Interview with hydrologist Dr. Ana Barros

Author:  Emma Loewe

Institution:  Duke University


Dr. Ana Barros is a professor in Duke’s department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Her research is primarily focused on hydrology and climate modeling. She works to find new insight into clouds and rain – things that may seem simple on the surface but are actually full of complexity.

I know that you grew up all over – where did you attend university? What path did you take in school?

I was born in Africa and Angola and I went back to Portugal for middle school, high school and college. I did a five-year program in engineering, which is equivalent to a master’s degree today. I didn’t really know what I wanted to specialize in because I liked everything. But I was especially interested in ocean engineering so I graduated with a degree in hydraulics and structures and then I got a Master’s in ocean engineering.

I was going to go to England to do a PhD there but then I met a professor who convinced me to come to the U.S. instead. I got married and my husband was studying at the University of Washington so I ended up getting my PhD there. I thought about continuing in oceanography, and then decided to go to civic engineering, then ended up switching fields all together and studying hydrology. So it was really a lesson in lack of planning – anything can happen so you should always keep your mind open.

How do you explain hydrology to people who don’t have a good understanding of what it is or how it relates to other science fields?

Hydrology is a very fundamental science that has to do with water in motion. In the more traditional sense, when you think about hydrology, you think about the water cycle. But in fact, it’s a lot more general. In many cases it includes water quality and geomorphology – it’s all part of the hydrologic sciences.

What effect, if any, does climate change and global warming have on the hydrologic process?

The most important aspects of hydrology are precipitation, evapotranspiration and the flow of water in soils. Climate affects the water cycle by changing the amount of water that is available in the atmosphere at any given time. It also changes the rate at which water is evaporated, the water holding capacity of the atmosphere and various storm dynamics. Because of that you can have heavier precipitation, changes in the number of rainy days and so on. It also changes how clouds form, where they form, how persistent they are and what impact they have on the greenhouse effect.

What aspect of hydrology do you focus on in your research?

I focus a lot on clouds and precipitation processes. I’m interested in the link between aerosols, clouds and rainfall and how all these synergies work together. One of our most recent studies looks at what happens when you have a mountainous region that is forested. You’d think that if you cut the trees down, you’re decreasing the evapotranspiration because trees have deep roots that extract more water than bare soil. But actually, we’ve found that in mountainous regions where you cut trees, there’s a lot less convective activity and the rainfall regime completely changes.

In the Andes, we identified that the elimination of trees on 500 to 2500 meters of land, which isn’t very much, changes rainfall rates by up to 50 to 60 percent. The clouds completely change forms, too. It’s not because of the effect of water; it’s more because of the effect of instability in the atmosphere. That’s one of the big things we’re looking at in terms of land use – the tight connection between what happens on land and what happens in the atmosphere and the role of vegetation in manipulating the environment.

What sorts of courses do you teach at Duke?

I teach a freshman seminar that’s called Engineering the Planet. At the graduate level, I teach Physical Hydrology, Hydrometeorology, Remote Sensing and a data stimulation class.

What does a typical day on campus look like for you?

It really depends. There are days where I’m teaching and I’ll come in early, teach, talk to students and have research meetings. Then there are other days where I’ll shut my office door and work on research proposals and papers. In my lab, we do a lot of modeling work but we also do a lot of fieldwork so grants are crucial. For instance, I’m trying to get some time on an airplane to fly over the Great Plains and collect water vapor profiles this summer. I just got a phone call from the person who’s in charge and it looks like I might have a chance at it so I’m excited. It’s so important to make these phone calls and write these emails and convince other people to help out.

What’s your favorite part of the work that you do?

It’s working with the students. I love working with them on their research and being able to help them conquer some difficulty – that’s really the fun part.

Did you work at any other Universities before coming to Duke?

I was a lecturer in Portugal before I came to the US. Then when I came here, I worked on the faculty of Penn State and Harvard.

Looking back over the course of your career, what accomplishment are you most proud of?

I think it’s the fact that I’ve been able to get to this point having worked on projects that I really cared about. I feel like I’m always at the beginning of my journey because I’m always trying to do new, exciting things. It’s a good battle and I’m so happy that I didn’t settle into doing projects that I wasn’t so moved by.

What do you think is the coolest part about studying hydrology?

Well, everyone has seen rain and everyone has seen clouds. There’s no magic there. There’s this false sense that because it’s familiar, you know everything there is to know about it. In reality, it’s incredibly challenging. Once you are able to show students the importance of subtle things that people don’t normally appreciate, it’s fun to see their excitement. The other thing that’s great about hydrology is that it’s pretty much everything – it’s fundamentally interdisciplinary. You can’t study hydrology without also knowing about thermodynamics and mechanics. It’s very demanding in terms of the breadth of knowledge you need in order to make a contribution. It’s a very humbling discipline in that sense.

What sort of advice would you give students looking to go into research or teaching at a University?

Some people are very interested in one topic but a lot of smart people could be doing research on anything. If you’re smart and you work hard, you can do pretty much anything. It’s so important to give yourself the opportunity to explore. I think it’s great to be a faculty member because it’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of flexibility. It’s intellectually challenging and if you like to learn about new things, there’s always something new to learn.