The St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL) is excited to introduce our most recent affiliated SAFL faculty, Dr. Ardeshir Ebtehaj, Assistant Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering.
When he was younger, pursuing an engineering degree was almost a forgone conclusion for Ebtehaj. Growing up in Iran, his parents, particularly his father, were instrumental in encouraging him to pursue his education to the fullest extent possible. “I could be a civil engineer or a doctor. There were no other professions worth considering,” he remembered with a smile, “I chose engineering.”
Ebtehaj attended the Iran University of Science and Technology for his Bachelors degree in Civil Engineering. While in school, he worked several jobs in construction and quickly realized that he was more interested in continuing his education than working such jobs. He enrolled in a masters program at the Iran University of Science and Technology in Environmental Engineering.
It was upon completing his Environmental Engineering degree in 2001 where Ebtehaj had to decide what direction he wanted to take his career. “Originally, I wanted to continue my education by pursuing my PhD in either Europe or the United States,” he said. Yet, at the urging of one of his co-advisors, who had a large family consulting business and ties to one of the largest civil engineering projects in Iran, Ebtehaj decided to take a break from academia and became a consultant for Consulting Engineers. “They had a very attractive, challenging project for me, the money was good, life was good, and over the next few years, I just forgot about school.”
But after 5 years, Ebtehaj started to yearn for the academic environment again. He returned to the Iran University of Science and Technology for another masters degree, this time in Earthquake Engineering, and then decided that it was time to make the jump to pursuing his PhD abroad. He found an opportunity to come to the US. “I essentially turned the direction of my life in one night. When I love something, I’m willing to pay the price for it. I had a contract on my desk for a new project in Iran, and I couldn’t sign it. I could begin my own company with that contract. I knew by going abroad, I was going to have to start over, but I was young, and I knew I could build my life back up again. “
Ebtehaj came to the University of Minnesota in 2008 as a PhD student, working with Dr. Efi Foufoula-Georgiou in the Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering Department (Dr. Foufoula-Georgiou is now Professor Emeritus). His research focused on a field called hydrometeorology, which studies the transfer of water and energy between the land surface and the lower atmosphere. With the emergence of new spaceborne and ground-based sources of remote sensing, the ability to estimate water fluxes across land and atmosphere from space has greatly improved. Ebtehaj’s work specifically looked to address common issues of downscaling, data fusion, and data assimilation of satellite data into weather and land models, looking to improve model forecasting abilities.
Etbehaj flourished at SAFL and the University of Minnesota. In 2012 alone, he was awarded a NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship, a Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship from the University of Minnesota, as well as SAFL’s own Edward Silberman Fellowship. Aside from his PhD research, Ebtehaj also decided to pursue a masters degree in Mathematics. “I delight in challenging myself as fully as possible, and I can tell you for sure that being in Minnesota, studying at the SAFL and UMN, with the group and people I was with, it was the best time of my life.” he said.
Upon completion of his PhD and masters in 2013, Dr. Ebtehaj took a postdoctoral position at the Georgia Institute of Technology, working with world-renown Dr. Rafael Bras. During his postdoc, he developed a new algorithm for passive microwave remote sensing of precipitation using the data from the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) project. The GPM project, run by NASA with collaboration from other international space agencies, is a satellite mission to provide frequent (2-3 hour) observations of global precipitation.
After 2 years in Georgia, Etebhaj accepted an Assistant Professor of Engineering position at Utah State University. Then, in 2016, he saw a faculty position open in his former department at the University of Minnesota and immediately applied. “At the time, I told one of my friends, even if I could get a job at Harvard or MIT, I would chose the University of Minnesota over anything else,” he said. And when Joe Labuz, the head of the UMN Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering Department, called to offer Ebtehaj the job, Ebtehaj said “…the skies opened and it felt that everything I had worked for had come to fruition.”
Coming back to the University of Minnesota and SAFL has felt like coming home for Etebhaj and it has inspired him to hit the ground running in his work. One of his current research projects looks to understand evapotranspiration fluxes around wind turbines and complex roughness features. As wind energy continues to develop as a resource, Ebtehaj recognizes the need to think about both short and long term impacts of turbine infrastructure and operation, hoping to examine processes that may lead to unintended consequences down the road. As many wind farms are located in/around irrigated agricultural fields, it is important to understand how turbulence generated by wind turbines influences evapotranspiration. Using SAFL’s atmospheric boundary layer wind tunnel, Dr. Ebtehaj will measure moisture fluxes using miniaturized wind turbines placed on a soil box that is fully monitored by a distributed array of moisture and heat sensors. Outcomes of such research could look to improve water agricultural water conservation and increase sustainability of wind power generation and crop production.
Ebtehaj also continues his research in hydrometeorology to better understand interactions of precipitation, snow cover, and soil moisture dynamics. The goal is to develop science and engineering tools to mitigate environmental hazards and increase sustainability at the intersection of water, food and energy.
“SAFL and the University of Minnesota is my favorite place on earth, and I am so excited for the opportunities here….even with the winters and snow!” he mused.