Manoj Chopra likes to make rain. He makes a lot of rain. Well, technically, he simulates rain; he doesn't actually seed the clouds or anything like that. As Director of the Stormwater Management Academy and Associate Professor of Engineering in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Construction Engineering at the University of Central Florida (UCF) College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS), his research calls for simulating large volumes of rain. Professor Chopra has been working on research with soils, groundwater, pavements and rainfall simulation at UCF since 1993.
He was born in New Delhi, the capital city of India. He earned his Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilani, India in 1985, before coming to the United States in July of 1986. Why the States? "Because the U.S. had the top-notch education system in the world at that time," says Chopra. "...and they still do," he adds.
He worked for a year in India to gather enough money to pay the fees for college, and then applied to a number of universities. The best offer came from the State University of New York at Buffalo, which is now called the University at Buffalo. Chopra accepted and earned a Master of Science in Civil Engineering, and in 1992, earned his Ph.D. in Civil Engineering.
"I want to make my mark in low impact development (LID) techniques like pervious pavement systems," he says. Pervious pavement systems allow water to flow through, rather than run off the surface. Today, concrete and asphalt roads do not allow water to penetrate; water gathers and runs off, creating challenges for channeling and storing the accumulated water. If the road is made of a material that is pervious, the water passes through the road and back into the water basin, foregoing the need to channel and capture the water. At the same time, the road still needs to be strong enough to handle the daily traffic loads.
"Of course, after we collect runoff water, we have to clean the water before we return it to the water bodies," Chopra emphasizes. "Soil is one of the best substances to clean water." He became interested in soils, water runoff, and related challenges because they were unpredictable. "Structural engineering principles are a bit more established and consistent. I wanted to focus my research on phenomena with less certainty."
Thus, Chopra and his research team created a rain simulator, which can produce rainfall of up to twenty inches per hour. Using the machine, he can test a number of substances and scenarios. For example, the research team measures the amount of water that runs off and infiltrates various surfaces; they can determine such things as how much of a fertilizer is washed away from soil and how much is absorbed; in addition, the rain simulator can be tilted to varying degrees, mimicking slopes and hillsides. It can be used to test materials that protect these slopes from erosion.
Three substances that prove promising for pervious pavement systems are recycled tire materials, recycled glass pieces, and small pebbles used as pavement aggregate. They each are strong enough to sustain heavy vehicle traffic, yet allow water to penetrate back into the soil. Chopra's work has gained notoriety. The state of Florida has designated his lab at UCF to be the primary source in the state for evaluating all pervious systems for anyone trying to evaluate such new substances.
As a faculty member, Chopra has supervised over twenty five students in the past. He currently supervises five master's students, three Ph.D. candidates and a post-doctoral associate. The Stormwater Management Academy, which he oversees, accommodates thirty graduate and undergraduate students, along with more than a dozen faculty and staff members. His cumulative research grant awards exceed $3 million.
Chopra is also an EXCEL Professor. EXCEL is UCF's innovative program to increase student success in the first two years of their college career in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) discipline. EXCEL boosts students' STEM skills to prepare them for their forthcoming engineering education.
"I was brought into the program in the second year. It is the right approach and I'm fully involved in it now," says Chopra. The program helps students understand STEM concepts that are in their everyday lives. "The program is a unique and creative approach to establishing learning communities here. It is invaluable when you have a student population over 53,000," Chopra added. "Michael Georgiopoulos and Cynthia Young (the program's founders) have done an excellent job with this program in relating engineering to math concepts." EXCEL helps by expressing physical manifestations of what students are learning.
Professor Chopra is popular among both students and fellow faculty members. He has won countless awards - many for teacher/professor of the year, some of which were voted on by students and others by his peers. He was awarded the Central Florida Engineer of the Year Award in 2000 by the engineering community in central Florida and the NASA Gold Coin Award in 2001 for engineering innovation for his work in groundwater cleanup. The ones he's most proud of are the handful of Tau Beta Pi Teacher of the Year awards, because they were bestowed by his students.