Meet the Fellows

Twelve students have been selected to receive the NAF-Fulbright award for the 2022-23 school year, for study and research in a variety of topics, from water management to pediatric cancer to filmmaking. This year, the NAF will showcase an interview with each student in our monthly newsletter.

Meet Noelani Villa, who is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of New Mexico in Water Resources Engineering and is spending the 2022-23 academic year in a research project at TU Delft. She received her Bachelor's degree from Northwest Indian College in Native Environmental Science and her Master's degree from the University of New Mexico in Water Resources.

Thank you to Dr. Raha Hakimdavar for conducting this interview. Dr. Hakimdavar is the Director of Space Sciences at Ball Aerospace, where she develops business strategy and leads engagements with the government and broader space sciences community. She also serves as an adjunct professor in water and climate science at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Her areas of expertise include hydrology, hydro-ecology, and space sciences and applications. She received the NAF-Fulbright Fellowship in Flood Management in 2013.

Dr. Raha Hakimdavar

NAF-Fulbright Fellow in Flood Management, 2013-14

Noelani Villa

NAF-Fulbright Fellow in Flood Management, 2022-23

Dr. Raha Hakimdavar (RH): Tell me about your background and what you will be doing on Fulbright.

Noelani Villa (NV): I’m a 3rd year Phd student at the University of New Mexico but my research site is located in Washington state. I look at tidal marsh restoration, and specifically in Washington this plays a role in both flood protection and salmon habitat. I’m here at Delft learning about hydrodynamic modeling using Delft 3D, which is a well-known tool. That was my primary motivation for applying for this particular Fulbright.

The Delft 3D model is an ocean dynamics model. I got interested in the model when I was modeling flood plains, because it does really well with 2-dimensional dynamics. Years ago, I was part of the beta testing team for Delft 3D. One of the nice things about it is that the code is open source, so it’s available for anyone to use. The amount of expertise that goes into maintaining it is unique, because there are other models that do similar things, but there’s a whole team at Deltares that maintains and constantly updates this particular model. It’s known as the standard for coastal dynamics modeling.

I did my undergrad at Northwest Indian College, a tribal college located in Bellingham, Washington. After that I ended up doing a master’s in New Mexico which is where I met my current advisor. I then went back to Washington state where I worked for the United States Environmental Protection Agency at their Region 10 office in Seattle. I’m not from Washington, but that’s where I call home.

RH: Our backgrounds are similar. I was the 2013/14 water management fellow, also as a 3rd year PhD student. I was doing a lot of research on hydroecology.

How did you end up developing an interest in water?

NV: I was always interested in flood risk-related work. I remember visiting family and seeing the flood risk dams that were built on tribal lands, but they weren’t well-maintained. I remember stories of large portions of reservations being taken to build flood risk dams and so that got me interested in knowing who is in charge of maintaining these, and what purposes they serve. Spending time in Washington state, I learned a lot about the reciprocal relation that we have with land and water. That got me into the restoration part of the work that I do now. I learned from the Lummi people, which is where Northwest Indian College is located, and learned the vital role that salmon plays in survival- both literally and culturally, and all of this put me in my current path.

RH: Have you noticed any similarities or differences in the way that water is viewed as a cultural commodity or entity in your experience in the US as opposed to your experience now in the Netherlands?

NV: Yes, I’m reminded of the saying that captures this really well: “God created the earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands.” This really encapsulates the Dutch relationship with water and engineering. It’s something that they maintain and control and engineer. Where I’m from in Washington state, all of the tribes have ‘-mish’ at end of their names, which means ‘survivors of the great flood.’ There’s a flood story that goes along with this. It’s never about engineering their way out of floods, but it’s something they live with and part of their identities and who they are.

RH: I started out with my first degree in civil engineering and my PhD was more on the science side. When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, this was an unprecedented event for the city. There were discussions about building more with nature than against it and giving land back to nature. This would require making some very difficult decisions on where and how we live. Many classically trained engineers believe you must build to manage these hazards rather than learn to adapt with them.

Have you learned anything about building with nature? Is a cultural shift going on in the mindset of engineering and science in the Netherlands?

NV: I’m familiar with building with nature initiatives, but that’s a hard question. Is what’s going on a cultural shift, or is it a way to make amends for past mistakes? Some of the works that I’ve seen, like beach nourishment, are more about maintaining what we have in an ethical way as opposed to truly giving land back to nature.

RH: Have you noticed differences in the PhD student experiences in the Netherlands versus in the US?

NV: Yes, they’re very different. In the Netherlands, PhD students are treated more like employees while in the US, they are seen as graduate students. For my own program in the US, it’s more about becoming an independent thinker and having more time to explore questions. But, PhD students in the Netherlands do not take courses and seem more efficient with their time, in true Dutch fashion. All the Dutch students I’ve interacted with are very productive and high-producing in their research.

RH: Something I also noticed were differences in funding structure for PhD students. It’s one area where we can perhaps learn from universities in Europe. Funding is always a challenge; it was liberating in a way to be considered an employee rather than a student, but with that comes more structure and narrow scope on research topics.

Do you see any other areas where the US can learn, from what you’ve noticed in the Netherlands?

NV: I’ve noticed that the PhD process is very straightforward in the Netherlands. Once you begin the program, there are less opportunities for you to have pitfalls. In the US, it’s partially structured for you to jump through hoops, such as taking a qualifying exam and comprehensive exam before you can be declared a candidate.

In the Netherlands, they have ‘go/no go’ meetings within the first year to understand if the candidates will pursue their PhD through the end. Their relationships with supervisors are also different, it’s more like two peers working on a project together rather than a supervisor and a student. I don’t prefer one format over the other, but they’re both positive things to see.


RH: Has anything surprised you about your experience thus far?

NV: The bikes- but everyone is probably surprised by this. At first I was shocked by the bike culture and felt that I couldn’t navigate it, even as a walker. I now have a bike, but I would never do this in Seattle, it would not be safe. The train systems and public transportation have also been great. Everyone is friendly, and it helps that most people speak English as I’m having difficulties learning Dutch. I’m also surprised by the amount of diversity. I’ve enjoyed learning about older Dutch history and the concept of polder. I’m still getting to know a lot of the Netherlands.

RH: It moves quickly especially after getting your research up to speed. Have you been able to explore the Netherlands?

NV: I went to Middelburg to see the Oosterscheldekering (storm barrier). I also went to the Open Air Museum in Arnhem, which has been my favorite trip so far.

RH: How will this experience help you in your future?

NV: First, the technical skills that I’m building up, as the Dutch are world leaders in water resource engineering. As someone who has lived in the US and traveled here and there, this experience has opened and expanded my worldview. As a person of color in the US, it’s easy to say we have so many problems and the rest of the world has to watch us be ‘messy.’ But coming to a more homogenous country, it’s given me a new appreciation for the US and its diversity and the amount of representation in the US.

RH: Now for rapid fire questions!

Favorite food in the Netherlands? Bitterballen.

Favorite drink (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) in the Netherlands? Texel’s beer.

Favorite thing to do on a Sunday? Go to Scheveningen.

Favorite word/phrase in Dutch? Lekker.

Thing you miss most from the US? The mountains and nature.

The food you miss the most from the US? Smoked salmon- I haven’t found it smoked yet here.

Funniest cultural experience so far? I saw someone riding their bike without hands eating yogurt, I was very impressed by that!

Biggest culture shock? Everyone says this, but the Dutch directness. I’ve learned that people are being very efficient when speaking with you.

Favorite museum? That’s hard- it’s between the Open Air Museum or the Rijksmuseum.

What experience do you need to have before you leave? There’s a 'Dutch Disneyland,' Efteling, that I would love to go to.

Finally, what are the top 3 things you need to get started as NAF flood management fellow? Open a bank account because you will need your Dutch IBAN number for everything. Make sure your housing is squared away before arriving, and spend time thinking about where you want to live. Get a personal OV-chipkaart and don’t waste your money paying per trip, and be sure to add a train pass on there.