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Featured New Faculty: Ebrahim Babaeian, assistant professor of soil physics

Dr. Ebrahim Babaeian is one of the newest members of the UF/IFAS soil and water sciences department. He is an assistant professor of soil physics. We asked him a little about how his career has developed and what his future research goals are.

Dr. Ebrahim Babaeian, soil physics assistant professor at the University of Florida, standing in front of shrubs.

Dr. Ebrahim Babaeian, assistant professor of soil physics.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I was born and raised in Iran where I earned my Ph.D. in Soil Physics and Conservation from Tarbiat Modares University in 2014. My graduate research focused on understanding the dynamics of soil physical and hydraulic properties and processes at multiple spatial scales based on proximal and satellite remote sensing techniques. In the course of my Ph.D. research, I spent six months in the Institute of Bio- and Geosciences (IBG-3) at the Research Center Jülich in Germany and collaborated with soil physicists and hydrologists there. Most recently, I served as an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Environmental Science (ENVS) at the University of Arizona. Prior to this position, I was a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the ENVS department. My background is related to soil physics topics including soil moisture, vadose zone flow and transport processes, soil-water-plant relationships, soil and water conservation, and optical remote sensing techniques.

What are your research interests?

Broadly, I am interested in all aspects of soil and water sciences. My research program focuses on developing a fundamental understanding of mass and energy distribution and transport in soil toward enhancing management and sustainability of the environment.  Specifically, I am interested in developing novel theoretical and practically applicable tools for quantifying land surface variables and processes based on ground and remote sensing observations. My research focuses on multiscale observations and data fusion techniques coupled with soil physics in order to monitor spatiotemporal dynamics of soil physical properties and processes in natural and managed ecosystems. I am particularly interested in developing physics-informed and data-driven techniques for enhanced modeling of soil physical/hydraulic properties and processes, as well as nowcasting and forecasting the water and energy cycle components in the context of the changing global climate.

What prompted you to apply for this job with UF/IFAS soil and water sciences?

It is an honor for me to be a part of the University of Florida’s Soil and Water Sciences Department. Several reasons motivated me to apply for this fantastic soil physicists position. First and foremost, I believe that my background and expertise are a good match for the position requirements. I am very interested in soil physics and have been involved in soil physics teaching and research activities for more than a decade. Another aspect that drew me to the University of Florida was the opportunity to work in a tropical and subtropical environment with soils containing a significant amount of sand. These conditions would allow me to test some of the constitutive relationships for soil moisture and hydraulic properties that I have developed in the last few years in field settings, to contribute to advancing environmental and agricultural (irrigation) management practices in the Southeast.  Furthermore, the University of Florida is a prominent national university, and the SWSD has a long history of soil and water sciences studies. Also, the faculty members from the SWSD and IFAS have a broad background and expertise in all aspects of soil and water sciences, providing an excellent opportunity to collaborate and conduct interdisciplinary research while also making significant contributions to the university and department teaching, research, and extension missions.

What is your vision for your teaching and research projects?

I am committed to excellence in teaching and mentoring, and I enjoy interacting with students and involving them in classroom and research activities. My teaching goal is to provide students with theoretical and practical knowledge while also introducing them to leading-edge technologies for environmental monitoring. I emphasize project-based and inquiry-based learning to help students enhance their critical-thinking, problem-solving, and team-working skills so that they can solve the most important environmental problems that we are facing today. I believe that championing diversity and inclusion is the only way to equitably and successfully solve the grand challenges associated with human-environment interactions.

Overall, my research objective is developing transformative scientific concepts as well as practically applicable techniques and methodologies to be able to address challenges facing agriculture, natural resources, and interrelated human systems in Florida, the country, and the world in view of the changing global climate. My plan is to establish a well-funded and successful research program in the department. I strongly believe in interdisciplinary research and am eager to develop synergistic relationships with faculty in the IFAS and the SWSD, the Ag industry, and other relevant stakeholders. Being familiar with some of the excellent SWSD faculty research projects, I envision future collaborations that capitalize on IFAS and SWSD expertise.

What do you foresee as being the biggest challenge ahead?

A big challenge related to soil hydrology is understanding the effect of climate change and human activities on water, energy, and carbon fluxes happening at local, regional, and global scales and in short- and long-term timeframes. The rate of variation in the water cycle components such as infiltration, evaporation, transpiration, and soil water storage can affect the surface net water fluxes and thereby the frequency and magnitude of extremes such as floods, droughts, and wildfire. Quantifying the effect of climate change on land surface fluxes has been an unresolved problem for many years.

During the last several years, I have been working on estimating soil moisture dynamics from field to global scales with ground and remote sensing techniques because soil moisture is a key hydrologic state variable that significantly affects the surface water flux and coupling between energy and water cycles. Soil moisture is also an important factor for crop production, irrigation water management, mitigating adverse environmental impacts because of over-irrigation, forecasting natural disasters such as wildfires, landslides, floods, and dust storms since the likelihood of their occurrence is intimately linked to the moisture status of the land surface. Despite the impressive progress in soil moisture measurement capabilities, there are still research gaps to enhance and optimize technology and to develop analysis and retrieval methods. For example, while there is a wide range of soil moisture sensors with various qualities and measurement accuracies in the market, there are currently no unified testing and performance standards. Such uniform standards and testing methods are critically needed for sensor comparison and for the choice of the best suitable soil moisture sensors for specific measurement tasks.

While remote sensing techniques (satellite and UAVs level) provide an exceedingly powerful means for monitoring soil moisture, there are challenges with validation and calibration of remote sensing-based soil moisture estimates based on ground soil moisture sensors because of the disconnect between the sensing depth of ground and remote sensors and the scaling disparity between their measurement footprints. As with electromagnetic soil moisture sensors, there is a need to develop standardized validation methods that consider the scale and sensing depth mismatch. In addition, appropriate scaling techniques need to be developed to enhance the applicability of satellite soil moisture observations for precision agriculture and other field-scale applications. Implementing remotely-sensed soil moisture observations into modern agricultural programs to enhance water use efficiency in agriculture is another challenge.

Another remaining grand challenge is the accurate estimation of root-zone soil moisture from the remotely sensed near-surface soil moisture information. The most commonly applied technique for estimating root-zone soil moisture from remote sensing is the assimilation of near-surface measurements into, for example, land surface or crop growth models. We need to develop new techniques to use information such as groundwater table depth, highly spatially resolved soil data, and remotely sensed crop information for improving the root-zone soil moisture estimates.

Another concern in irrigated agriculture is the loss of water and nutrients because of excess irrigation, which results in deep percolation and runoff from agricultural fields. Many farmers today still rely on their intuition and experience to manage irrigation, which often errs on the side of caution with excess water being applied in irrigated agriculture.  This would be a major concern for Florida’s sandy soils with low water holding capacity. This practice not only depletes precious water resources but also contributes to water quality deterioration through the release of various agrochemicals into the surface- and groundwater bodies, causing public health concerns. Spatiotemporal monitoring of water flow and nutrient transport rate through the root zone and the vadose zone is of great importance to improve water and nutrient use efficiencies, soil health, and crop productivity.