Delft, The Netherlands, 24 Nov 2021

PhD research with an impact: Monitoring and Predicting to help the world cope with drought

Vitali Díaz Mercado from Mexico successfully defended his PhD thesis, earning a doctoral degree for research that uses monitoring, modelling and other methods to predict droughts and help people cope with them.

Dr. Diaz Mercado, a civil engineer, passionate programmer, data analyst, modeler and developer of remote-sensing-based approaches to overcome water challenges, shared a few insights as he embarks on a new chapter of his life.

My thesis in a nutshell

‘’Scientists have been able to build drought monitoring systems that help the population to estimate how large and damaging drought impacts can be in their daily activities, such as agriculture and navigation, where a lack of water is a big problem! However, we cannot yet provid spatial monitoring of droughts, like we can for example in the case of hurricanes, where estimations of the possible trajectory, spatial extent and magnitude give a picture of the possible damage and, above all, information on which to base an emergency plan. In my PhD research, I propose a methodology for spatial monitoring of drought called drought tracking. This helps to build an image of the spatial routes and the extent of droughts. I envision that future monitoring systems will include the methodology I developed, and that this will help governments in mitigating the damages of drought.”

Challenges during my PhD studies

“Rejections of papers I had submitted to journals was among the challenges I faced during my PhD journey. Now I realize that paper rejection is an opportunity to improve your document. Sometimes, I needed to be clearer and more organized in expressing the potential of my discovery.

Starting an activity in another country in another language was also a challenge, but I was able to enjoy it, I learnt to harmonize, adapt and expand. I always found support in God and my wife.”

The influence of my PhD research and degree

“I hope that what I have generated during my PhD research will be used and implemented in real cases to help mitigate the effects of droughts on different human activities and the environment.

Also, I hope that students who I have had the fortune to coach will end up in important positions where they transmit knowledge and generate knowledge for the benefit of other students and society in general. Finally, my PhD will allow me to be in positions in which I can generate a greater impact, for example by changing policies, generating study programs and implementing technology.”

Next steps

“In the immediate future, I am looking forward to developing conceptual models, theories and techniques to use big point cloud data, an alternative representation to the traditional vectors and rasters, to represent the spatio-temporal phenomena. Humanity has produced a lot of data, the challenge is not only how to process it and how to visualize it, but also how to use it for practical applications. I believe that point clouds will be a very solid and efficient data representation, and ultimately, the representation par excellence chosen for spatio-temporal representations.”

Learnings and Takeaways

If I could give advice to myself as I started my PhD studies, it would be:

  • Prioritize; your family and your person are the most valuable; you will have strong foundations to remain standing.
  • Surround yourself with more intelligent and organized colleagues: being with them will make your lifestyle uncomfortable, and you will seek to change it.
  • Be grateful to the many people who directly or indirectly contribute to your training and development.
  • Exploit all the resources you have as a student: library resources, software licenses, computer resources, access to books, and forums to show your research.
  • Public speaking and writing well are like swimming: you will not learn it if you don’t do it, and you will not master it but practice it.
  • Don't be afraid to teach or supervise; share your knowledge.
  • Have coffee breaks, leave your computer for a few minutes to enjoy your drink and chat with your colleagues. Preferably do not talk/ask about progress - have a good chat.
  • Plan - make daily, weekly, monthly, yearly plans. Don't get overwhelmed: planning is to avoid thinking you have a lifetime to do an activity. Then use the plans!
  • Whether you face technical or mental challenges, ask for help: you are a person, not a machine.
  • Above all enjoy! You have the opportunity to do research and generate knowledge. You are contributing a grain of sand to the beautiful  beach of knowledge - enjoy the process!

Dr. Diaz Mercado received his PhD from IHE Delft and the Delft University of Technology.  Professor Dimitri Solomatine was his promotor and Dr. Gerald Corzo Perez his co-promotor. The National Council for Science and Technology of Mexico financed and supported Dr. Diaz Mercado’s PhD studies.

Research summary

Thesis title: Spatio-temporal characterisation of drought: data analytics, modelling, tracking, impact and prediction

Studies of drought have increased in light of new data availability and advances in spatio-temporal analysis. However, the following gaps still need to be filled: 1) methods to characterise drought that explicitly consider its spatio-temporal features, such as spatial extent (area) and pathway; 2) methods to monitor and predict drought that include the above-mentioned characteristics and 3) approaches for visualising and analysing drought characteristics to facilitate interpretation of its variation. This research aims to explore, analyse and propose improvements to the spatio-temporal characterisation of drought. Outcomes provide new perspectives towards better prediction.

The following objectives were proposed. 1) Improve the methodology for characterising drought based on the phenomenon’s spatial features. 2) Develop a visual approach to analysing drought variations. 3) Develop a methodology for spatial drought tracking. 4) Explore machine learning (ML) techniques to predict crop-yield responses to drought. The four objectives were addressed and results are presented.

Finally, a scope was formulated for integrating ML and the spatio-temporal analysis of drought. This proposed scope opens a new area of potential for drought prediction (i.e. predicting spatial drought tracks and areas). It is expected that the drought tracking and prediction method will help populations cope with drought and its severe impacts.


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