flood frequency hydrology: 3. A Bayesian analysis, Water Resour. Res., 49, doi:10.1029/2011WR010782.

About the author

Paola Mazzoglio is a Research Assistant at Politecnico di Torino working on geographically-based approaches to the statistical analysis of rainfall extremes. She is also a teaching assistant at the same university. Paola is a member of the Blog Committee as part of the Young Hydrologic Society (YHS) board (2022-2023). Correspondence to paola.mazzoglio@polito.it.

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