GeoLog

GeoTalk: Making their mark: how humans and rivers impact each other

GeoTalk: Making their mark: how humans and rivers impact each other

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Serena Ceola, a hydrologist and assistant professor at the University of Bologna, Italy, who studies interactions between humans and river systems. At the upcoming General Assembly she will be recognised for her research contributions as the recipient of the 2019 Hydrological Sciences Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award.

Thanks for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

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 thesis dealt with the availability of river discharge, which is the amount of water flowing through a river channel.

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, currently as a junior assistant professor. Now my main research project focuses on the relationship between river discharge availability and human activities, both at local and global scales.

Serena Ceola collecting benthic macroinvertebrates used for a small-scale flume experiment in Lunz-Am-See, Austria. (Photo Credits: Serena Ceola)

What got you interested in environmental engineering and hydrology? What brought you to study this particular field?

Studying environmental engineering was the perfect trade-off between being an engineer and focusing on environment sustainability and protection. During my studies I have developed a forma mentis that allows me to quantitatively solve (or try, at least) any issue. Since I was always fascinated by water, hydrology was my ideal choice. I must also say that my professors played a key role: their enthusiasm and passion overwhelmed me, involving me in such a fascinating subject.

At this year’s General Assembly, you will receive the Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award in the Hydrological Sciences Division for your contributions to understanding of the relationship between river environments and human activities. Could you tell us more about your research in this field and its importance?

River discharge has always been my main research focus. During the last 10 years, I had the unique opportunity to focus on the possible implications of river discharge .

Human activities, such as dam development, deforestation, agriculture, urbanization, etc. are known to affect how much flowing water is available to river ecosystems. In particular, I realised that no one before had conducted a quantitative analysis of how human-derived modifications to the natural flow of a river could possibly affect its environment.

Flume experimental facilities. (Photo Credits: Serena Ceola)

During my PhD, I performed an experiment by building small artificial rivers aimed at quantitatively estimating how

stream algae and macroinvertebrates respond to two flow regimes, one influenced by human activity and one unaffected. The unaffected river regime was naturally variable while the other was constant, like downstream a dam.

The experimental results were promising, thus allowing me to develop an analytical model capable of reproducing observed biological data in a real river network, also proving its applicability in presence of anthropogenic influence.

Hydrologic controls on basin-scale distribution of benthic invertebrates: study area and average habitat suitability values for a mayfly species. Image redrawn from Ceola et al., 2014, WRR, https://doi.org/10.1002/2013WR015112

When focusing on human activities, it is extremely important to estimate the interrelations between humans and waters. Here, I was lucky enough to start working with satellite data measuring the distribution of human population in space and time across the globe. By using satellite nightlight images, I analysed the spatial and temporal evolution of human presence close to streams and river. When considering extreme events like floods, I also had the opportunity to identify the regions most at risk for flood deaths and damage to infrastructure.

At the General Assembly, you plan to give a talk about working with global high-resolution datasets, such as nightlight data, to better understand how human and water systems affect each other. What are some of the possibilities made available through this kind of analysis? What doors does this research open, so to speak?

Working with global high-resolution datasets, and in particular with datasets covering several years, allows one to analyse and inspect how human processes and hydrological processes have evolved and interacted in time. This kind of analysis offers the opportunity to study how human pressure on river flows has changed over time and examine urbanization processes influenced for instance by proximity to rivers. This method also allows researchers to analyze how people move as a consequence of climatic conditions, such as extreme floods or droughts.

Spatial evolution of human presence close to stream and rivers by using satellite nightlight images. Image taken from Ceola et al., 2015, WRR, https://doi.org/10.1002/2015WR017482

Before I let you go, what are some of the biggest lessons you have learned so far as a researcher? What advice would you impart to aspiring scientists?

Based on my experience so far my first recommendation 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 mentoring people)!

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

Olivia Trani
Olivia Trani is the Communications Officer at the European Geosciences Union. She is responsible for the management of the Union's social media presence and the EGU blogs, where she writes regularly for the EGU's official blog, GeoLog. She is also the point of contact for early career scientists (ECS) at the EGU Office. Olivia has a MS in Science Journalism from Boston University and her work has appeared on WBUR-FM, Inside Science News Service, and the American Geophysical Union. Olivia tweets at @oliviatrani.

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