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Tampa science museum honors Bras as Hispanic Scientist of the Year

Friday, October 10, 2014

Georgia Tech’s Rafael Bras will receive the National Hispanic Scientist of the Year award from the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa this weekend.

The museum is recognizing the Puerto Rico native, in part, for his work helping to save Venice from rising seas. Bras, the Institute’s provost and a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has also been in Tampa meeting with middle school students and participating in other events leading up to Saturday’s award.

More from the Tampa Tribune’s Myriam Silva-Warren:

An effort to inspire young Hispanic students everywhere by honoring one distinguished scientist each year has branched out this year to include an early-career role model, as well.

The winners are Georgia Tech’s Rafael Bras, a Puerto Rican-born civil engineer whose work includes helping save historic Venice from the encroachment of the sea, and Colombian-born Ana Maria Rey, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and physicist at the University of Colorado.

They will be honored Saturday by MOSI, Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry, which launched the National Hispanic Scientist of the Year contest in 2001 with partner Maruchi Azorin-Blanco, a Tampa businesswoman who emigrated from Cuba.

Rey, 37, will receive the first “Early Career” award through MOSI. The award was established to show young people examples of success, Azorin said.

“For the first time we have an early-career scientist to tell children that one does not have to be old to be successful,” Azorin said. “This example is fundamental to the development of our children.”

Azorin noted that Rey, a research professor at the university in Boulder, was a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the so-called unrestricted “genius grants” of $625,000 each.

Bras, 63, is provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He previously chaired the faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught at University of California, Irvine.

“My specialty is hydrology, and hydrology works within the interaction between the atmosphere, soil and vegetation we called eco-hydrology,” Bras said.

Bras studied civil engineering at MIT and received a doctorate in water resources science and hydrology. He was a professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez before returning to Massachusetts.

From 1995 until a few months ago, he was president of an international committee working to prevent flooding in Venice. The project, now about 80 percent complete, consists of a series of locks that controls tidal flow in a lagoon around the city.

The region under study is 31 miles long and 12 miles wide, with Venice a relatively small area of land in the middle.

Bras also has helped NASA collect data using satellites and has been a member of scientific teams that measure precipitation remotely on NASA missions.

“One satellite was launched in November 1997 and still is flying; it was supposed to last for only three years. And a few months ago we launched another with the same purpose,” Bras said.

Bras and a student now are doing research on behalf of the National Science Foundation on landslides in Puerto Rico.

Both Bras and Rey are taking part in a series of events leading up to Saturday’s award ceremony.

Today, they will address middle school students from Hillsborough school district during an assembly at MOSI called “Meet the Scientists.”