Please tell us about yourself

The distance between New Delhi and Williams Lake is vast, but for the Ministry of Environment’s new air quality meteorologist for the Cariboo Region, the extremes are probably felt a little more intensely.

Comparing his old home to his new home, Arvind Saraswat immediately talks about pollution. “New Delhi has one of the highest levels of air pollution in the world and I think we are probably one of the places in the world with the lowest here,” he says of Williams Lake.

Saraswat was born in a “very small” city in India, although what qualifies as a small city in India is a population of 100,000 people, he admits.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and exciting career?

When he graduated from high school, he moved to New Delhi to pursue an undergraduate degree in civil engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology.

After graduating from IIT he worked for two and half years at a World Health Organization collaborating centre called Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Program, where he was a project associate.

“I was doing traffic safety research there, but while doing traffic research I got interested in traffic emissions and that made me make the switch from transportation to environmental sciences.”

He has been working in Williams Lake since the beginning of January, while continuing to finish his PhD in resource management and environmental studies (RMES) at the University of British Columbia, where he was enrolled as a full-time student since 2006.

Tell us about your work

A main focus of his job in the Cariboo is the air quality of communities in the region, specifically that of Quesnel, Williams Lake and 100 Mile House.

“It involves air-shed planning and understanding how different sources are impacting air shed quality in those communities.”

He points out that interior communities are unique when it comes to air quality because air becomes trapped in the bowl-shaped valleys that dot the topography, with what’s called inversions. 

“The air quality in Quesnel would be quite distinct if there’s an inversion there compared to the air quality of Williams Lake if there is no inversion. These are meteorological conditions which lead to trapping of pollutants within an air shed or a region.”

What is your current position?

I currently work as the Head of Air Quality Section (Assessments) with the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy. I lead a provincial team of air quality experts responsible for assessing air discharge applications under the Environmental Management Act and the Environmental Assessment Act. My team is also responsible for leading airshed management activities across the province. My section also provides expert opinion on complex compliance and enforcement files, as well as appeals under the Environmental Management Act. My work involves managing the team budget and hiring new staff as well.

What do you enjoy about your job? What are the challenges?

There are many aspects that I enjoy- I will try to cover a few here. The fact that I am able to use my technical skills to protect the environment keeps me happy. I get to work on a variety of challenging technical problems and the challenges make the work interesting. I also get to work with a team of professionals from many disciplines which allows us to learn from each other.

In what ways did your experience in IRES help prepare you for what you do now?

Well, there is a lot that I got to learn during my time at IRES. Firstly, I got to learn a lot from the faculty. I credit Prof. Milind Kandlikar and Prof. Mike Brauer for encouraging me to see beyond the generally accepted solutions for environmental problems. Secondly, I was able to take courses in many disciplines like civil engineering, chemical and biological engineering, statistics, epidemiology, risk assessment, along with core courses. These just helped me understand environmental problems a lot better. Last but not the least, I got to learn a lot from some of the fellow students at IRES and other departments. This positioned me well for the future.

Why did you choose the RMES program (and UBC)? What was your previous educational background, and how did this influence your choice?

I was interested in learning more about the causes and consequences of air pollution and air quality management. Since air quality management requires a wide range of skills, an interdisciplinary program was an obvious choice. I found Milind’s interdisciplinary work on air quality issues very exciting and luckily I got an opportunity to work with him. I have a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and it had a significant influence on my decision–I wanted to build on the skills that I had and learn many new things. Knowing that Milind has a bachelor’s degree in engineering too, I was confident that I was making the right choice.

What was the most enjoyable or impactful part of your experience in IRES?

All of it–it is hard to pick a few. The opportunity to take the courses that I liked, discussions with faculty and fellow students, social events… I still miss the social space at IRES and the coffee machine.

 Do you have any advice for current RES students?

Take as many relevant courses as you can, you will perhaps never have that opportunity again. Try to build skills that your potential employers are interested in, for example, data analysis. Of course, the details will vary but most employers are generally interested in presentations and communications skills. Use all opportunities to improve those skills. If possible, attend relevant conferences/events to connect with other professionals in your area of interest.