Running to the top: Professor Marc Parlange honoured with prestigious international hydrology medal

Civil engineering professor, and Monash University Provost and Senior Vice-President Professor Marc Parlange, has today been awarded the 2020 American Meteorological Society’s Hydrologic Sciences Medal.

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According to Professor Marc Parlange, his claim to fame really isn’t being an internationally distinguished researcher in environmental fluid mechanics, or the Provost and Senior Vice-President of Monash University, or even the time he met Neil Armstrong as a schoolchild in the 60s, gifting him a golf club to take to the moon.

“When I moved to the University of California, Davis as an assistant professor in 1990, I was given the former office of Verne Scott, ” says Marc, with a grin. “He was a professor of Engineering, but he eventually ran the USA Triathlon association, and is the father of Dave Scott, a six-time winner of the Hawaii Ironman, the hardest triathlon competition in the world. Getting that office is my claim to fame, at least my sporting claim to fame!”

Playful wisecracks about sports aside, a more worthy claim to fame is Marc’s award of the 2020 American Meteorological Society’s Hydrologic Sciences Medal, an achievement that sees him inducted as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society at their historic 100th Annual Meeting this week, an honour bestowed upon just 1223 people across the world.

Recognising the excellence of a career spent researching atmospheric dynamics across urban, alpine and agricultural landscapes, Marc credits the generosity of his friends and colleagues for the honour. “It’s a great recognition of the efforts of our team, especially our students and my faculty collaborators,” he says. “We’ve tried to do things differently in our research over the years, and this Medal is an acknowledgement that we haven’t walked the path that others normally do.”

An early pathway

His particular path into environmental research started young, with his father, Cornell University Emeritus Professor Jean-Yves Parlange, an early and important influencer. A highly-renowned pioneer of soil hydrology research, father and son have co-written papers and developed shared networks and friendships throughout their corresponding and complementary careers.

“He started his career in aerospace engineering in France, but realised he could have much more impact by bringing fluid mechanics and math to environmental research,” Marc explains. “While I focus on the atmosphere, he’s explored groundwater and porous media, and it’s been a great and interesting experience to work together with him over the years. He’s always enjoyed doing research, and he was very passionate about teaching and his students. We still Skype every day.”

As a young member of an academic family that lived and travelled across the world, Marc recalls his own first attempts at environmental research; small but serious studies hinting at his future career ahead. One, a school project examining ants on the move, another spent documenting dams built by beavers in a river close to home, going back and forth regularly to take pictures of their progress. Closely observing the natural world, and being influenced by its workings, has been central to his life and work.

Seeing the destructive effects of development on a favourite family hiking spot in the French Alps stays with him, decades later. “We used to start our hikes in the same place, and I remember, even at age six or seven, being shocked to return and see bulldozers clearing part of the area.” he recalls. “I remember a sick feeling in my stomach, and not knowing why I felt that way, but it was shocking to see the damage and mess, even at that age.”

Professor Wilfried Brusaert of Cornell University, Marc’s PhD supervisor, was another influential figure, and one that Marc counts as the most important. The two spent an adventurous three-month period working together in the Landes Forest in France, living at a local farm and working on experiments around the clock; launching weather balloons, flying small planes and building weather towers; all in an effort to make the most accurate approximations to represent the landscape in weather and climate models.

“He introduced me to so many new people, some I’ve kept working with over the years, people from all over Europe and the US,” Marc says. “He put a lot of time into his students, and he taught me to work to the highest standard and take opportunities when they presented themselves. I strive to mentor my own graduate students in the same way because it was such a good experience for me. My students consider Dr. Brusaert their academic grandparent.”

A world of research and teaching 

Appointments as an assistant and associate professor at the University of California, Davis, and professor at Johns Hopkins University, were to follow. His career in senior leadership roles began with a move to Switzerland to become the head of the Environmental Engineering department in the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). In 2008, he became Dean of the school, and then moved to Canada in 2013 to take up the post of Dean of the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Current UBC Dean, Professor James Olson, believes Marc defines leadership by example in everything he does. “As Dean, he was a tireless, enthusiastic leader committed to collegial governance; a thoughtful and encouraging mentor to his students and colleagues; a highly impactful scientist and engineer, and as a runner, he is always at the front of the pack,“ he says. “Marc has made a tremendous impact on my own career as both role-model and mentor.”

As a researcher, Marc’s field work has taken him on further adventures across many of the world’s most diverse landscapes; from measuring altered rainfall patterns on cleared African savannah, to observing fast-disappearing Swiss Alpine glaciers, to predicting the impact of wind turbines placed across the fields of an Australian farm. Marc mentions his work in Burkina Faso, a poor and remote West African nation, as a career highlight.

His team worked on answering the question: does transforming natural savannah into agricultural land impact on rainfall? Through field measurements and modelling, the team discovered a 15-30 percent reduction, proving the counter-productive nature of this practice for a landlocked Sub-Saharan country highly vulnerable to drought, that relies wholly on rainfall to water its crops.

Marc is concerned about the many impacts of climate change he’s witnessed first-hand across his career. “I’ve worked on the glaciers in the Swiss Alps like Plaine Morte, and it’s just a matter of time before they’re gone,” he says. “We’ve also seen reductions in the depth and thickness of ice in the North Pole, the changing intensity of tropical hurricanes, and the rapid increase in extreme European summer heatwaves, and the reality is, we don’t have a lot of time left to mitigate the damage.”

Acting to protect and preserve the environment is fundamental to his work, along with an appreciation of the technical and mathematical tools available to solve problems. “My research helps to understand the practicalities of atmospheric dynamics, which are helpful if you’re designing cities and coastal environments, or if you’re a farmer deciding how to best use limited water resources,” Marc says.

“It also allows me to do experiments, simulations and theory; drawing on all the tools available to find the right answers.” A new multi-telescope scanning Raman LIDAR to measure water vapour in the atmospheric boundary layer, and a Large Eddy Simulation he believes is faithful to the physics governing the exchange between the atmosphere and land, are two such tools he’s developed from scratch across his career, emphasising the many “very smart and creative students and colleagues” who took part in their development.

The opportunity to teach and mentor students has been a much-valued part of his career, with professors in universities around the world counting Marc as their former PhD supervisor. “I love that my students always push me and make me think hard and question everything,” he says. “They’ve been the drivers that have made my career interesting. They ask new questions, they work on new topics, and along the way, they bring skill sets that I don’t have, so I learn a lot from them, and I hope I've taught them something too!” he laughs.

His very first student, Gabriel Katul, clearly learned more than enough from his supervisor. “He had a lot of faith to come and work with me, and he’s now a very distinguished professor at Duke University,” says Marc, proudly. “Just go to Google Scholar and look Gabriel up, and you’ll see how good he is.”

A remarkable return 

His current role as Provost of Monash University, a position he’s occupied since moving from UBC in 2017, was a homecoming of sorts, having lived in Australia twice before. First based in Canberra, and later in Queensland, a Bachelor of Science from Griffith University was the first step on the road of a long career taking him around the world and back. At Monash, Marc is now focused on leading all ten faculties in collaboration with the development of the university’s four key areas of future research - AI & Data Science, Better Governance & Policy, Health Sciences and Sustainable Development. All four are intended to be worked across in integrated, multidisciplinary ways to achieve the ultimate impact.

“We do excellent fundamental research, and working with all the Deans to unite and integrate our findings across the four key areas will lead to greater opportunities for Monash to make change,” Marc says. “For example, using AI and data science to influence and inform better policy and decision-making, which improves sustainable development and leads to a healthier community, is the potential difference Monash can now make as a whole.”

Monash President and Vice-Chancellor Professor Margaret Gardner AO says Professor Parlange’s agenda to foster deeper, more focused engagement across disciplines is instrumental to the University’s endeavour to deliver impact for community benefit.

“The most significant challenges facing the world today cannot be solved by a single field of expertise or by a single institution. Complex challenges demand solutions that are interdisciplinary and collaborative,” Professor Gardner says.

“By defining our core areas for interdisciplinary collaboration, Marc has identified the key levers Monash can utilise to help solve those most pressing challenges.

“Marc has always demonstrated genuine collegiality in his endeavour to foster that collaboration – a collegiality that is greatly valued by his peers in the academic community, and invaluable for the success of our research agenda.”

Dean of Engineering Professor Elizabeth Croft believes that Marc’s ability to bring together leaders from across the university is nothing short of remarkable. “His quiet confidence and thoughtful, persuasive engagement brings out the very best in diverse groups of academics,” she says.

“His leadership has catalysed projects at Monash that maximise the power of our considerable scale, the depth of our expertise and the breadth of our international impact.”

A runner and sports fan at heart

Perhaps the secret to his success as a researcher and leader, Marc credits many of his best connections, and many of his best ideas, to time spent devoted to running. “I’ve made a lot of my best friends through running, and I met my wife at the running club at Cornell,” he says. “You let your mind wander when you’re out there. If you’re doing computing and you’re stumped with a difficult problem, it helps to clear the mind and allows the answer to come.”

Marc’s also wasted no time in jumping straight back on the Aussie sports bandwagon since his return. “I’m a big Melbourne Rebels fan, we’ve been going to all the games,” he says, a clear rugby diehard. A mention of Australian Rules football provokes a confident, yet highly ambitious declaration that history is likely to disprove. “I’m a St Kilda supporter, and this year, we’ll be staging a comeback,“ he says with a steely look, despite the team’s 2019 fourteenth place finish. “You’ve heard it here first!”

A worthy claim to fame 

Professor Elizabeth Croft warmly congratulates Marc, also a professor of Civil Engineering within the faculty, on his award of the Hydrologic Sciences Medal. “Marc’s world-leading work in boundary layer hydrology, and leadership in global research collaborations has contributed significantly to sustainable agricultural practices, urban design, and, fundamentally, to our understanding of the thin layer of the atmosphere in which we all live, “ she says. “The Faculty of Engineering is delighted to see his contributions recognised with this prestigious award.”