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Environment Studies: Researching Energy Poverty with Maryam Rezaei

Given the wide meaning of “environment” and “sustainability,” I wanted to take a post to profile the work of friends and fellow students also committed to sustainability. Here, I’d like to introduce Maryam Rezaei, a good friend of mine and a PhD student in Resource Management and Environment Studies at UBC.

A chemical engineer by training, Maryam’s background previous to UBC  was largely technical. She had worked at a research center for a petrochemical company and also as the research coordinator for a laboratory, running experimental projects and developing technologies. While a natural at the work, the applications were often narrowly focused on technological “fixes,” without incorporating larger social and political analyses into the solution.

For a “big picture” thinker, the work was unsatisfying.  Maryam sought to broaden herself from that background, taking particular inspiration from a previous undergraduate course on energy and environmental systems analysis. It had been taught by Dr. David Keith, then a professor at the University of Calgary (now a Professor of Applied Physics and Public Policy at Harvard University), and a leading environmental scientist. The course had also been one of the most inspiring of her degree, pushing Maryam to think of new ideas and possibilities for her skills in the world—and prompting a change in career direction.

“I realized that what I wanted to do and the changes I wanted to see [in the world] weren’t related to technical capacity, but policy issues,” she says. “That’s what I wanted to learn more about.”

Looking around at sustainability-related graduate programs, Maryam eventually chose IRES, both for its interdisciplinary problem-solving focus to research, and for the opportunity to work with her current graduate supervisor – Dr. Hadi Dowlatabadi, himself a Canada Research Chair and Professor in Applied Mathematics and Global Change.

Today, Maryam is a student in the field of energy poverty, a relatively new field in North America. Generally speaking, energy poverty refers to a situation where an individual or community has difficulties meeting their energy needs. While energy poverty is often associated to developing countries, where people may spend long hours, for example, collecting firewood for fuel purposes,  it also exists in what are often considered much more affluent nations, such as Canada or the United States.

In this context, Maryam explains, energy poverty can be a factor in cities at the household level, but also for entire communities.  Such is the case for many remote communities—many of them First Nations—which are not a part of the electrical grid and must secure alternative sources of energy. Given current environmental debates around carbon taxation and the increasing cost of energy, looking at potential impacts on these households and communities—as well as the best ways to provide affordable, clean energy to them—is a need.

It’s been a boon to be able to use her previous knowledge in fuel and energy applications to work on this “real-world” issue as part of her academic degree. “I love it,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I would love it, but I do.”

Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.

Posted on: March 20, 2012, 6:00 am Category: The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , , , ,

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