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Influencing Environmental Change from Iran to Utah

Plant & Wildlife Sciences Featured Grad Student

Sara Sayedi, a PhD student in the Plant and Wildlife Sciences Department, moved from Iran to Utah with the determination to influence environmental policy change.
Photo by Lance Good

As an undergraduate and master’s student in her home country of Iran, Sara Sayedi wanted to use science to change public policy. But, Iran’s political climate, offered her limited resources and opportunities to enter the public policy arena. After learning about Brigham Young University and the available research opportunities, Sayedi saw a new possibility to influence environmental change.

Earning one of five places awarded each year in the BYU Graduate School’s prestigious High Impact Doctoral Research Assistant (HIDRA) program, Sayedi left her friends and family in Iran and traveled to Utah in September 2018.

As a PhD student in BYU’s Plant and Wildlife Sciences Department, Sayedi’s research is not confined to a lab. She seeks her data on a global scale, making important connections with scientists around the world.

“The main goal of my research is improving the connection between scientists, policymakers, and the public,” Sayedi says. “We are then translating the complex science into a more simple language for these groups.”

Motivated by the difficulty of simplifying scientific data, Sayedi is seeking to synthesize existing research on the impacts of three environmental phenomena: subsea permafrost, wildfires, and water security.

For the past year, Sayedi has been focusing her research on subsea permafrost, a form of permafrost existing beneath the seabed in arctic regions. Concern arises as the permafrost begins to melt, releasing toxic gases, such as methane gas, into the atmosphere. Not only is the methane gas harmful to people, but it contributes to climate warming, potentially leading to further permafrost collapse and increased climate warming. Climate warming impacts everything from energy creation to water availability; it effects global livelihood. Therefore, it is imperative that solutions are put in place to protect the environment and those of us who are reliant upon it.

Synthesizing data on specialized topics such as subsea permafrost, requires substantial knowledge of the natural sciences as well as the complexities of human society. Sayedi has had to learn how to express herself clearly and persuasively to other scientists and policymakers, an even greater challenge when English is not her first language. However, she has never backed down when met with uncertainty or potential roadblocks.

Sayedi’s project has been met with opposition along the way. In December 2018, Sayedi presented her project at the Permafrost Carbon Network workshop in San Francisco. Presenting to over 200 attendees, she was able to explain her subsea permafrost project clearly, finishing with an invitation for researchers to collaborate. Her invitation was met with animosity from a Swedish research group who claimed that Sayedi’s research was counterproductive and potentially dangerous. Sayedi did not allow this backlash to faze her, and she gave a composed response. Although this group continued to oppose her and encouraged others to do the same, Sayedi was able to form a group of top subsea permafrost researchers and has submitted her manuscript to Nature Climate Change.

This persistence in the face of opposition is something that Sayedi’s instructors, mentors, and peers admire about her. Speaking to Sayedi’s achievements, her program advisor, Dr. Benjamin Abbott, associate professor in the Plant and Wildlife Sciences Department in the College of Life Sciences, is impressed by her resilience and commitment to her work.

“Sara is an exceptional student, an independent and self-motivated worker, and shows extraordinary integrity and kindness in all that she does,” Abbott says. “I deeply believe that investing in Sara is investing in a better future.”