Carnegie Mellon University
October 03, 2016

Internship: Researching Floods and Groundwater Contamination in Paraguay

Internship: Researching Floods and Groundwater Contamination in Paraguay

CEE sophomore Cindy Weng (CEE ’18) had always been interested in conducting research in Latin America. By using our alumni network she was able to spend eight weeks of her summer in Paraguay at Universidad Paraguayo Alemana. There she worked with the school’s Dean of Industrial Engineering Juan Pablo Nogues and put skills learned in the classroom to practice by working on issues centering on the effects of climate change and ground water contamination.

CEE: Tell us about the research you did this summer.

I was working on the flood frequency of the Paraguay River with the Universidad Paraguayo Alemana, and also doing a groundwater contamination project with them.

For the flood-frequency project, we were receiving stage-level data on the river and gauging to see how often a flood could come in and what height it would come in at. The area is being affected by climate change so we can’t use the standard probabilistic distributions, so figuring out how to integrate climate change into our studies really was challenging.

The work is so important because the most impoverished people in the capital live by the river and every time the areas floods they end up having to live in the streets and it’s a really chaotic situation.

Right now we're trying to gauge predictions for the likelihood of certain floods with respect to climate change, to see if any outside organizations can raise the land of that floodable area or declare it unlivable and relocate the people who live there.

There’s a lot of groundwater contamination in Paraguay, like trash and sewage. The other project I was working on used PMWIN to 3D-model the Patiño Aquifer and the wells to see where the contamination exists and how it flows. The aquifer produces a lot of the water for the most populated regions of the country, so it’s important to detect which populations are being affected.

CEE: How did you find out about this research project?

I wanted to do research in Latin America and last fall semester I began contacting alumni who could potentially have connections to that area.
I contacted an alum from Paraguay and he basically said, “Anything for a Carnegie Mellon alum.” He said he had a friend doing groundwater research, and that friend ended up being the professor I studied with.

CEE: What was your favorite part of the experience?

While it’s unfortunate that research isn’t as abundant in Paraguay as it is in the U.S., I think that one best part of doing research in Paraguay is that they’re really just starting and it’s really great to be doing the groundwork of this environmental research.

Also, the people I was working with at the university were extremely welcoming; I would sit with them at lunch every day and I got an extremely well-rounded perspective of the country while I got to know them.

CEE: Did any particular CEE classes help to prepare you for this research?

There was a CEE class, Introduction to Computer Application in Civil & Environmental Engineering, taught by professor Mario Berges in the spring. Being able to say I already knew MATLAB when I got to Paraguay was really helpful because both projects I was working on required extensive coding in MATLAB.

Professor Jim Thompson’s Solids Mechanics Lab taught me a lot about technical writing and technical papers, so that I was familiar with studying and writing a research paper.

CEE: Did this experience influence your career goals?

I’ve always been interested in water resources, particularly in groundwater contamination and water resources in underdeveloped countries, but as I’ve been doing this research I’ve been learning about a lot of different types of fields in water resources, like flood frequency, or products that decontaminate water. So it definitely opened my eyes to different possibilities in water resources and now I feel like I have a lot of options.