Research Professor Nazia Arbab: Taking computer tools to the next level

We would like to welcome Dr. Nazia Arbab, who on January 1st was appointed Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics.

Dr. Arbab comes to us from the SEBS Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, where she worked for nearly five years as a Post-Doctoral Associate.  Her research for EENR centered on forest management.  She played a key role in the battle against the emerald ash borer, an invasive species first identified in New Jersey in 2014.

Because Dr. Arbab holds a PhD in Natural Resource Economics from West Virginia University, the Department recognized immediately that she would be a huge asset in the classroom.  She is teaching two undergraduate EBE classes in spring 2020 and is scheduled to add a third one in the fall.

Perhaps the class closest to her heart is Computer Decision Tools, our own required business software class for EBE majors.  We say “close to her heart” because Computer Decision Tools would be a perfect title for Dr. Arbab’s research program, not just for her assigned course. 

Many faculty in our department run statistical models describing the behavior of farmers or households, often relying on surveys for the raw data.  Dr. Arbab takes insights from studies like these, and then uses them to simulate the behavior of multiple agents over geographic space.  Her simulation “game board” is typically at the scale of a watershed—a single county, say—and her primary outcome of interest is water quality. 

Dr. Arbab’s computer toolkit lies at the cutting edges of both economic and geographic science.  She is of course an expert in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  But she can also expound the relative merits of probabilistic modelling of landscape outcomes across rasters, versus so-called agent-based models.  In the latter approach, individual landowners, like chess pieces on a game board, have systematic behaviors programmed into them, along with some randomness.  Press the button on your computer program and the chess pieces begin to act and interact.  Frequently the spatial outcome of an agent-based simulation is remarkably close to observed history, given similar external starting conditions.

Is this all just a computer game, a watershed version of SimCity?  Why does it matter?  

Well, it matters because environmental outcomes like polluted runoff and aquifer recharge vary a lot depending on exactly where, when, and how development take place. The phrase “Spatially Explicit” appears in many of Dr. Arbab’s project titles.  It is a feature of her modelling approach that environmental planners appreciate, knowing that finer-grained models produce better forecasts.

Dr. Arbab has published in the Journal of Hydrology and Journal of Water Resource and Protection, showing evidence of sound environmental science. She has also published in journals devoted to spatial analysis and social simulation, where she contributes to advances in methodology.

And so when Dr. Arbab enters a classroom to teach Computer Decision Tools, her goal is to show that the tools are useful; that more sophisticated tools can actually be more useful; and that all of them can be mastered in a way that is fun, rather than full of stress. 

If you want to talk to Dr. Arbab about natural resource policy, start by asking her about i-Tree.  If you want to talk to her about her teaching, just ask her about Microsoft Project.

Did you hear that, potential employers?