Thomas Piechota, PhD
Water and its accessibility are topics of great interest—especially in the western United States. For that reason, the work of researchers like Tom Piechota is valuable. Over Piechota’s career, which began in the early 1990s, Chapman University’s Vice President for Research and Professor in Schmid College of Science and Technology has worked on research related to how climate change influences hydrology (the movement, distribution and management of water.)
Using the data from such research, Piechota and his colleagues have created models that forecast or predict short- and long-term changes in water availability.
“Water is one of the first elements affected by climate change,” says Piechota. “The research I and my colleagues perform offers information for those who manage water resources as to how those potential changes to water resources can be mitigated.”
A registered Civil Engineer in the State of California, Piechota holds a masters and PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from UCLA and a certificate from the Harvard Institute for Educational Management. He began studying climate three decades ago when scientists were just beginning to identify how current weather and climate change impact future weather, including drought.
El Niño and La Niña
“El Niño is an ocean phenomenon that occurs in the South Pacific, south of the equator. It features a warm pool of water that moves off the coast of South America,” says Piechota. “Although here in California that might not seem like a big deal, warming temperatures and the location of this phenomenon causes the release of heat into the atmosphere. That heat can create changes in circulation patterns and cause additional moisture in the atmosphere in various areas of the world, including California. When there is an El Niño year, we tend to have wetter weather. The opposite occurs with a La Niña year.”
After graduating with his Bachelors of Science degree in Civil Engineering from Northern Arizona University in the early 1990s, Piechota worked for a few years in the private sector as a civil engineering field consultant for a land development firm before switching to academia.
A desire to learn more about his field led Piechota to graduate school. He was accepted at UCLA where he was introduced to the great impact research can have. “My advisor at UCLA was Dr. John Dracup, who specializes in Hydroclimatology,” says Piechota. “He’s retired now, but he had a big influence on me and my career. I still point to his mentorship for a lot of my academic and research success.”
Piechota was at UCLA from 1993-1999. He earned his PhD in 1997 from UCLA, then spent another two years there teaching and conducting research until he got a fulltime academic position as an Assistant Professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). He was at UNLV for 17 years, including as Vice President for Research and Economic Development. In 2003, he received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award for the project “Improved Hydrologic Drought Forecasting Using Climate Information.” From 2008-2013, he was the co-principal investigator on a $20 million National Science Foundation study on climate change impacts in Nevada.
In addition to colleagues, students work on Piechota’s research projects. “I find it especially satisfying to mentor students and then watch their careers develop,” he says.
Glenn Tootle is one such student. He studied under Piechota at UNLV and went on to become a Professor at the University of Alabama, Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering.
“Tom was an incredible mentor, and I owe my success (Full Professor and Fulbright Scholar) to him,” says Tootle. “You hear the term ‘player’s coach’ in various sports. Tom was a ‘student’s teacher’ in that he really put student interests first. I’ve taken that approach with me, and it really works and inspires students to do well.”
Though Piechota had never planned on working in administration, doing so was suggested while he was in Las Vegas, where he took the Vice President position in Research and Economic Development. He held that role for four years
“With administration, I find that I can from a broad perspective support and advance research and creative activity in the university for faculty and students,” he says. “In such administrative roles, you’re able to serve as a spokesperson for the university and interact with the community and see how the university can support the community.”
When Piechota heard about the opportunity at Chapman to join in administration and as a Professor in the Schmid College of Science and Technology, he and his wife, Colleen, decided it was time for a transition for their family, including their two daughters, so he applied and was accepted.
“Colleen grew up in Southern California, and I moved to Huntington Beach from New Jersey when I was 14,” he says. “When I heard about the opportunity at Chapman, it was an exciting prospect at a university on an upward trajectory. The university didn’t have a Vice President for Research position before I came in 2016. As I’ve done in various points of my career, I built up the Office of Research, including support for faculty and students to succeed in research and creative activities. Funding for research and creative activities has increased four-fold since I joined the university.”
According to Laura Glynn, Professor of Psychology, Associate Dean for Research at Crean College of Health and Behavioral Sciences at Chapman University, Piechota has made invaluable contributions to the university’s Office of Research.
“Tom has improved the infrastructure and support for research and scholarship at Chapman,” says Glynn. “The IRB (institutional review boards) process, for example, is much more efficient and streamlined. He has also really improved processes involving human subjects’ compensation and support for grants management, both at the central and unit level. All these improvements are necessary for building the research agenda and have also helped achieve (and are critical for maintaining) our new R2 (high research activity) status. In terms of supporting faculty development, he significantly improved our internal funding program with the establishment of the Faculty Opportunity Fund. The Grant Writers Bootcamp he holds each summer has also been a success.”
Future Plans for Chapman
Always striving to move forward, Piechota has many more plans for growing research and creative activities. “One of the topics we’re looking at is what the future of health and engineering looks like,” he says. “What should we be involved in as a university to help advance healthcare and technology in Southern California? Technology and innovation are becoming a big part of that equation. Additionally, a university supports the growth of a region. We want to align what we do in our programs with the growth of Southern California and its economy.”
For Piechota, his time at Chapman continues to be enjoyable and satisfying. “The university’s faculty and staff are talented and great to work with. The students are bright and enthusiastic and interested in being involved in many different forms of research,” he says. “I’m also impressed with the leadership and the plans they’ve mapped out and follow for Chapman’s growth. Exciting and creative research as you see here doesn’t happen without all those ingredients.”