Early Career Spotlight

Jorge San Juan

Tell us about yourself:
My name is Jorge San Juan, and I am a Ph.D. candidate in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), working with Prof. Rafael Tinoco. My research interests are experimental fluid mechanics, sediment transport, and mixing-mass transport. I have a B.S. from the Universidad de Cartagena in Civil Engineering. At the Ven Te Chow Hydrosystems and Ecohydraulics and Ecomorphodynamics Labs in UIUC, I have studied hydrodynamics, turbulence characteristics, and sediment transport of environmental flows. I am a first-generation scientist, a member of @Geolatinas, and a Mountain Dwarf Cleric Level 9 in DnD.

What is your research about?

My research focuses on the hydrodynamics of flow-vegetation interactions and suspended sediment transport through aquatic vegetation in wave-dominated environments. Through the use of 2D-, 3D-Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV), and optical instrumentation, I study the flow and turbulence structures that bring and keep sediments in suspension. I want to understand how the flow-vegetation feedback alters the spatial and temporal patterns of suspended sediments. My approach consists of examining turbulence and flow structure as a function of wave and vegetation parameters from a single plant to a canopy perspective. This work may help us better understand the role of aquatic plants in the morphological development of coastal ecosystems and improve our understanding of their impact on restoration and conservation practices.

What excites you about your research?

I always find it fascinating how physical models allow us to isolate and replicate complex processes. I enjoy measuring, observing, and being curious about aquatic vegetation's impact on its surroundings (hydrodynamics, sediment, and mass transport) at the laboratory level. I also love analyzing the implications of these small-scale processes in larger scale environments, (e.g., near shore environmental settings where vegetation may offer protection to vulnerable ecosystems). It is satisfying to see natural canopy-flow interactions out there and make sense of it through some of the understanding I have gained in my research.

What broader importance does your research have for society?

Coastal and estuarine ecosystems provide ecological services to millions of people worldwide, promote biodiversity, and become the first natural barrier against near-shore climate stressors. Morphological changes in these environments are the result of the non-linear summation of small-scale processes. Vegetation-induced turbulence and sediment transport shape a large part of our aquatic ecosystems. My research investigates these mechanisms and provides relations for morphological and hydrodynamic models. This work may help us better understand the role aquatic plants play in engineering their habitats for better restoration and conservation practices.

What inspired you to pursue a career in Earth Science?

I have continuously been curious about nature "stuff" around me since I was a kid, and I have always enjoyed learning about the science behind them. However, I cannot say that I purposely decided one day to pursue a career in Earth Science. It has been more like a journey that has been unfolding and nursing an increasingly growing passion for Earth Science. It has been the product of support and dedication of outstanding mentors, earlier in college with my first geology and water resources classes, and later in grad school with my Master's and Ph.D. advisors. It is worth mentioning that the fascinating field of earth surface processes hinges on the fact that moving fluids shape the physical world around us and this is what drives my research interests.

What are you looking to do after you complete your PhD?

I am looking forward to furthering my skill set with a postdoctoral research project for a couple of years. I expect to expand my perspectives, push the abilities learned during my Ph.D., and gain new experiences in sediment transport, environmental flows, and mixing-mass transport research. The postdoctoral experience will contribute a valuable angle to my research vision and prepare me better for securing a position in a research university.

Given unlimited funding and access to resources, what is your dream project that you would pursue?

My dream project would be to study cohesive sediment transport in natural aquatic ecosystems at a hybrid field-lab scale. I would love to investigate the physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms that dominate their motion. Given some limitations of laboratory experimentations (e.g., scaling and use of surrogates) and field campaigns (e.g., variable control), in a field-lab type of facility, I would conduct this research with live native vegetation, water, and sediments coming from a natural body of water while still in a considerably controlled setting. I could answer research questions related to the effect of biofilm and vegetation roots in stabilizing the bed, the role of cohesive sediment transport in carbon storage, and more accurate predictors for erosion/deposition rates.

What else do you do? Any hobbies or interests outside of work?

My big hobby is rock climbing and hiking, but I enjoy dancing salsa too. I also enjoy cooking at home on a DnD game night with friends. I like spending quality time with my family and close friends, either outdoors (preferable) or indoors.



In the picture, Jorge measuring instantaneous velocity fields inside a patch of submerged vegetation using Particle Image Velocimetry techniques. These experiments are conducted in an U-shaped oscillatory tunnel at the Ecohydraulics and Ecomorphodynamics Laboratory (EEL).