Comfortably Uncomfortable

ISD Distinguished Alumni Award Winner Dr. Amir Sabet Sarvestani Feels Right at Home Tackling the Unknowns

Dr. Amir Sabet Sarvestani finds comfort in being uncomfortable.

“One of the most important lessons I learned at ISD is to be comfortable with that uncomfortable thought or question,” said Dr. Sarvestani, who earned a PhD from University of Michigan’s Design Science program in 2015 as well as BSE and MSE degrees earlier from U-M. “Unknowns will happen in your career, personal life, professional life, wherever you go. But expanding your thinking while uncomfortable is something unique. University of Michigan is the best place to learn how to be comfortably uncomfortable.”

Throughout his career, Dr. Sarvestani applied what he learned in U-M’s Design Science program to challenge himself and his colleagues to work closely together. This philosophy helps him and his colleagues build a better understanding of their differences and each other’s language while stepping outside their comfort zone. The ability to be uncomfortable in ambiguous environments and situations helps the team to solve very complex, challenging problems. 

“At U-M, I built certain muscles in my brain to solve very challenging problems,” he said. “The most important muscle in your brain is how you can actually solve ambiguous problems and I use those lessons I learned at ISD every day at work.”

Dr. Sarvestani spent the majority of his time during his PhD studies in the field, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“What helped shape me today are University of Michigan’s faculty, staff, and students who taught me so much,” he said. “Learning from this community has been the most incredible aspect of my life. Having the right attitude in approaching any problem matters. Solving any problem takes a mix of curiosity, openness, tenacity, willingness to contribute, and try new things.”

Making a Difference

Dr. Sarvestani recently joined Amazon Web Services (AWS) as a Principal Innovation Consultant. He works with a variety of organizations and enterprises to imagine a better future. Topics include transforming a customer contact center experience, employing Artificial Intelligence, and supporting people with disabilities. 

“Sometimes it feels like bringing science fiction to reality, and I am fortunate to be part of a team that can imagine an improved future and strive to build it,” he said. “I joined a team of talented visionaries and creators.” 

Before joining AWS, Dr. Sarvestani spent more than eight years at IBM. While there, he held progressive positions, focusing on the design, development, and scaling of data-driven and AI-based solutions and products for a variety of customers. In one role, for example, he led the “citizen-first” data and analytics operations for the COVID Response and Recovery efforts for several northeastern states.

Before joining IBM, he was part of the World Health Organization’s Health Technology Unit, and a National Science Foundation research fellow. His work focused on defining and evaluating the concept of usability for medical devices and health technology in low-resource settings. His research and fieldwork led to methodologies and frameworks for medical device design and products that are effective, intuitive to use and, better yet, inexpensive.

Among his many career accomplishments, he served as the Chief Data Officer for the state of Rhode Island during the peak of the COVID pandemic. “In this role, I was able to translate data and analytical findings into policy decisions to help mitigate challenges of the pandemic and serve citizens of Rhode Island,” he said. “In all of my roles, I was able to infuse principles of design thinking into Analytics and AI practice.”

For his efforts, Dr. Sarvestani received the 2022 ISD Distinguished Alumni Award during a ceremony on Sept. 23. 

Transforming the World

Dr. Sarvestani believes the main benefit of the field of ISD is the realization there are much more complex problems than just one field can tackle. 

“We need diverse thinking types, brain types, and ways of working together,” he said. “That’s what ISD brings. It is super important and crucial because as the world is expanding we realize more and more there is a need for uniting together to solve those really complex world problems.”

ISD impacts the world as it rapidly evolves.

“We have much more complex problems as we solve the pandemic,” he said. “It wasn’t just a public health problem, but a business problem. It was a social problem. It was a racial justice problem. All these challenges are coming together now. We need a comprehensive and collective response to transform the world.”

Uncomfortably Growing Up 

Dr. Sarvestani was born and raised in Iran. 

His family was part of a religious minority in the country, and there was, and has been, a lot of prosecution against minorities in Iran since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Looking back, his parents tried to create a sense of normalcy and calm despite all the dangers and chaos imposed by an authoritarian regime. 

“I was a curious kid and a ferocious reader, especially science fiction and Jules Verne,” he said. “These conditions helped me to keep an open mind, be curious, and appreciate diversity in thoughts and practice.”

One thing most people don’t know about Dr. Sarvestani is that English is actually his third language. “My native language is Farsi or Persian,” he said. “Growing up, I learned Turkish since my mother is from a Turkish region of Iran. And I did not start to learn English until I was 19.”

Try New Adventures

His best advice for young people is to acknowledge the global community is becoming more complex and multi-dimensional by the minute. Traditional ways of thinking, classic degrees, or linear career paths might not be a good fit for everyone. 

“Don’t be afraid of experimenting and daring to try new adventures,” he said. “Be curious and open to learning, find where you can have the highest contribution, and double down there.” 

If he could change one thing about himself, Dr. Sarvestani would start trying new experiences and adventures earlier in his life. 

“I started trying a variety of world cuisines, from sushi to Thai to Indian food, in my late twenties,” he said. “I picked up running in my thirties. In both of these cases, I wish I had started way earlier.”

On Nov. 6, 2022, he plans to run in the New York City marathon. While he is not quite ready to run the race, he feels comfortable being uncomfortable with increasing his training over the next several weeks.

“We’ll see,” he said. “I am comfortable being uncomfortable.”