Growing up in Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa, Tadewos Getachew witnessed firsthand the lack of access to clean drinking water. He closely watched the city grapple with infrastructure challenges related to treating waste water or fixing leakages in the water distribution system.
Getachew realized that he wanted to develop engineering solutions. “I wanted to build a career that would help solve water problems,” he said, “be they in Ethiopia or any other developing county.”
Armed with an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering from UC Davis, and more recently a prestigious GEM fellowship, Getachew will pursue graduate studies in environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor this fall. The GEM fellowship allows underrepresented students like Getachew to pursue graduate education in science and engineering. As part of this fellowship program, he is now interning with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (Berkeley Lab) Energy Geosciences Division and learning to estimate groundwater withdrawals for California’s drought-parched Central Valley.
Getachew sees parallels between climate change-related issues that California faces and countries like Ethiopia where droughts are becoming more common.
During low rainfall years, when water levels in streams and rivers plummet, farmers’ reliance on groundwater spikes. “But the main problem is that we don’t know how much groundwater there is,” said Bhavna Arora, Getachew’s supervisor and a research scientist within the Energy Geosciences Division at Berkeley Lab. Getachew’s work could inform managers about underground water levels and help them implement the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Arora was impressed with Getachew’s desire and passion for problem-solving. In his previous research at UC Davis’ Center for Water-Energy Efficiency, Getachew worked on an innovative approach to assess groundwater withdrawals in California. In agricultural areas like the Central Valley where such detailed extraction data are largely lacking, he worked with scientists to estimate water withdrawal by using PG&E’s energy usage bills instead.
“With a GEM fellow like Tadeows, there was already a visible passion for figuring out solutions to water problems,” Arora said. “He also knew the problems in regions like the Central Valley, which made him a good fit for our project.”
Now into his fifth week at Berkeley Lab, Getachew has been combing through Butte County’s groundwater reports, using remote-sensing techniques to assess crop cover and evaporation from leaf and soil surfaces as well as long-term climate, and acquiring advanced computational skills in machine learning to assess ground water levels in the region. He has also been spending time connecting with other scientists and interns that study various aspects of climate change.
“I want to continue doing research in the future, especially in developing countries,” Getachew said. “This experience (at Berkeley Lab) will be very valuable as I establish my career.”
As a first generation African American and part of the U.S. community of low-income students, Getachew has overcome his share of hardships — from being the only African American at his community college’s higher math courses to lacking exposure to scientific research in his primary school years.
But as a transfer student at UC Davis he took advantage of diverse research opportunities, presented at conferences, and even played an active role in the National Society of Black Engineers’ on-campus chapter. Securing the highly competitive GEM Fellowship lets underrepresented students like Getachew to pursue graduate education. At the same time, it allows institutions like Berkeley Lab to pursue water-related research with diverse perspectives.