Immersion by water: Chance encounter led Arturo Leon to engineering career in hydraulics
By Adrienne Sylver
When Arturo Leon was in engineering school as a young student in Peru, he envisioned himself designing and building bridges. But a spontaneous trip with a friend who was helping a tiny village build a rudimentary dam, changed everything.
“At 3 or 4 in the morning, a community member came to our lodging and knocked on the door, saying there was an emergency,” Leon recalls. “The dam they were building with rocks to help them store water was filling very quickly because of heavy rainfall and they were concerned it was going to overflow or collapse.”
The two students quickly put their heads together, discussing rainfall amounts, the capacity of the dam and the wind’s influence on the surface water fluctuation. “Because I was in college, I always had my calculator,” Leon says with a laugh.
“I did some basic calculations and a group of 200 or so villagers with hand tools made a hole in the dam to allow some water to flow. It was beautiful to see that we could safely release the stored water without damaging the structure and avoiding harm to the town.”
That chance encounter fascinated him and he realized that the ever-changing movement of water ― and its effect on everything it touches ― would always present interesting dilemmas for engineers and society in general.
Today Arturo Leon, Ph.D., is associate professor of water resources engineering and civil and environmental Engineering at FIU's College of Engineering and Computing. He is considered an authority in smart stormwater systems, urban hydraulics and resilient flood control. In addition, the hydraulic numerical models he developed are used by cities throughout the world. For instance, his Illinois Transient Model is helping communities identify problems with their sewer systems and make near real-time decisions on gate operations to prevent overflows.
Leon holds a B.S. and C.E. in civil engineering from Nat. Univ. of San Cristobal de Huamanga, Peru, where he received the Outstanding Thesis award and was recognized as the top student in his program. In 2000, he received his M.S. in hydraulic engineering from the National University of Engineering in Peru, where he also graduated in the top position.
Before coming to the United States, Leon worked in the industry as a staff hydraulic engineer for COSAPI S.A. and then as a staff hydrologic and hydraulic engineer for Knight Piesold Consulting S.A., both in Peru. But his love of the classroom and the challenges of academia continued to pull at him.
The boy from Peru heads to Illinois
A mentor recommended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Although he didn’t speak much English and the harsh Illinois winters and environment weren’t familiar to him, he took a leap of faith.
“I was very motivated,” he recalls. “We were doing amazing simulations. A few of my classmates and I would be in my office. No windows, just lights. I would say, ‘Let’s have lunch,’ without realizing it was four in the morning. I would totally lose the notion of time and sometimes I wouldn’t go home for days.”
Leon’s interest in extreme weather events, their effect on water and sewer systems and the resulting short- and long-term impacts on the environment drove him to research solutions for problems that were coming to the forefront, such as the relationship between climate change and the world’s aging infrastructure. His thesis, “Improved Modeling of Unsteady Free Surface, Pressurized and Mixed Flows in Storm‐sewer Systems,” came from his early work.
In 2007, Leon received his Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he stayed on as a post-doctoral research associate. In 2009, he joined Boise State University in Idaho as an assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and in 2011 he moved to Oregon State University as an assistant professor in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering. He joined FIU in 2018 after three years as an associate professor at the University of Houston.
With each move, Leon received an increasing number of grants from organizations such as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2012, he was recognized with an EPA Early Career Award, given to principal investigators for outstanding promise. His team was the first to reproduce in the lab the violent geysers that occur in stormwater and combined sewer systems after significant rainfall events.
Leon’s models used around the world
Leon has developed several hydraulic numerical models, that are being used by cities from Dallas to Cleveland to Chicago to Portland and in countries such as France, Germany, China and Australia. These models are helping municipalities to better manage floods and better predict operational sewer problems that could result in overflows.
“Today, we are working on making our models faster, incorporating AI. Faster models are particularly important when optimizing the operation of a system in near real-time. In this case, many simulations need to be run in a few minutes, which is unfeasible using current computers,” he says. “ AI is helping us speed up the computations by finding relationships between system variables, which are used as surrogate models in the optimization. AI is still in its infancy in the water management sector. However, early applications are showing great potential for managing floods and reducing sewer overflows. I believe AI will play a more important role in the near future.”
The results of his research have been published in leading industry and scientific journals, he has been the keynote speaker at noteworthy water resources conferences and he is often interviewed by media as an expert when an extreme weather event occurs. Leon is a Diplomate, Water Resources Engineer, the highest post-license certification available in the water resources engineering profession. He has also received the Society of Peruvian Engineers Outstanding Academic Contributions Award from the Ayacucho Province Chapter of Civil Engineers.
Collaboration with students
Leon’s FIU students have plenty of opportunities to take part in computational and laboratory research. Many are also involved in student organizations and student competitions in which he serves as faculty advisor. One of those ― a team of FIU engineering and architecture students ―recently won first place in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2021 Campus RainWorks Challenge, Demonstration Category. It’s the second first-place finish by FIU in the last four years. They have also had two second-place wins.
Although he has the title of teacher, mentor and advisor, Leon says he learns as much from his students as they do from him. “It’s a privilege to work with these students. We are learning from each other. They aren’t repeating what I am doing, they are doing new things and coming up with new ideas,” he says.
He calls the relationship a collaboration. “It’s a continuous exchange of information and it’s very exciting.”
It’s not surprising that Leon loves to swim and likes to go to the beach. “I kind of fell in love with water,” he admits. He’s not always waterlogged, however. He also enjoys playing tennis and soccer.
Looking ahead, Leon Is optimistic about new developments to improve our understanding of resilient and sustainable water management, especially under extreme weather events. “We are well on our way,” he says.