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Thanos Papanicolaou

Civil & Environmental Engineering, UTK


Growing up on my family’s farm in the “Midwest” of Greece, I was exposed to the diverse landscapes of my homeland from the mountains and gravel bed rivers to the fertile valleys and the sea coast.  I also witnessed first-hand the different interactions that we humans have with our environment to sustain our livelihood.  These many sights and experiences have shaped who I am as both a researcher and a teacher.

As a start, I received my Diploma in Engineering (a five year degree) in 1990 from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.  I then made the long journey to the US, where I obtained my M.Sc. (1993) and Ph.D. (1997) degrees from Virginia Tech.  My Ph.D. research, which was entitled “The role of turbulence on the initiation of sediment motion” shed light on the incipient motion of sediment particles.

After Virginia Tech, I received my first faculty appointment with the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Washington State University.  There, I was able to expand from my core research in the fundamentals of flow and sediment transport to topics covering landscape processes, hydraulic infrastructure, and advanced instrumentation. 

In 2003, I moved to the University of Iowa and IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering, where I continued to investigate a wide range of hydraulic and environmental issues.  Since 2014, I hold the Henry Goodrich Endowed Chair of Excellence in Civil & Environmental Engineering here at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. 


One aspect of my current research relates to gravel-bed rivers and the interactions between flow, the transported sediment, and stream bed morphology.   My team and I are conducting flow measurements using state-of-the-art technology like Particle Image and Laser Doppler Velocimetry to monitor these interactions.  Additionally, we are pioneering the use radio frequency ID tracer particles to monitor the sediment movement. 

The goal of this research is to understand better sediment transport processes in mountain streams with large boulders, as well in rivers and waterways where structures are present.  To conduct this work, I have received funding from the USBR, USACE, TVA, state/ federal DOTs, and NSF.  This work has led to exciting studies in such faraway places as Chile and Italy.

On the other end of my research spectrum, a portion of my team’s research for the last 15 years has examined watershed processes in intensively managed landscapes focusing on the interplay between key driving factors of erosion, including climate, topography, soil biogeochemistry, and land management.  We look how climate and anthropogenic activities have affected land productivity, as well as how human actions have affected water, food, and energy supplies over the years.  Recently, as co-director of the IML-CZO, a National Science Foundation Critical Zone Observatory in Intensively Managed Landscapes, I have been able to study the upland-stream corridor connectivity and event based dynamics.  I am also directing an Initiative for Food Water and Energy (IFWE) as an Organized Research Unit on campus.  To study the watershed processes, we use a plethora of state-of-the-art instruments and techniques including stable and radio-isotopes, near-infrared lasers, physically-based and neural network computer simulation models, as well as fractals and Bayesian statistics.  This work will lead to better models for studying the sustainability of our natural capital in light of significant increases in human capital and natural disasters.  We are using distributed watershed runoff/ erosion and in-stream modeling to help couple those fundamental processes that we observe in the field and lab to better understand Mother Nature as a whole.  This work is funded by USDA, USGS, NSF, and the Leopold Center of Sustainable Agricultural. 

Finally, over the last five years, we have applied this knowledge to study carbon dynamics in agricultural soils and the soil-plant system (or biosphere) in order to differentiate and quantify sources and sinks of carbon, through our involvement with the USDA, NASA and most recently the Department of Energy.  These studies examine the mobilization of soil organic matter and soil aggregates due to erosion, as well as vertical fluxes of NEE.  This work has been done in parts of the Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.


Over my tenure, I have published more than 85 peer-reviewed articles in over 40 different science and engineering journals, as well as over 400 reports and conference proceedings.  Additionally, I have taught several undergraduate and graduate level courses on soil mechanics, fluid mechanics, river mechanics, alluvial channel hydraulics, open channel flow, fate and transport of contaminated sediment, watershed and sedimentation dynamics.  

Finally, I have been deeply honored to receive from ASCE both the Walter Huber and Hunter Rouse awards.  I have also been inducted to the Iowa Academy of Science.  But my greatest achievements are my students who have gone on to receive faculty positions, as well as work in governmental agencies and consulting firms, both here and overseas.


PhD, Civil and Environmental Eng., Virginia Tech (VPI&SU), Blacksburg, VA 1997

MS, Civil and Environmental Eng., Virginia Tech (VPI&SU), Blacksburg, VA 1993

BS, Civil Engineering, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, 1990

Professional Service

  • Director, Tennessee Water Resources Research Center
  • Director, Hydraulics & Sedimentation Lab
  • Co-Director, Intensively Managed landscapes Critical Zone Observatory
  • Member, National Task Hypoxia Committee in the Gulf of Mexico
  • Chief Editor of the Journal of Hydraulic Engineering, ASCE

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