WI Chu

Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette Maria L. Chu, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Illinois, poses for a photo Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in her office in Urbana.

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Each week, Paul Wood profiles a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet MARIA CHU, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Illinois who is one of two scientists serving as co-lead researchers on a project to develop a computational tool for estimating and predicting soil erosion that received a $500,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Tell us about your role and that of co-lead researcher Jorge Guzman in the project.

We are joining efforts and expertise in this project with the support of USDA collaborators from the National Soil Erosion Research Laboratory, West Lafayette, Ind., and the Grazinglands Research Laboratory, El Reno, Okla. More specifically, I will lead the erosion model while Jorge will focus in the hydrologic model including the integration of the cyber components and cyber infrastructure.

Why is quantifying soil erosion such a difficult process?

The main natural drivers of soil erosion are wind and water with the potential to separate and mobilize soil particles. These two variables turn to be highly variable in its magnitude and characteristics across the landscapes. In addition, soil erosion find it roots in soil properties, biological activity, and how water move through the surface and subsurface. Then here we are, day a day, acre by acre, adapting the landscapes to sustain the communities production while expanding the infrastructure that support our economies.

Tell us about how soil erosion contributes to water pollution. Is the rate predictable?

Soil erosion plays a significant role in water pollution. The mobilization of soil particles to water bodies is recognized today as a contaminant. As an example of this is that sediment can favor the aggregation particles with bacteria, viruses as well as heavy metals and excess of nutrients. Today we have extensive research that allow us to predict this mobilization and potential concentrations in water bodies. A more detail measurements of continuous concentrations in water bodies while integrating data and models with high-throughput computing will be necessary but anyway, that is something that we good at here at the UI.

Which watersheds will you be studying?

We will focus this effort in two watersheds, the Kaskaskia watershed in Illinois and the Fort Cobb Reservoir Experimental watershed in Oklahoma.

Farmers can choose between different options such as “till” or “no till” on the website and see the likely effects of each on their watershed over time. I’m surprised no one has thought of doing this before.

Across my research, I deal very frequently with assessing the outcome of dynamics in ecosystems that are constrained by natural occurred or human driven choices (what if?). When we started developing this idea, we identified that stakeholder where always planning blindingly without tools that allowed them to quantify rapidly the outcome of potential scenarios. So here we are, facing a complex problem where the source and the impact are geographically disconnected, and in time completely disentangled — that is the beauty of soil erosion.


On Facebook, I follow ... family and friends from the Philippines.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Google Play Books; “House of Spies” by Daniel Silva

Do you have any wearable electronics? Samsung Galaxy Watch Active


Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is pwood@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).