THE BLOG
09/06/2016 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Soroosh Sorooshian: The Physical Environment Transcends Borders

2016-09-06-1473174511-711553-SorooshatHungarianParlimantNov2007.jpg

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the West Asia Council has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. Our latest interviewee is Soroosh Sorooshian.

Soroosh Sorooshian is the Director of the Center for Hydrometeorology and Remote Sensing (CHRS) and a Distinguished Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth System Science at University of California, Irvine. Among his recent honors are: Chinese Academy of Sciences' Einstein Professorship in 2014; AGU Robert E. Horton Medalist, 2013; UCLA CEE Distinguished Alumnus of the Year Award, 2013; Eagleson Lectureship, Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science (CUAHSI), 2012; Recipient of the 4th Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz International Prize for Water Resources Management & Protection in 2010; Recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2005; Recipient of Robert E. Horton Memorial Lectureship, American Meteorological Society, 2006; William Nordberg Memorial Lecture at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2004. In recognition of Professor Sorooshian's work, UNESCO awarded the Great Man-Made River Water Prize to the Center for Hydrometeorology and Remote Sensing (CHRS) and the University of Arizona Center for the Sustainability of Semi-Arid Hydrologic and Riparian Areas (SAHRA). For more details, please click (here).

You arrived in the US in 1966 with a dream to study aviation. Fate ruled otherwise and aviation's loss was earth system science's gain. Can you walk me through this stage of your life and how this change in direction came about?

My academic journey leading to my career was all a series of accidents and spontaneous decisions that were due to circumstances at the time. When I received my B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering at California State University in San Luis Obispo (Cal-Poly) in 1971, I had to decide on choice of graduate school. I chose UCLA since a professor offered me an assistantship to work on his NASA project, for which he was expecting funding. That summer I went to Iran and when I came back in August, I went to the professor's office to start the paperwork. He told me that he had tried to contact me and had sent a number of letters to my Cal Poly address, all of which had been returned with "no forwarding address". This was back in 1971- no email and no easy phone calls especially to Iran, even if he had a number for me in the province of Kerman.

To make a long story short, he said the reason he wanted to contact me was to say that he did not get the funding and consequently had no assistantship for me. Very disappointed, I left his office and as I was walking down the hall, a young gentleman saw me and recognized that I was a fellow Iranian (he was doing his PhD at UCLA). His name was Mohammad Torabi (we are still great friends), and he invited me to his office and within half an hour told me about his major: operations research and system engineering, of which I hadn't heard until that time. I was so fascinated that I decided to change my major from aerospace to systems engineering and went to the graduate office and filled out the change of major form.

After one year, I finished my MS degree and was debating what to do for my PhD. I was talking to the department secretary and sharing my concern that as much as I liked Operations Research, given its highly mathematical nature I was not sure how useful it would be when the time came to move back to Iran. As we were speaking, a professor whom I did not know at the time overheard the conversation and said why not "hydrology"? I responded "What is hydrology?" He went to his office and brought me a book he had authored and said to go and review it and see if it interested me. I looked the book over that night and came to his office and told him "this sounds like a fascinating field and I am interested." His name is John Dracup and to this day we remain great friends and colleagues. This is how I ended up getting a degree in hydrology and the project he had at the time related to flood forecast modeling for the US National Weather Service which led me to flood forecasting and precipitation studies.

You have said that your background in farming helped guide you into this niche specialization and to the study of precipitation and drought. How relevant was your background to your work on flood forecasting, remote sensing, and precipitation estimates?

Growing up in the Province of Kerman, Iran, which is where I was until I came to the U.S. after completing high school, I always heard and learned from my parents (who owned farms) about water, drought, and sometimes floods. My father was always asking our farm foremen, who were frequent visitors to the house, whether it had rained on a certain farm. So conversation about water was almost a daily event at home. When John Dracup gave me his book and I saw the discussion about the "hydrologic cycle", I realized the connection and this is why I became interested in the field.

Also later, when I was a faculty member, a student named Karen Humes, who a few years earlier had spent some time working at JPL, got me interested in remote sensing which inspired me to write a proposal to NASA , which led to their funding my work as early as far back as 1989. The rest is history! Karen did get her PhD under my supervision and is now a professor at the University of Idaho.

You said you have learned as much from your senior professors as you have from junior colleagues. Has a chance encounter with one led to your current body of work? Most experts will not attribute their success to junior colleagues. Can you walk us through one or more defining moments in your career?

I did say above that Karen Humes, who had worked at JPL for a few years, talked me into considering applying for funding to work on remote sensing to hydrology. This was new to me, but sounded exciting and with her and few other colleagues we explored how we are able to learn about the hydrology of arid regions using remote sensing. Working with every PhD student is a unique experience. I have had the fortune of advising around 55 students to date and have continued to work with some exceptional talent.

This question speaks to your exemplary humility. How much of your success and the trait of modesty would you attribute to your faith and belief system?

Those who know me know that I am not an overly religious person. I did learn Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrians, in school but must admit that it was something we had to do. For example, we would repeat some of the verses without even understanding what they meant.

But, what I have come to appreciate about my religion is the simplicity of its basic principles. First is the basic tenet of good thoughts, good words, and good deeds. Second is the responsibility to keep the four elements (air/wind, water, fire, and earth) clean. As far as I am concerned, both of these simple principles are more than enough to guide anyone. As you see, the four elements Zoroaster spoke of are highly relevant to what I do in my scientific work.

Upon receiving the Distinguished Service Medal from NASA, it is fair to say that you have reached the pinnacle of your career? You are widely recognized as one of the leading minds in Hydrology. How does that make you feel?

I have been fortunate to have received a number of honors and it has been very humbling. Needless to say, receiving NASA's distinguished medal, which is the highest honor given to a civilian, is a great honor. However, for me personally, there are three other honors which have been more profound and humbling experiences for me.

First and foremost is my election to the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in 2003. This is the highest honor any engineer in the U.S. can dream of. Second was my election in, 2010, as an American/Iranian, to The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) "for the advancement of science in developing countries," which is also a big honor.

Third was receiving the prestigious Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz international Prize for water, also in 2010. This prize was created by the Saudi Crown Prince who passed away several years ago. The citation given was as follows: "the prize is being awarded to Dr. Sorooshian for his development and refinement of the PERSIANN model to estimate precipitation from satellite remotely sensed data." Please note the word PERSIANN. While it is an acronym for our remote sensing model to measure rain, it is nonetheless close to the name of the Persian Gulf which is a sensitive issue in the Arab world. With credit to Grown Prince and his son Prince Khalid, who had the final say on the recommendation of the panel of experts recommending me, they had no difficulty in awarding me the honor and did not request my changing anything. Please click (here).

Can you comment on your work with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine to host Iranian scientists at UC-Irvine?

My activities in connection with scientific exchange with our Iranian scientists and students residing in Iran was motivated by the fact that the issues and challenges related to the environment, climate, and water resources have a high degree of universality and extend beyond political boundaries. Rivers flow across borders, weather systems pass over borders, and winds blow dusts and air pollution for thousands of miles over many nations and regions of the world. As a result, over the past 5-6 years I have had the pleasure of working through the National of Academy of Sciences in the United States and with Iranian colleagues associated with their academies and major institutions to co-ordinate a number of multi-week visits to the U.S. for leading Iranian climate and environmental scientists. The diverse topics that we have focused on include water resources management issues, and water and air pollution particularly in urban environments, among others.

As an example, nearly a year ago I was happy to host nearly 15 Iranian colleagues who are intimately involved with the current issues related to Lake Urmia. The visit was successful and included a comprehensive tour of similar situations in California, Nevada, and Utah. They visited Salton Sea and Owens Lake in California where conditions have gone through major changes as the water resources feeding these lakes have either been diverted or changed due to various water management policies. Recognizing the environmental impact, both the State of California and the U.S. Federal Government have taken major steps with millions of dollars of expenses to minimize further deterioration. The objective of the visit was a first-hand look by Iranian colleagues at what they can learn from California's experience to help them with their strategies in dealing with similar problems facing Lake Urmia and other inland lakes in Iran.

How do you see your ongoing role in promoting academic collaboration between the two countries especially in the crucially important field of hydrology?

I will continue promoting similar exchanges and hopefully continue reciprocating visits that allow our American colleagues and students to visit and Iran and the sites of some of the inland lakes as well as regions challenged with water resources management. Such trips aid in the development of a better understanding of these problems and hopefully will also develop cooperative projects to tackle them.

As a member of the academic community I also am a strong believer that by training students and providing sabbatical opportunities for Iranian professors we can make a big difference. This is one of the reasons I always have a number of Iranian students in our Ph.D. program and host visitors from various Iranian universities.