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Making Waves with Water Security Research

Sayedi believes that education promotes hope. She uses her research to inform others because “the better people understand how things work, the better their actions will be.”

Four-year-old Sara Sayedi sits on her mother’s bedroom floor in Iran, flipping through images of colorful monkeys and frigid arctic landscapes. The world comes alive to her through the villages pictured in National Geographic magazines and the detailed maps in atlases. Her mother helps her sound out unfamiliar words like Antarctica. Decades later, Sayedi’s fascination with the natural world continues to grow as she engages in environmental conservation work through research that impacts policymaking.

Sayedi earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental sciences at the Isfahan University of Technology. She went on to earn her master’s degree in environmental management from the University of Tehran, researching water security and ecosystem services. While studying, she noticed several problems with environmental policymaking in her native country. Iran frequently deals with shortages and droughts. According to Sayedi, most people in Iran think these water shortages directly correlate with the amount of rainfall; they aren’t aware of how much the government controls the supply. Many government decisions in Iran are not based in science, often causing farmers to lose their jobs because of water scarcity.

“When I was doing my master’s, I realized that for years scientists had already known about a lot of the problems we had in our country,” Sayedi says. But a general lack of understanding of water systems kept many people from making a change. “Why didn’t we use the science at the right time to prevent those problems from happening?” she asks.

Portrait of Sara Sayedi in her Office

MAKING A MOVE

As she continued her research in Iran, Sayedi learned how gaining a greater understanding of science and policies could significantly impact individual lives. She could not ignore the problems in her community and her chance to make a difference. “That was something I became really passionate about, to make sure that the science is used at the right time by policy and decision makers in order to make a difference in people’s lives before it’s too late,” she says.

After learning about BYU plant and wildlife sciences professor Ben Abbott’s hydro science project, Sayedi moved from Iran to Provo to work on her PhD. She currently works with Abbott conducting expert assessments on permafrost carbon emissions, wildfires, and water security. After the assessment, they provide policy-relevant science to decision makers. “We try to be sure the latest science is usable for decision makers and policymakers,” she says.

RESEARCH WITH AN IMPACT

Carbon emissions. According to Sayedi, there is still some uncertainty around the carbon emissions of permafrost and the role humans play in the carbon feedback. The effects of subsea permafrost thawing are sometimes exaggerated to deemphasize the role humans play in slowing carbon emissions. Sayedi and Abbott worked with twenty-five permafrost experts across the globe to gather information on carbon emission speeds and the permafrost’s sensitivity to climate change. Her permafrost research ensures that “both the public and the policy makers have the best understanding of the feedback from the earth systems.” Sayedi and Abbott’s finished study is published online.

Wildfires. Sayedi and Abbott asked ninety-eight experts from twenty-three countries about their expectations surrounding fire issues in their biome of expertise. The study examines the patterns in which fires naturally occur in certain areas, also known as fire regimes. Through their research, Abbott and Sayedi search for answers about whether fire regimes can change, how frequent and intense they are becoming, how sensitive they are to climate change scenarios, and what role humans play in them. Their research gathers quantitative data, which is much needed because of an international focus on qualitative fire regime data. Sayedi says that so far, “fire experts believe that in most regions, more greenhouse gas emissions will increase the risk of fire regime changes. These new fire regimes will have a negative impact on biodiversity and other ecosystem services. According to the experts of [their] study, reducing greenhouse gas emissions seems to be the most important step for decreasing the negative risk of fire regime changes.” This research will help policy makers and forest managers make educated decisions when planning for future wildfires.

Water security. Sayedi has started a literature review examining how climate change will affect water security and shortages on a global scale. She looks at massive water projects around the world that have failed, and she applies that knowledge to other water supply management strategies. Sayedi examines the negative environmental effects these water management strategies can have. This hydrology-focused study resonates the most with Sayedi because of the issues she has witnessed in both Iran and the United States. “They’re all super important topics, but this is the one I can connect with the most because this water security problem is what I grew up with,” she says. All three of Sayedi’s projects are interconnected, because lowering greenhouse gas emissions will help decrease the severity of wildfires and promote better water security.

Sara Sayedi Researching on a Computer

SMALL CHANGES ON A LARGE SCALE

Sayedi hopes her research will have a global impact. “What I love about environmental science is how much it affects people and how much of a role it plays in our daily lives,” she says. She wants to promote understanding of science so people can change their lifestyles for the better. Anything individuals do to protect the environment has an impact on a large scale, from minimizing an individual’s carbon footprint to voting for relevant policies. Above all, Sayedi believes that education promotes hope. She uses her research to inform others because “the better people understand how things work, the better their actions will be.”