By: Angel Futrell
Professor named College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Chair in Hydrologic Engineering and Sciences for his research under the Earth’s surface
Upon walking into his office, visitors first notice the boxes. It’s the look of an office in transition; a temporary home not quite lived in, yet fully occupied for countless hours each week, far beyond the 40-hour minimum. Past the look of displacement is a picture of his family, a reminder that while his research is important, it’s not the sole purpose of his life.
It is the office of Dr. Binayak Mohanty, a professor in the departments of biological and agricultural engineering and ecosystem science and management, and recently named College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Chair in Hydrologic Engineering and Sciences. Dr. Mohanty is internationally recognized for his work in hydrology, defined as the study of the movement, distribution, and quality of water, especially in regards to the vadose zone, the layer of earth that lies between the land surface and groundwater.
Dr. Mohanty had just returned from a three-week trip to India and was still adjusting to the 12-hour time difference, a mark of an international researcher. While in India, he is an advisor to three different projects that focus on agricultural water management, urban flooding, and hydrometeorology. Beyond helping the Indian researchers with synthesizing data, he mentors graduate students and professors at the Indian Institute of Science (Bangalore) and the Indian Institutes of Technology (Bhubaneswar, Kharagpur).
For more than twelve years at Texas A&M, Dr. Mohanty and his lab have focused on a combination of hydrology, soil physics, engineering, remote sensing, fluid mechanics, and biogeochemistry, with the underlying theme of understanding movement of water in the subsurface from local to global scale. “Our work revolves around water quantity and water quality and how the two relate,” said Dr. Mohanty. “We are unraveling the physics that explain the ‘why’ behind water movement and how to control these mechanisms to have worldwide implications.”
“Our research addresses a wide spectrum of challenges related to soil and environmental sciences, including water management, crop production, climate forecasts, flood/drought prediction, groundwater recharge estimation, and pollution control,” continued Dr. Mohanty.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about Dr. Mohanty’s current research without also talking about the past. He reflects back on his more than 30 years of experience that has led him to being a leading expert in hydrology within the vadose zone. After receiving his Ph.D. in Soil and Water Engineering from Iowa State University, he turned down several offers for academic and industry positions to train as a post-doctoral researcher in the world-renown U.S. Salinity Laboratory (USDA-ARS) located at the University of California, Riverside. “The U.S. Salinity Lab has trained some of the best hydrologists and soil scientists in the world,” said Dr. Mohanty. “I wanted to learn. I’m still learning. I learn everyday.
As a cutting-edge researcher, Dr. Mohanty’s most notable innovation has been the use of combining ground-, air-, and satellite-based remote sensing to study soil moisture and soil hydraulics – how water moves through the soil – on a number of space scales ranging from soil micropores to large river basins, and time scales from minutes to decades. Using remote sensing as a research tool gives the team a systematic process for predicting water movement below the Earth surface to better manage soil, water, and other natural resources.
Dr. Mohanty’s lab is unique in that it works on a multitude of scales and platforms. Its research extends from the laboratory studies to field calibration and validation to modeling and assimilation efforts that can be used globally. By taking the ground-based, air-borne, and satellite remote sensing data from the fine to the coarse scale, Dr. Mohanty is able to upscale, downscale, and extrapolate the research so that it can be applicable around the world.
Data from satellite remote sensors can be scaled down to help farmers in local fields to better manage water, just as data from ground sensors can be scaled up to the regional scale for hydroclimatic predictions.
Within minutes into the conversation, Dr. Mohanty mentions his graduate students, who he refers to as his family. “I have my family at home that I love very much,” he said. “And then I have my grad students, who are also like my family. My students are my biggest accomplishment; it’s my students who will carry on the legacy. They are my plaques and awards.”
That’s not to say it’s an easy job working under Dr. Mohanty. His grad students are expected to meet the highest of expectations. “I expect my students to publish in the best journals,” he said. “As with journals, we only go for the most competitive grants too. It’s hard work, but well-worth it in the end.” Considering Dr. Mohanty’s students are recruited by top organizations such as NASA, Columbia University, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, and Conoco-Phillips, his incredibly high expectations are completely justified.
Though he may spend a majority of his time in research with the grad students in his lab, Dr. Mohanty hasn’t forgotten about the value of quality teaching of undergraduate and graduate students in his department. He is responsible for organizing 160 distinguished seminars by bringing in top-notch scientists from around the country. These seminars have seen great turnout, averaging at least 100 students per seminar, and have been used as a campus-wide precedent.
For Dr. Mohanty, there’s no question what the next 10 years hold for him. Research has always been and will continue to be his passion. “Obviously, I want to continue my hydrology related research,” he continues. “But, I’d like to be more involved in how to translate our fundamental research into applicable techniques. The best way to meet societal needs for sustainable water resources is make your research transformative.”
Sitting in his box-cluttered office, one realizes devoted researchers, like Dr. Mohanty, aren’t distracted by the little things such as office transitions. Their focus is laser-sharp and their results are impactful. Dr. Mohanty summed it up best with, “My ultimate dream is to do something small that touches many lives.”