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VOL. 42 | NO. 10 | Friday, March 09, 2018

A data-driven solution to nature’s ‘costliest hazard’

Nigerian transplant helps Knoxville plan for decreased damage from increased flooding

By Nancy Henderson

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Underdressed for the cold weather when he arrived at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport in January 2001, Olufemi “Femi” Omitaomu decided to shop for a hoodie – an item of clothing not sold in his native Nigeria – while waiting for his connector flight to Knoxville and his ultimate destination, the University of Tennessee.

Struggling to communicate with the clerks, who couldn’t understand his rudimentary English, he riffled through the racks until he found one in gray with the University of Florida mascot.

“I don’t really like orange,” he recalls. “So, I said, ‘Gray is better.’”

A few days later, Omitaomu walked into the UT student registration office to have a photo made for his ID card before starting as a Ph.D. research associate in the Department of Industrial and Information Engineering. As he removed the winter jacket his advisor had given him, revealing the gray hoodie beneath, the female employees started shrieking and pointing. Finally, one of them exclaimed, “You’re from Florida!”

“No, I’m not from Florida,” said Omitaomu, naïve and puzzled. “I’m from Nigeria.”

After the women jokingly told Omitaomu he’d have to come back another day because of his wardrobe faux pas, he took off the hoodie, and they snapped a picture of him in his shirt. But it wasn’t until he returned to his department and a classmate explained the competitive nature of American college football that he started to understand.

“Even though in college back in Nigeria, we played sports, it wasn’t that kind of rivalry. That was too strong for me,” he says with the warm laugh that punctuates much of his conversation.

“I never wore that hoodie again.”

Now a senior research scientist in the Computational Science and Engineering Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 49-year-old Omitaomu currently relies on big data to solve problems for mid-size cities like Knoxville.

Growing up in a “very inclusive and supportive” extended family in Lagos, the most populated city in tropical Nigeria, his interest in building things was sparked during frequent, after-school visits to the nearby shipbuilding company where his mother managed the cafeteria.

“I came to know some of the technicians and engineers,” Omitaomu recounts. “That kind of fascinated me, so I thought to myself, ‘I would like to become one of them.’”

Inspired by what he’d seen, he began crafting boats from sheets of paper and racing them with his friends in the street after a hard rain. After declaring the winner, they would pick up their makeshift toys downstream and start all over again. “The environment there is very open, so kids play on the street easily, and they spend more time outside the house than inside the house during the day,” Omitaomu says. “So, whenever it rained, we would go out and actually play in the storm water runoff.”

But it wasn’t until his high school class made a field trip to the boat-making facility that he put a name to his boyhood interest in how things work. It was called engineering.

By the time he was ready for his college internship at Lagos State University, the boat factory had closed. So, he interned at Mobil (now Exxon Mobil) where, he explains, “I quickly came to realize that everything engineers depend on is actually driven by data.

Dr. Olufemi (Femi) Omitaomu, senior research scientist and team lead at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

“They have to interpret those data sets and that is what informs what they do next. So that kind of set me on another path.”

After earning his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Lagos, Omitaomu was hired at Mobil, where he met a number of U.S. consultants, including some UT faculty members. Each time he spoke with them, they seemed to validate his conviction that data drives informed decisions. So, in 2001, when UT launched a doctoral program in information engineering, he came to America.

A month after defending his dissertation in January 2006, Omitaomu joined the data mining group in the Advanced Optimization Laboratory at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.

“It was much colder than I actually anticipated,” he adds with a laugh. His Canadian host took one look at his jacket, which was perfectly fine for Tennessee winters, and said, “You will need a new jacket.”

At the store, the clerk asked Omitaomu what grade he was looking for. Negative 40? Or maybe negative 10? It took a moment for Omitaomu to comprehend how cold it was going to be in his new home, but he left the shop with a coat that could withstand the most frigid sub-zero temperatures.

That fall, he was offered a research position at Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Within 30 minutes of wearing the heavy coat he had purchased in Canada, he says, “I was sweating. And then I was like, ‘Oh, this is definitely not for Knoxville.’”

In his first assignment at ORNL, Omitaomu analyzed data in search of a way to detect homemade bombs in 18-wheelers at interstate weigh stations across the country. He and his team developed a computational method that could quickly record the content of a long-haul vehicle even if it wasn’t physically searched or failed to stop at the station.

“Our economy relies on an efficient supply chain system, right? We don’t want to disrupt commerce,” he points out. “So, we want to be able to detect the few [trucks] that might be carrying bad things, but we don’t want to make everybody pay for a lengthy search. So, you call up some information about what the content of the truck may be, and you run it through an algorithm to basically try to see if there is any evidence for you to want to search the truck.

“It was a different kind of terrorism then,” he adds. “You know, 9/11 happened in 2001, and that actually led to some of these things. We have a massive amount of food that comes into the U.S. from other countries, and it is not feasible to search all those cargos. So, we need to be smarter to develop a system that can do an automatic and automated screening.”

In his current role at ORNL, Omitaomu works with the Urban Dynamics Institute and the Climate Change Science Institute to develop new strategies for improving the resiliency of urban systems and infrastructure in the U.S. and ultimately protect cities from catastrophic events, or at least soften the blow.

Dr. Olufemi (Femi) Omitaomu strolls the campus at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

-- Adam Taylor Gash | The Ledger

He recently collaborated with the City of Knoxville to create the interactive Urban Climate Adaptation Tool, which allows planners to test “what-if” scenarios such as temperature changes, population shifts and excessive rainfall and determine ways to avert major problems. The tool is specifically geared toward small to mid-size cities, where, Omitaomu points out, two-thirds of the nation’s people live.

“What we have been doing in the past is developing computational methods to help federal agencies,” he explains. “But these days, we have a new understanding about the communities we live in, because these communities also have challenges. Most of them are small communities, so they don’t have the resources to hire consultants or to get researchers to help them develop solutions that can solve those kinds of problems.”

In particular, Omitaomu hopes the Urban Climate Adaptation tool will help minimize flooding in Knoxville. One solution: Strategically planting trees and other green infrastructure to slow the velocity of storm water runoff.

“Flooding is the costliest hazard all over the world, and it kills more people than most of the major hazards,” he explains. “I was working with the City of Knoxville to look at what is the trend about flooding in the city. What do future projections of climate data tell us about the trend?

“How can the city begin to understand some of the challenges that may come with that, and not only understand those challenges but begin to see how they can develop adaptation strategies?”

The link between this project and his boyhood fascination with the rushing, post-storm waters in his African hometown is not lost on Omitaomu.

“Flooding is just storm water runoff,” he says. “And as cities grow, the amount of our impervious surfaces increases due to construction of roads, buildings and things like that. … What causes this water runoff is that the water doesn’t have anywhere to go. It cannot sink. It cannot go back into the ground. So, it has to flow somewhere. But if we plant more grass, more trees, they can actually help.”

Over the years, Omitaomu has authored or co-authored a number of books, book chapters and articles about technical topics ranging from energy measurement to emergency responses. He has also won numerous honors, including a 2015 ORNL Significant Event Award for his efforts to “virtualize” the nation’s power grid through smart optimization and sensor technologies.

In 2016, he and a colleague, Steven Fernandez, received a patent for a method designed to gauge the impact of power outages and restoration during natural and man-made disasters.

Omitaomu has also been recognized for his leadership in mentoring undergraduate and graduate interns, as well as young scientists with master’s degrees and Ph.Ds. who are embarking on research careers.

“You want to mentor them right from their undergraduate days to kind of show them that you can actually have fun in the sciences, and not only that but begin to let them realize that what they can do actually impacts lives beyond what they think of scientists normally,” he adds.

“I like to show them that the problem is actually not only challenging and demanding, but that it could be fun.”

He is often, though not always, hands-on with his mentees, teaching them new ways to think about data, then encouraging them to come up with their own solutions. In the summer, he takes them on softball outings and trips to the Smokies.

“We use that involvement to bring up new challenges, new problems, and to let them see the environment and think of what could make the environment better,” he says.

Although an early sports injury has sidelined him from playing, he takes great pride in rooting for his sons – one is in college, the other in high school – at their soccer games.

In his down time, he also reads a lot of “nonscientific narration” from other scientists.

When asked, Omitaomu asserts that his strong point as an engineer-scientist is his ability to analyze complex problems, break them down into manageable components and “connect all those dots in a way that you may not naturally think of them.”

What he enjoys most, he says, is the feeling of making a difference, “Whether it’s how to better treat roads when it snows, or how to prepare for or reduce the impact of storm water runoff, or trying to detect illicit materials and cargos,” he says, “you come to realize that doing those things actually has a direct or indirect impact on people’s everyday lives.”