Meet the SNREds: Maryam Arbabzadeh

Meet Maryam Arbabzadeh: Ph.D. Candidate, Natural Resources and the Environment, Predoctoral Fellowship, expected 2018

Fields of Study: Sustainability, Energy Storage

Maryam was studying electrical engineering at home in Iran when she got the itch. Many of her classmates were applying to big universities abroad, mostly in the U.S. and Canada. They were looking for top programs to get them good jobs. Maryam was looking for much of the same, but she had a deeper personal motivation: “For me, I wanted to experience something new. I was living with my parents and I wanted to experience independence. I looked at grad school as an adventure.”

She got it, and a fantastic education to boot.

“I had an uncle in Buffalo, and my parents felt more comfortable knowing I had family nearby, so I ended up at the University of Buffalo for my Master’s in Electrical Engineering,” she says. She finally took the leap she was hoping for when she came to Michigan for her doctoral studies in sustainability at the School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

She explains why: “When I studied electrical engineering in my Master’s program, I took courses in sustainability and learned that engineers often had a lot of negative impact on environment. I felt deeply that this trend needs to be stopped. I came to the U.S. for engineering with the hope of changing later. When I was choosing programs, I learned some programs across the U.S. have a reputation as strong interdisciplinary programs. To be good at sustainability, you need to be interdisciplinary. U-M offered that.”

Her electrical engineering background involved mainly working on renewable energy applications, primarily wind energy, from technical points of view. “For my Ph.D.,” she says, “now I’m focused on the environmental and economic aspects more than anything, and soon will start to look at the usage of this technology in less developed countries, possibly collaborating with a social scientist as well.”

Maryam’s dissertation research focuses on energy storage technology. She explains, “With renewable energy storage systems, there are certainly issues that involve cost and inefficiency. But if you store energy in some kind of battery or other storage technologies, we forget often the environmental issues related to them. Batteries often use scarce materials and require special care at their end of life. Few people think about these impacts; often they focus on cost without thinking about the environmental harms they could have. Energy issues and environmental issues connect, and I’m working on a framework for utilities or energy storage designers to think about these issues.”

Her research has gained traction. Her publication, 12 Principles for Green Energy Storage Systems, was written to be informative for policy makers and designers at the same time. She says, “I want to target different audiences and have broad appeal.”

While Maryam really enjoys her program, she says, “Coming from an engineering background, courses in SNRE were a big challenge. I was experienced in quantitative analysis, but in SNRE, it was more about discussion and qualitative research. Also, as international student, language can be a barrier to participating. I’ve learned through time how to view things through a qualitative lens.”

She was a Dow Sustainability Fellow last year and really enjoyed the monthly seminars for the fellows. “We all were from very different backgrounds. We would present our work, and I got used to being able to listen to different research from different backgrounds and disciplines. It became easy to ask questions and be involved in discussions.”

In addition to the wonderful honor of being a Dow Fellow, this year Maryam had to choose between receiving a Barbour Scholarship or a Predoctoral Fellowship, both significant awards for Ph.D. candidates. This speaks to the quality and caliber of her scholarship and the vast potential she holds. She comments, “Thanks to great funding, I have the flexibility to see what I want to do next. I really want to go back home. In Iran, they would need me and my environmental background because the country is in a critical situation in terms of pollution and energy issues. There will be real potential for increasing renewable energy.”

She’d like to build some experience in the U.S. first. She explains, “Looking at how these technologies apply in less developed communities is a future job I see myself involved in. That’s why working with a non-profit is interesting to me. Sustainable development involves communities; if you want to build a wind turbine, there are a lot of different challenges to overcome. For a developing community that doesn’t have electrification but has a lot of sun, building those kinds of technologies would be very beneficial. When I go home and want to search for jobs, I can say I have that kind of background.”

Maryam is not all work and no play. She says, “I like the Ph.D. life. I have flexibility of balancing life and research, and it is very important to have your own time to manage.” An avid swimmer, Maryam is learning to play the sitar in her spare time. She is also the Vice President for the Iranian grad student organization and coordinates social events for the 150+ Iranian students on campus. A big city person, she finds Ann Arbor satisfying: “I like Ann Arbor and the events, theaters, UMS programs and cafes and bookstores. My friends and I meet for reading groups as well. We read and discuss philosophy and history.”

This story was originally published on the Rackham Graduate School's Student Spotlight.