CEE grad student Allison Goodwell interviews CEE alumnus David R. Maidment

Allison Goodwell is a Ph.D. student in CEE working with Professor Praveen Kumar.  She received her B.S. in Civil Engineering from Purdue University in 2010, and her M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Illinois in 2013. Her Ph.D. research involves using information theory and process networks to characterize how ecosystems respond to extreme events, climate change or other perturbations. She has been a teaching assistant in CEE 202 (Engineering Risk and Uncertainty). Goodwell is a former president of the student chapter of the International Water Resources Association (IWRA), and is involved in various activities at Illinois including Engineering Open House and Illinois Water Day.

David R. Maidment (MS 74, PhD 76) is the Hussein M. Alharthy Centennial Chair in Civil Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has been on the faculty since 1981.  He teaches classes in hydrology, hydraulics and Geographic Information Systems in Water Resources. Maidment is a specialist in surface water hydrology, and in particular in the application of geographic information systems to hydrology. He is the leader of a project on Hydrologic Information Systems for the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science Inc. The project is designed to provide improved access to hydrologic data and synthesis into a digital watershed for application at the nation’s universities. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He and his wife, Helen J. Maidment, a University of Illinois alumna, recently established a fund to provide fellowships for graduate students studying hydrosystems engineering, the Maidment Fellowship in Hydrosystems Engineering Fund.


Tell a little about your background. How did you come to attend Illinois for graduate school?

I am originally from New Zealand, and after completing my undergraduate degree there I decided to do a Ph.D. I eventually chose Illinois since it seemed like the best possible education. I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I received the letter from my future adviser, Ven Te Chow. So there I was, 22 years old from a small faraway country, and I found myself instantaneously in the middle of the dynamic and international student community of the Hydrosystems lab. Never have I felt so much like I was going vertically straight up on an elevator than when I arrived at  Illinois.

What is one of your favorite memories of working with your adviser, Ven Te Chow?

He was a very gracious person, never dictatorial. He would always say, “this is what I’m thinking … ”  Of course we students would invariably follow his direction, but he always gave us another option so you could choose a different path if you didn’t agree. That’s one important thing I learned to appreciate and follow – always leave a person with the option to follow another path. 

A few years ago there was a symposium to celebrate Ven Te Chow and the 50th anniversary of the Handbook of Applied Hydrology, which was published in 1964. I was one of the speakers and realized later that I was the only speaker who had actually worked with him, which was certainly a privilege. Also now, I have spent a life myself as a faculty member and have been able to do some similar things, like write books, do research and mentor graduate students.

What was the most difficult or memorable course you took as a graduate student at Illinois?

That is an interesting question. I took a control theory course in electrical engineering. I was researching differential game theory, for which I needed know-ledge of calculus of variation and this course. The first three weeks of the semester, I did not even understand the terms being written on the board. I remember the first problem on the midterm exam being so difficult that I answered the second question first and never finished the first question. Later I found out that no answer to the first question existed, and I actually got an A on the midterm! Another valuable class I took at Illinois was Probability Theory in Altgeld Hall, for which I still have the textbook. Altgeld Hall also to me seems symbolic of the tradition of a university, as knowledge is being conveyed generation after generation.

You have visited the White House to report on the National Flood Interoperability Experiment. Can you tell us a bit about the goals of the project?

There is a new National Water Center on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa that will take the next several years to fully ramp up. In the meantime, I proposed to the National Weather Service to bring students in each summer to work on a project and address issues of concern to the National Weather Service. As part of this collaboration, we have developed a new, high spatial and temporal resolution, near real-time flood mapping system. This has been incorporated into the National Water Model.

How does the National Water Model improve our flood forecasting abilities and emergency response potential?

[The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] officially released the National Water Model at a White House Water Summit this March. With the ability to forecast at 2.7 million stream reaches (including the Boneyard Creek) in just 10 minutes, it is 700 times more spatially dense than the current flood forecasting system. No one knew anything like that was possible, so the experiment was a great success and has been an interesting and beneficial interaction. The National Water Model provides fundamental information about a basic system we haven’t been able to visualize before. There are all kinds of benefits that come with the ability to anticipate flows all around the country, including for emergency response. You can see all the rivers flowing simultaneously in a river basin when it rains, something that you know happens but have never been able to see.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career as a hydrologist?

I value the ability to help people and feel the work we are doing is not just academically interesting but provides beneficial services to humanity. At the same time, I like the capacity to be constantly innovating and always reaching for a new future. Water is so fundamental to life, and surface water hydrology is very visual and exciting to me.

You and your wife, Helen, recently made a gift to support fellowships for Hydro students. Why did you decide to give in this way?

I feel that at Illinois I received something of inestimable benefit to me and so I had a responsibility to give something back.  I vividly recall my first days on campus, my first visit to the Hydrosystems lab, as a life-changing experience. My wife also came with me from New Zealand and is a graduate of Illinois. The last two years here, we were “house parents” for the Stratford House for undergraduate women, associated with the University Baptist Church, which was another unique experience. I look back on my time as a student and member of the broader university community as such a colorful period of my life. Whenever I return, I try to visit the Alma Mater statue and walk through the union and main quad and appreciate how this place reached out to me and enabled me to reach out to others.

Do you have any advice for students at Illinois?

Enjoy the ride. Have a good time as a student; it is a neat time in your life. You have so many things in front of you, and it is a great time for growth and development.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I am always inspired by young people. I feel they have such potential for development. If I could send myself a message 40 years ago when I was at Illinois, it would be to “dream the impossible dream,” because I have found that dreams really do come true if you are persistent and believe in your own abilities.