UCR researcher wins biggest prize in agricultural science

Author: Jules Bernstein
February 10, 2023

Rien van Genuchten
Rien van Genuchten
2023 Wolf Prize winner.

Rien van Genuchten, a former UCR soil scientist now semi-retired, has been awarded the 2023 Wolf Prize in Agriculture, considered by many to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for the field.
During his 40-year career, van Genuchten’s contributions to soil physics transformed the field. A big area of focus for him lies in the vadose zone, the unsaturated portion of earth that lies just above the groundwater table. 

Understanding the movement of water in the vadose zone is important to agriculture, contaminant transport, and flood control. It is intensively used for the cultivation of plants, construction of buildings, the disposal of waste, and in determining the amount and quality of groundwater available for human use. 

“Contemporary vadose zone hydrology is unthinkable without his many contributions, which established links between agriculture, soil science, geology, environmental sciences, and civil engineering,” according to the Wolf Foundation, which awards the prize.

Van Genuchten was hired by UCR as a research scientist in 1978, and served as adjunct professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences between 1987 and 2005. He continues to collaborate with faculty in the department, who are thrilled with his recognition. 

Jiri Simunek has collaborated with van Genuchten for the past 30 years, developing some of the most widely used numerical models in subsurface hydrology.

“Rien has been a tremendous mentor, partner, and friend not only to me, but also to large numbers of scientists globally,” Simunek said. “Especially remarkable is his support of scientists from non-western countries which were not free, or had just started opening their borders. He invited young scientists from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and Iran, and in doing so, he provided new opportunities that were otherwise not available to them at the time.”

The Wolf Prize, established in 1978, is awarded in six fields: agriculture, chemistry, math, medicine, physics, and the arts. Each prize consists of a diploma and $100,000. It is considered the most prestigious prize in physics and chemistry after the Nobel and has gained a reputation for identifying future winners of the Nobel. 

In announcing the award to members of his research group, Simunek noted that the last two recipients of the prize for arts are Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney. “Now, Rien is our own soil physics Beatle!” he joked. 

Joking aside, van Genuchten’s colleague Hoori Ajami, associate professor of groundwater hydrology, said, “He is one of the most influential soil scientists of our time. His contributions to our field have revolutionized the models we use to predict the flow of subsurface water and contaminants.”