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2 Ph.D.s, 1 dual-degree program and a world-class flooding model

2 Ph.D.s, 1 dual-degree program and a world-class flooding model

January 26, 2021 at 11:51am

Francisco Febronio Peña is about to earn two doctoral degrees — in roughly the amount of time it would normally take to earn a single Ph.D.  

The FIU Ph.D. candidate in the Institute of Environment is the first student to take part in an innovative, new dual-degree program between FIU and another international university.

For two years, Peña worked toward a civil and environmental engineering Ph.D. at the University of Florence in Italy. He investigated a method to develop low-resolution flood models that estimated water surface elevation and flood extent as effectively as higher resolution but much more quickly. The paper on Peña’s model is one of the top three cited articles in the academic hydrology journal MDPI in 2020. Then, he moved to Miami to continue his research and work toward a doctoral degree at FIU. 

“The decision to come to FIU was a no brainer. I said ‘Of course I want to do this,’ because I believe to be the best in your field, you have to be with the best people,” Peña said. “Miami is also the world’s case scenario when it comes to flooding. There’s no better place to study this issue and I knew if I could develop a flood risk model for the city of Miami, I wouldn’t just become an expert in my field, but could easily develop flood risk assessment models for any part of the world.”

Unlike other flood models that only look at a single factor like rainfall, the model Peña has developed brings together focuses on many different flood hazards — rainfall and flows, groundwater and coastal storm surge — to understand how these flood drivers interact.

It puts all the pieces together to form a much clearer picture of what could happen, improving accuracy of flood risk assessments. Accuracy leads to better decision making. After all, Peña’s model has widespread applications beyond simulating and predicting flood risks. The data can be used for urban planning and by insurance companies, as well as policymakers. It can also help people know where to move or buy property.

“The coupling of the surface water-groundwater-ocean system is innovative and this type of research is attempting to pioneer the application of this modeling technology in South Florida,” said Jayantha Obeysekera, director of the Sea Level Solutions Center in the FIU Institute of Environment. “Francisco has a passion for modeling, is a quick learner and is not afraid to meet new challenges that are emerging in this environment of complexity exacerbated by climate change.”

Peña has been working on his Ph.D. under the guidance of Assefa Melesse, an FIU professor of water resources engineering in the Department of Earth and Environment and Institute of Environment. He’s also a part of the National Science Foundation funded CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and the Environment in FIU’s Institute of Environment, as well as a research assistant in Sea Level Solutions, where he works with Obeysekera.

After he graduates, Peña wants to maintain a strong international focus with his work.  Not just because he’s always loved immersing himself in different cultures and speaks five languages — but because international collaboration has enriched both his life and research.

He also knows a strong international focus is the only way to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Climate change will continue to threaten many places around the world with serious and sometimes deadly flooding events.

Peña wants to use his science for good, especially for countries that desperately need it, including Mexico where he was born and raised. One of his dreams is to rejoin the United Nations — where he worked in 2015 — to advocate for flood risk prevention, mitigation and adaptations throughout Latin America.

“I believe everyone has a mission in this world. I believe my mission is to help vulnerable people — who live in areas where climate change will make things worse — understand the real impacts of flooding and what could happen to their home or cities,” Peña said. “To be able to contribute to this, from a scientific perspective is quite rewarding and I would like to do this for the rest of my life.”