Made in NRS: Aidin Niamir

Aidin Niamir has a special relationship with the ITC and the Natural Resources Department from multiple perspectives. His first contact point was when he arrived from his natal country Iran to study a series of short courses in the early 2000s. In 2007 he was accepted for the Erasmus Mundus GEM MSc programme, and when he finished, he embarked on a PhD, also in the Natural Resources Department, from 2009 to 2014.

He is now living in Frankfurt, Germany and working as a scientist at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Institute. He works at the data and modelling centre of the Institute, supporting a variety of projects with their needs on biodiversity and climate data, models, and scenarios, as well as geoinformatics and earth observations. Aidin is also the head of the technical support unit for knowledge and data of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services known as IPBES, which is hosted at the Senckenberg.

Aidin Niamir with our NRS colleague Wieteke Willemen, at the IPBES 9 plenary in Bonn, Germany (2022)

Aidin, the ITC and the NRS Department have been a big part of your academic career. Could you explain to us how life looks after being at the ITC?

It's nearly eight years since I'm living in Frankfurt, where I moved immediately after I defended my PhD dissertation at ITC. I am working in a research institute in the very same discipline I did my studies. I am in touch with my supervisors and managed to visit Enschede a few times.

Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you arrive at the ITC?

I did my first Master's degree in Iran, and I was running my own consultancy company, it was a quite successful business. I had several national projects as well as some clients representing international companies. I was performing consultancy in the field of environmental studies and impact assessments mainly for development projects in the oil and gas industry.

One of the clients I had was a Dutch company and I was preparing an environmental impact assessment report for one of their proposed development sites in the south of Iran. Through that collaboration, I got to know that there is an institute in the Netherlands where it offers short courses in the field of GIS and Natural Resources. I was very busy at that moment with my projects in the Middle East, in the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Oman, but I thought “I should be able to make at least two or three weeks free to attend a course abroad”.

And then your connection with the ITC and the NRS Department started…

Right. When I got the confirmation, and thus my visa, I received also a very well-presented “welcome package” from the ITC; information on how to arrive at Enschede from Schiphol, and how to walk to the ITC building at the Hengelosestraat, for example.

I stayed at the ITC hotel for the three weeks duration of the course. We learned several applied tools for environmental impact assessments, site selection methods, etc. When the course finished, I went back to Iran and used some of the tools and knowledge that I gained through the courses in my projects, and also trained some of my colleagues.

A year later I thought, “maybe I can do another course…”. And in 2006, I came back to the ITC, this time for a longer course, about one month, on spatial decision support systems offered by another department. Since Bert Toxopeus, one of the previous course instructors, and I kept communicating about amphibians and reptiles since last year, I was still coming to his office where we talked about herpetology and birds of prey.  Later, Bert encouraged me to apply for a European Master's called GEM, an Erasmus Mundus-funded programme. I applied, got it, and wrote my thesis on the role of reptiles in the distribution of short-toed eagles.

Bert Toxopeus and Aidin Niamir (2009)

How would you describe the short courses?

Based on my experience, the short courses were perfectly designed for those like me who had already a job back home and wanted to refresh their knowledge and learn new practical tools based on real examples. The alumni network was also great; when you become ITC alumni you get to know many people from all around the world.

I find the short courses well designed and useful to further boost my carrier, and I would definitely suggest short courses to many of my colleagues who are working at the moment and would like to get new knowledge to apply in their work.

How was your experience with GEM?

In the past, the GEM MSc was a collaboration between the University of Southampton, the University of Lund, Warsaw University and at the end, the ITC. ITC was not part of the University of Twente at that time. I think we were the second cohort of GEM and we all arrived in Southampton in September 2007. 

GEM was a milestone in my life. Not necessarily because of the content, but because of the structure and the design of the program. In the GEM MSc, you start with classmates from all around the world, with different nationalities, backgrounds and cultures. We lived together, learned from each other and learned together. Southampton was a great start because it helped us improve our English. Moving to Lund was a unique experience for many of us, getting to know Scandinavian culture and society. The stay in Poland highlighted the European wilderness and then we went to the ITC Faculty in the Netherlands, a well-prepared and equipped Institute to help us write our thesis. 

Aidin's first day at GEM (2007)

Doing your Thesis at the ITC was quite an experience, right? How did it lead to your PhD?

As I mentioned earlier, I did my Master's with Bert Toxopeus and Thomas Groen, in collaboration with the University of Malaga on the distribution of short-toed eagles in southern Spain. I spent my research funds travelling to Andalusia, where I stayed for nearly a full month, sampling reptiles, watching birds, and collecting data. My thesis won the ITC MSc Award for Best MSc Thesis of 2009. The summer ended and I travelled back to Iran. 

I was really happy with my new research skills so I felt encouraged to continue my studies and therefore I decided to apply for a PhD scholarship. A few months later, I got funded and started my PhD with Professor Andrew Skidmore in September 2009.

Aidin Niamir receiving his PhD title from Andrew Skidmore (2014)

There is more besides academic life. Have you experienced any challenges socializing in the Netherlands?

When I was studying at the ITC, from 2005 until 2014, many of the ITC graduates did not stay in the Netherlands. They immediately found new positions in North America, France, Germany, Belgium or elsewhere. The reason for this immediate move could be because of not experiencing the Dutch culture. We, as foreign students, lived in sort of a bubble, walking from the ITC Hotel to the ITC and back and there were not many opportunities to get involved in other activities or socializing.  

Maybe it is a cultural difference, but contrary to my experience in the Netherlands, even though I stayed only a few months in Andalusia, I immediately felt welcome and at home and I still have many good friends there with whom I am still in touch.

I was very attached to the ITC but the Netherlands didn’t feel like home to me. Although many of my GEM colleagues have established a successful life and career in other countries, they still wish they could have felt more part of the society in the Netherlands and could have stayed there. Now that the ITC is part of the University of Twente things might have changed a bit. I think studying on campus and being in closer contact with local students of the host country is extremely important and can hopefully resolve some of these issues. But to this end, I think Enschede, ITC and the University of Twente have still a way to go for becoming truly international.   

How would you evaluate the PhD programme offered by ITC?

 In my current position, I recruit postdocs and experts for our projects. Comparing my experience at ITC with those I interviewed, I would say at ITC we had the opportunity to discuss broader worldviews and put our research topics in a global context. I clearly remember our weekly PhD seminars with Andrew Skidmore over a hot topic of the day from the news or a mock debate / negotiations over a random topic. On the other hand, I believe that we could have benefited from a broader network of collaborations with other institutes, rather than just working at ITC and writing papers with only the supervisory team as the co-authors.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you, Hector, for offering this opportunity. It was nice reviewing some of the good memories.

Thank you, Aidin! It was a pleasure to listen to your story.