The Evolution of Aria Amirbahman

The opportunity to join a Mitchell Center citizen-science research project allowed the UMaine environmental engineer to grow as a scientist and teacher

By David Sims

Aria Amirbahman is a professor of civil and environmental engineering with specific research interests in aquatic chemistry and contaminant transport.

“I’m an engineer by training so I need a structured, systematic way to approach a problem. The way I look at things, they should fit into patterns and equations. That’s my upbringing,” Amirbahman says matter-of-factly.

Aria Amirbahman
Aria Amirbahman

So, it is not surprising that when he had the opportunity to join ranks with a Mitchell Center project that blended his world of hard physical science with the “softer” social sciences to develop sustainability solutions, it took some time and convincing.

The project in question—a transdisciplinary lake monitoring study involving citizen scientists—not only would push Amirbahman out of his comfort zone but add in the particularly “squishy” discipline of sustainability science.

“Social science, and its key role as an essential ingredient in sustainability science, are anything but what I was trained in, which is why it was a struggle for me and took some time to be convinced,” Amirbahman says. “However, as I attended some of the Mitchell Center seminars and read more about the field of sustainability science, especially as applied to the work of economist and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom, I began to think that it represented a way to marry the biophysical and social sciences.”

More specifically, Amirbahman points to Ostrom’s social-ecological systems framework, which enables interdisciplinary researchers to share a common vocabulary in an effort to craft workable solutions, as one important means of solidifying such a marriage.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Even before his exposure to Ostrom’s work, Amirbahman’s initial conversations with Mitchell Center Director David Hart began to slowly peel back his engineer-entrenched resistance to a landscape with elements that are hard to neatly organize into patterns or string together into equations.

“I had some real difficulty getting my mind around … the nature of the [sustainability] work. The Mitchell Center has helped me understand and appreciate this better, it’s educated me and helped me evolve.”  —Aria Amirbahman

“When the Mitchell Center first started, David and I went back and forth and discussed how sustainability work is nebulous and ‘messy,’ as David puts it,” Amirbahman recalls. “I had some real difficulty getting my mind around that but now that I’m involved I appreciate that messiness and the at-times convoluted nature of the work. The Mitchell Center has helped me understand and appreciate this better, it’s educated me and helped me evolve.”

Indeed, so thorough was the evolution that Amirbahman and colleagues on the lake project gave a Mitchell Center seminar on their work.

A tool borne of a biophysical-social science bond

The joint biophysical-social science water quality project—during its first year of funding in 2015—conducted a focused study of 24 Maine lakes to develop a so-called “Lake Vulnerability Index” that combines both stakeholder engagement parameters and physical indicators.

The Vulnerability Index is meant to be a means of predicting which lakes are more susceptible to deterioration in water quality by, among other things, identifying—through surveys and interviews—the underlying factors that encourage successful collaborations among the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program (VLMP) monitors, homeowners, and lake associations on lake stewardship activities, and using data collected through the study to develop a blueprint of activities that can positively influence stewardship behaviors among the public.

Volunteer monitoring lake
Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program

The project’s initial success led to another round of Mitchell Center funding to continue the effort in 2016.

According to Amirbahman, from the physical science standpoint, the Vulnerability Index being developed will be a predictive tool geared to individual lakes via the biological, chemical, and physical parameters identified–such as levels of phosphorus, chlorophyll and dissolved oxygen, and the shape of the lake basin. And, working with VLMP volunteers and homeowners, team members will thus be able to say, for example, “Your lake is especially vulnerable with respect to land use from the surrounding population, or it’s more vulnerable with respect to climate factors like increasing temperature or frequency of intense storms, etc.”

“At the same time,” Amirbahman adds, “it’s very interesting to incorporate into this mix some social scientific aspects like the level of lake resident involvement. There is a wide range in Maine of lake resident citizen involvement and we can look at that and include it in any Vulnerability Index we develop.”

Active citizen involvement in monitoring the health of their lakes is, in fact, a critical factor for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection when prioritizing remediation efforts for impaired water bodies. Says Amirbahman, “These social scientific factors are key, and this relates to the social-ecological systems framework that Ostrom has proposed, and with which we can actually bring together in a systematic way the physical and social science aspects of this work.”

Firooza Pavri of the University of Southern Maine has led the social science side of the lake monitoring project. A professor of geography in the Geography-Anthropology program and current director of the Muskie School of Public Service at USM, Pavri notes that “one of the most important benefits to the project’s social-ecological systems framework is that findings from such holistic, interdisciplinary approaches can help policymakers develop more sophisticated tools to address complex environmental problems that have multiple drivers.”

firooza pavri
Firooza Pavri

Pavri adds that, with respect to Amirbahman’s personal approach to the project, “When we began the project, we read research on the topic from beyond our own disciplinary perspectives. Ostrom’s work provided us a framework to bring together the physical and social sciences, and for Aria, I believe, Ostrom’s work struck a cord and really brought home the value of such a framework in untangling complex environmental problems. I believe he said as much at the presentation, and coming from a physical scientist, I think it says much about the translatability of Ostrom’s work across disciplinary boundaries.”

Personal and professional evolution

Amirbahman’s embrace of the social science aspects of the lake project, and the still-evolving field of sustainability science, has also influenced other aspects of his work—from looking at engineering problems with an eye on societal relevance to promoting and teaching his own science in more meaningful, accessible ways.

“This work is extremely meaningful for me. My social science/sustainability work makes for a better physical scientist in the sense that problems are now considered in more relevant ways,” Amirbahman says. “It makes you come up with ways to translate your science much better. And if you cannot translate your science for average people, maybe there’s something wrong with your science.” He adds, “In academia, you publish and your paper is often read by just a handful of other people in the field. But if through our science we can make a societal change, even if it’s incremental—a change in attitude or policy—I think that would be a huge contribution.”

What’s more, Amirbahman has seen his new approach impact how he teaches. For example, in the “Pollutant Fate and Transport” class he taught last semester to mostly graduating seniors, half of whom were already employed in the field, he stressed how important it is to get the public engaged in their work in part through the social scientific aspects, which go hand in hand with the kind of environmental work students do.

“The students really appreciate when you bring in not just real-world examples and applications but when you talk about the public and how people perceive your work and how important it is to present your work in such a way that the public can see its potential relevance to their lives and work.”

He adds, “And I think the sustainability issues in particular tend to resonate with them, especially with the younger generation. They are, I think, especially aware of what’s happening around them—issues related to climate, issues related to inequality. And the fact that they’re interested in public perception, public opinion, what can we do to actually change the quality of life for people, they seem especially interested in those aspects. Bringing in these components gets them very interested in ways well beyond the chemical reactions and equations I put up on the board.”

“This work is extremely meaningful for me. The social science/sustainability work makes for a better physical scientist in the sense that problems are now considered in more relevant ways.”

To learn more about the collaborative lake monitoring project, see “Engaging Citizen Scientists to Evaluate the Potential for Water Quality Decline in Maine Lakes: A Social Science-Physical Science Collaboration for Lake Stewardship.”