Hydrological Sciences

YHS interview Serena Ceola: shedding light on interrelations between human impacts and river networks

In its “Hallway Conversations” series, the Young Hydrologic Society has recently published an interview with Serena Ceola, who is a senior assistant professor at University of Bologna, Department of Civil, Chemical, Environmental, and Materials Engineering. The interview was conducted by Sina Khatami, a PhD student at the University of Melbourne. With their agreement, we reproduce the interview, which was originally published here.

Can you tell us a little about your background and education?

I was born in Padova, Italy, and studied environmental engineering at the University of Padova, from which I obtained a master’s degree in 2009. Since my bachelor’s studies, I was fascinated by hydrology: both my bachelor’s and master’s theses dealt with the availability of river discharge. Then, in 2009 I moved to Lausanne in Switzerland and I continued my studies with a PhD at the Laboratory of Ecohydrology of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). My PhD thesis focused on the implications of river discharge availability on river ecosystems (namely algae and macroinvertebrates). Since 2013, I have been based at the University of Bologna, Italy, and currently as an assistant professor. Now my main research project focuses on the relationship between river discharge availability and human activities, both at local and global scales.

Was becoming a scientist your career plan when you were a student? Tell us about the journey how you got here? Any role models, major hurdles in the way, inspirations that helped you to prevail, and decisions you regret or are now proud of?

Originally, my career plan was to work outside academia, as an engineer, possibly in a private company. But a few weeks before my graduation, I received an offer which sounded like a unique opportunity for me: Andrea Rinaldo, my master’s thesis co-advisor, offered me a PhD in Switzerland at EPFL. I decided to take this opportunity, and now I am an assistant professor at the University of Bologna in Italy. I could have not ever imagined such a plan 10 years ago and I am so proud of this decision! During these years I had the pleasure to work and collaborate with fantastic mentoring people, that helped me in pursuing an academic career. They literally inspired me!

What is your research vision, the fundamental question that you are interested to address as a scientist?

I would love to shed more light on the interrelations between human impacts and river networks, using unconventional data and identifying analytical models that could help in the definition of a more sustainable world in the future.

You have a benchmark paper on using satellite nightlight data as a proxy or predictor of human and economic damages due to floods. How did you come up with such an elegant and novel research idea?

I came across a paper by Chen and Nordhaus (2011), where they used nightlights to create a gridded database of GDP. Since I started working on flood risk assessment analysis in Bologna, I had the idea to use nightlights as a proxy of human exposure to floods. Namely, the more illuminated area, the more exposed to floods.

During EGU 2019, you’ve been recognized by the Hydrologic Sciences Division as Outstanding Early Career Scientist. What personal and professional factors do you think led to this great recognition?

It was such an honor to get this important, and I would say quite unexpected, award. I feel that my interdisciplinary background – focused on the interrelations between hydrology and stream ecology (my PhD research topic) and the linkages between hydrology and human activity was one of the driving factors. In addition, my experimental activity in small flumes, and the ability of translating this into mathematical models was another key factor. Finally, an unconventional use of freely-accessible data for hydrological purposes could have been another important factor.

What do you think are your major challenges as an early career scientist, and how are you tackling or preparing for them?

One of the major challenges as an early career scientist is to keep working hard, even more than before, and be original. Also, being an assistant professor, means that you teach courses to bachelor and master students – thus your time devoted to research is very limited. And finally, as a woman and a mum it is quite challenging to do all of this, but I am trying to do my best in everything I am doing.

What are your main hobbies besides work?

Besides work, I am a mum of 2 children – a 3-year old boy and a 1-year old girl. Family and work literally fill my daily routine, even though I really love swimming, so as soon as I have some free time, I jump in a swimming pool!

How are you balancing your work and life? Any regrets or advices for early career and aspiring hydrologists?

As I said before, it is challenging! But I don’t have any regrets and I would re-do the same path as I did so far. My recommendation to young hydrologist is “Be passionate!” Since you will spend a lot of time (days and nights) on a research project, it is fundamental that you love what you are doing. Although sometimes it is difficult and you cannot see any positive outcome, be bold and keep working on your ideas. Then, search for data to support your ideas and scientific achievements (although sometimes it is quite challenging and time-consuming!), but this proves that your research ideas are correct. Interact with colleagues, ask them if your ideas are reasonable and create your research network. Finally, work and collaborate with inspiring colleagues, who guide and support your research activities. I had and still have the pleasure to work with fantastic mentors!

What major challenges are you most interested to tackle as a hydrologist?

A major challenge in the near future I would love to deal with is the issue of sustainability of water resources and its feedback with human dynamics.


Guest author Sina Khatami (@SinaKhatami) is currently the Secretary of Young Hydrologic Society (YHS) and a committee member of AGU’s Hydrology Section Hydrological Uncertainty Technical Committee. Correspondence to sina.khatami@unimelb.edu.au



Edited by Matthias Sprenger

Researcher in hydrological modeling and hydroclimatology at Stockholm University and University of Melbourne, and ECS Rep at EGU since April 2020.

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