Dr. Garabet Kazanjian: Recognized Expert at the Acopian Center for the Environment5 min read
Since 2020, Dr. Garabet Kazanjian has been a recognized expert at the American University of Armenia’s (AUA) Acopian Center for the Environment. Prior to joining AUA, he spent five years working at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, Germany. He holds an M.Sc. in marine biology from the American University of Beirut (2012) and a Ph.D. in limnology from the Humboldt University of Berlin (2019). Alongside teaching Introduction to Environmental Sciences, Environmental Monitoring, and Water at AUA, Dr. Kazanjian is passionate about environmental advocacy and research. In our conversation with him, we learned more about his journey to AUA, the most pressing environmental issues facing Armenia today, and other interesting facts.
What drew you into the field of marine biology and limnology?
Throughout my bachelor’s studies in biology, I realized that I liked two different fields of biology: genetics and ecology. In the end, I chose ecology because I didn’t want to work in a lab pipetting and doing PCR all day. I’m an outdoorsy person, and I figured that with ecology I would be working outside, in nature. I do a lot of cycling and hiking, so ecology really fits my profile. Why marine biology? I had a good relationship with my teacher in that course and I did an internship with him during the summer before starting graduate studies, and I really liked the research he was doing. During my master’s, I also worked a few years for different NGOs: I was an Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace, which opened my horizons to the interconnectedness of the whole system: climate change, anthropogenic impacts, and so on. For Ph.D. studies, I was looking for something more interdisciplinary and eventually moved to Berlin, not a coastal city, where I chose to study limnology, that is freshwater ecology. The focus of my work there was the impact of climate change on lakes and carbon cycling in aquatic systems. My Ph.D. dissertation dealt with multiple questions of carbon emission and storage in the context of climate change.
Tell us about your experience working at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) in Berlin. How did this influence or complement your Ph.D. studies?
It was a great experience, because they’re at the cutting edge of limnological research, especially with regards to water quality and impact on climate change. It was also highly beneficial for me, because the people who worked there were very well-connected. The world of limnology is not so big, so you get to know nearly all the big players and researchers within a few years. IGB gave me the opportunity to establish contact and collaborative relationships with many researchers in the United States, Canada, and different countries in Europe. That’s quite important if you want to collaborate and work on big global issues.
What drew you to Armenia and AUA specifically?
I was in Armenia on vacation for Christmas/New Year in 2019-2020. I reached out to the Acopian Center for the Environment (ACE), because I had found out a few months earlier that they have a project in collaboration with IGB, where I was working. I met the director of the Center, Alen Amirkhanian, and he told me about issues with freshwater in Armenia, particularly with the water quality of Lake Sevan in relation to algae blooms. That piqued my interest. I knew Lake Sevan would be a highly interesting ecosystem to study with its unique components and environmental consequences. Another and the most important factor that attracted me to AUA was the potential to have impact and experience real change. Whereas in Germany, I was engaged in interesting high-quality research, published and cited, I could not see the evidence of my impact beyond academia. Here, in Armenia, I see change. After two years of working here, I have had a much greater impact engaging stakeholders and policymakers in significant issues of conservation and finding solutions that benefit the environment and the people who depend on it.
In what types of conservation or environmental advocacy are you currently involved?
Not so much advocacy at this point, but more involved in national discussions on water management in the country. That’s a big issue, for which we lack oversight and a long-term vision of how we want to use our resources. I’m also involved in many national-level projects dealing with Lake Sevan.
What do you think are the most pressing environmental concerns facing Armenia today?
Not being impartial towards this topic, I would say water. I think Armenia is facing many of the same problems the whole world is facing. There are big issues with habitat destruction, climate change, and overuse of some resources in Armenia, which leads to, in some cases, ecological imbalance and potential collapse. With regards to water resources, though Armenia is not one of the most water-rich countries in the world, the quantities we have should be more than enough. Case in point, during Soviet times, Armenia irrigated almost double the area of cropland it does now. Now that we irrigate half as much, we still have water shortages in the summer mostly caused by mismanagement and crumbling infrastructure. There are many leakages and losses in the water distribution network: in some areas of the country, there’s almost 70-80% water waste and loss, which means only 20-30% of the water pumped through the pipes reaches the intended destination.
But water is not the only issue. Yerevan has a very high level of air pollution. This is not something people see in front of them, therefore it’s not discussed enough, but still presents a very important challenge. Case in point, deaths from COVID-19 created massive concerns in Armenia and elsewhere in the world, but there is no such public concern with the World Health Organization’s estimates that seven million people die every year from air pollution. This must be a part of the reform agenda.
In order to draw public attention to these issues, we would need proper environmental monitoring in the country. There are some efforts being made in several domains — water pollution, air pollution, soil pollution — but more has to be done. Armenia must strive to create mass awareness and drive change in these key areas as well.
What are the important lessons you teach in the classroom?
It depends on the course. In Introduction to Environmental Sciences, which is a much more general course, I try to impress upon them that everything they do — every single decision they make — has an impact on the environment. In the first week of the course, I ask them to do an environmental footprint assessment, which gives them an idea about their impact on the environment and the extent of resources we would need if everybody lived like them. That places them in the mindset that environmental impact is not something beyond their reach, that they too actually have a role to play.
For the Water course, I tell my students that everything in the room probably required water to be produced. Usually, when you ask people why they need water, they would probably tell you, “To drink, to cook, or to wash up,” and that’s it. But that’s a minuscule percentage of how much water is consumed, the majority of which goes to producing everything else around us. It’s all about broadening their horizon and knowledge about how water resources are being used and how we can improve the efficacy of usage to curtail shortages and negative impacts on the economy, food security, energy security, and everything else.
Environmental Monitoring is more of a technical methodology course. I teach them how to measure environmental variables related to water pollution, air pollution, etc. There’s a lot of hands-on work in that course learning to measure variables around us, but also analyzing data from environmental agencies and analyzing the sources of pollution in comparison with other countries.
What do you like the most/least about teaching?
There are a couple of things. One, I’m positively surprised every semester by some students and the ideas they bring forth. After teaching a course several times, a lot of the material tends to become repetitive. But every semester, there are new ideas that students share in class. That’s what makes teaching a great way to learn. It isn’t only transmitting information, but also learning through interactive exchange of ideas that emerge.
What I generally dislike about academia is that students view learning as something one needs to do, get a good grade, and move on. For me, that’s not the learning process. Learning should be a lifelong process. Students have the possibilities to gain a lot of knowledge and experience. I like to see more of them take advantage of the ample opportunities they have, be more proactive, engage in research, bring in ideas and discuss them with peers and instructors. Those are the most important aspects of the learning process.