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A Study in Water

Helping a country predict water flow leads to a flow of BYU PhDs

Story by BYU June 26th, 2017

Civil engineering study abroad program in the Dominican Republic was 35 years in the making

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Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many college students, but few have an experience like that of BYU’s Michael Souffront. That’s because Souffront went home to study abroad.

The Ph.D. candidate traveled with a group of 14 civil engineering students to his native country of the Dominican Republic this spring to carry out vital water resource projects. Using models developed at BYU, Souffront created a real-time watershed map of the country that allows water agencies to forecast possible flooding with more lead-time than is now available.

Michael Souffront returns home to the Dominican Republic as part of BYU's study abroad team.
Students take a selfie at the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration in Santiago de los Caballeros. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A garden in Santiago de los Caballeros. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Dr. Jim Nelson tell a mission story to the students during a bus ride after attending church in Navarrete. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Local flowers in Sanitago de los Caballeros. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Children dance in a parade held during Carnaval in Santiago de los Caballeros. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Lizzy Newbill photographs the ocean after arriving in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
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Roller Bladers show their skills at the Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration in Santiago de los Caballeros. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

The trip was organized by civil engineering professor Jim Nelson, an expert hydrologist at BYU who has led student groups to the Caribbean nation for six years now. Each year Nelson’s students take on major water projects, with the 2017 group addressing flood mitigation, hydroelectric power issues and the impact of deforestation on water flows.

Souffront’s automated system now produces stream flow results twice a day for key agencies in the Dominican Republic. The system builds off of the European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) that Nelson and his graduate students first demonstrated with the NOAA’s new National Water Center in 2015.

Dr. Jim Nelson speaks to representatives from PUCMM, Plan Sierra and INDRHI. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
“This is why I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. at BYU in the first place. I knew I would be doing something to help the people of the Dominican Republic.”
- Michael Souffront
Students speak with local officials to discuss their upcoming projects. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Lizzy Newbill presents on BYU hydrology software package. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
John Chadwick speaks with Israel Antigua from INDRHI. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Michael Souffront answers questions while presenting to representatives from PUCMM, Plan Sierra and INDRHI.
Silvio Carrasco welcomes the BYU students to The Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU Students tour the Tavera Hydroelectric Dam on the Bao river in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU Students tour the Tavera Hydroelectric Dam turbine on the Bao river in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
The Tavera Hydroelectric Dam spillway on the Bao river in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Fidel Perez and Dr. Nelson plan the groups presentation to INDRHI. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
“We’re helping develop feasibility studies for projects they know they need to do, but they just don’t have the budget to take care of them,” Nelson said. “It’s a variety of different projects that the government prioritizes; then we go to work for them.”
Sarva Pulla, Annie Nielson and Hayden Schappell learn how to measure stream flow in the Yaque del Norte River. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

While Nelson has conducted study abroad capstone related courses with more than 300 students over the past 16 years in Egypt, China, Chile and Mexico, his trips to the DR are a little more personal: he was one of the first LDS missionaries to serve in the country when it opened to proselyting in the early 80s. Nelson started envisioning study abroad trips there in 2000, when he attended the dedication of the Santo Domingo Dominican Republic Temple, but it wasn’t until 2010 when the trips became a reality. That’s when Fidel Perez, head of the Department of Hydrology at the Dominican National Institute of Water Resources, attended a training Nelson was conducting.

Students calculate stream flow in the Yaque del Norte River. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Sarva Pulla learns how to measure stream flow in the Yaque del Norte River. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
The Yaque del Norte River. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Students learn how to test ph levels in the Yaque del Norte River. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

“It was that chance meeting that led to the shift to the Dominican Republic for our study abroad program,” Nelson said. Perez went on to study under Nelson at BYU and earned his Ph.D. in 2014, all while helping orchestrate the trips to the Dominican Republic. It was also Perez who inspired Souffront to apply to BYU. For his part, Perez continues to do all the organizing on the DR side for the annual water projects.

“The help of Dr. Nelson and the BYU students is really important and enables us to plan better for emergencies,” Perez said. “Dr. Nelson’s contributions are so great I think we should be building a statue of him soon.”

A research garden managed by Plan Sierra in San Jose de las Matas. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

To prepare for the trips, students spend a semester trying to understand a particular water project, while also communicating to Dominican Republic agencies their capabilities. The goal is to help address two major challenges in the DR: water availability and flooding threats. The study program evolved out of the water modeling system (WMS) software Nelson developed at BYU that has now been used in more than 100 countries.

Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Michael Souffront speaks with local water officials at Plan Sierra near San Jose de las Matas. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Beets grow on a research farm managed by Plan Sierra near San Jose de las Matas. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
The BYU Study Abroad team. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A nursery grows trees that will be used in reforestation projects in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

In addition to Souffront’s flood forecast map, BYU students took on three other projects this spring:

  1. Using a hydro-prospector to evaluate any location for the potential of delivering hydropower, domestic or irrigation water
  2. Studying the impact of reforesting on flooding conditions
  3. Organizing data for agencies to help predict future water resources
A nursery grows trees that will be used in reforestation projects in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A nursery grows trees that will be used in reforestation projects in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A nursery grows trees that will be used in reforestation projects in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A nursery grows trees that will be used in reforestation projects in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A nursery grows trees that will be used in reforestation projects in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A nursery grows trees that will be used in reforestation projects in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Students tour the Alcazar de Colon, built for Chrisopher Columbus' son in 1512. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A Dominican flag flies on top of Fortaleza Ozama in Santo Domingo. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A Dominican soldier stands guard at the Hall of Heroes in Santo Domingo. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
The beach on Saona Island in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Palm Trees on Saona Island in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
View of the water on the coast of La Romana in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
A footbridge near the zipline tour in Samana. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Carly Gorman enjoys the view during a boat ride to Saona Island in the Dominican Republic. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Dr. Jim Nelson discusses a project with Sarva Pulla in the hydrology lab at BYU. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Hayden Schappell and Annie Nelson work on their water resources project before presenting it to INDRHI. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
BYU students put the finishing touches on their presentations in the BYU Hydrology Lab. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Students present the final reports to representatives in the Dominican Republic during a video conference. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

The students collaborated with the Dominican Republic federal government, the Dominican National Institute of Water Resources (INDRHI), environmental reforestation group Plan Sierra and a major Catholic University on the four projects. “The organizations and people we worked with there were very happy,” Souffront said. “But, of course, there is always more that can be done.”

And Souffront is planning on doing more. To that end, he’ll be heading back to the country later in August to work on yet another water resource project. And maybe, just maybe, he too will inspire a fellow Dominican to pursue a Ph.D. at BYU.


Students present the final reports to representatives in the Dominican Republic during a video conference. Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU
Footnote: Photos by Jaren Wilkey/BYU