Looking Behind the Doctorate – Get to know Ata Chokhachian

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Dr. Ata Chokhachian is a researcher and entrepreneur in the fields of building technology and urban climate. He has just received his doctoral degree at the Chair of Building Technology and Climate Responsive Design, TUM School of Engineering and Design. He obtained his bachelor’s in architecture in Iran and his master’s degree in North Cyprus. During his doctorate, he spent a semester as a research fellow at MIT. Moreover, he is the co-founder of “Climateflux” specializing in data-driven and computational workflows for acquiring climatic knowledge.

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First of all, congratulations to your successful doctoral defense! What was your dissertation topic?

My dissertation topic finds itself between three different domains. One is urban planning, addressing the way we plan and design our cities; the other is urban health, which focuses on how the design of our cities or outdoor environments affects people’s health; and the last is the climatic aspects, focusing on human thermal comfort in outdoor environments. During my doctoral studies, I developed a set of simulation tools and sensing techniques to understand how urban environments can create comfortable outdoor conditions for people during different periods of the year and how we can use this knowledge to design and improve environmental conditions in our cities. If you think about the summer in Munich, it is important to have areas to protect pedestrians from heat stress by giving them comfort opportunities. During the cold months, it is also essential to protect people from cold stress and strong wind. Therefore, strategies on how to develop our cities in terms of outdoor thermal comfort and climate change mitigation are significantly dependent on the given climate and urban planning.

When walking through Munich – do you think the city is built to cope with climate change? 

As we can all agree, Munich is a very pedestrian and bike-friendly city, as it offers a wide range of green infrastructure where people can enjoy and cool down on a hot summer day at the parks or lakes. On the other hand, we have some central parts near the main campus, for example, the Gabelsbergerstraße, which does not accommodate extensive vegetation cover or areas that can provide comfortable paths for pedestrians on a hot summer day. However, this diversity is beneficial to address different seasonal needs. In concrete terms, Munich can be a role model for other European cities in how we can design public space. These spaces will help people during extreme heat events, which will be intensified due to climate change and will appear more frequently in the future. However, this does not mean that we do not need to invest in maintaining and improving the outdoor areas and public space in the city of Munich. The importance and quality of outdoor space in cities became even more evident during the pandemic.

Could you elaborate on the contribution of your research for the topic of sustainability? 

First of all, I would say that sustainability is a very broad topic. One could frame my thesis around the key words of “Urban Health” and “Sustainability”; still, we need to scope them separately. Urban health is about how to create livable and comfortable urban areas that people can really benefit from. My research focuses on this direction, but of course, it connects to sustainability on many levels. Sustainability is a broad concept and you could understand it as a package with many different aspects. I would say within this package, we need to focus more on the human itself, and that is what my research is about. It is about how our cities and future developments affect the ways people will use outdoor environments and how we can design them better. In the end, I am tackling only one dimension of urban health (the comfort part) and the efficient usage of outdoor environments. This can contribute to the economy of a whole neighborhood by activating social life, which addresses indirectly the sustainability topic as well.

Would you say the topic of urban health is addressed sufficiently?

Not really, but several initiatives are addressing this topic actively, and WHO is the most active one. They define urban health not as a status that we can achieve, but as a continuous process of improving physical and social environments. The awareness and curiosity about this topic for cities is definitely growing, which is a good sign. But still, we need further research and development to actually understand how humans interact or respond to the dynamic nature of outdoor conditions, since this is the basis for designing better outdoor environments. We definitely need more interdisciplinary research since the topic needs specialists from urban planning, policymaking, physiologists, and urban climatologists. It is not only about climate anymore when you think about how human physiology works to compensate for different environmental extremes. Overall, the topic of urban health is receiving more visibility, but at the same time, it needs more attention from city administrations in the era of climate change. 

What excites you most about your research? 

I always see research as a continuous process of being creative and finding answers to real-life questions, and that is what excites me the most. When you start your research, you are exploring different opportunities, and your progress leads to an impact at the end. In research, we have the freedom to explore, question, make mistakes and learn from them. This enables you to be more innovative and creative, and your efforts may lead to an actual impact. But sometimes your research may also fail as part of an experimental journey, which can turn into a learning curve. Regardless of the outcome, the process of starting from a question and leading to an impact is the most motivating factor for me that keeps me pushing forward.

Why did you choose to pursue a doctorate in architecture? Compared to other subjects, not many architecture students choose this path. 

There is a saying in our field that the architects who are not successful in designing buildings start to do research in architecture! But I guess that was not my case. Despite my architectural training and six years of experience working in architecture firms and projects, I no longer consider myself a practicing architect. I would say the reason for me to pursue a doctorate was curiosity in the first place. When I studied architecture for my bachelor’s, I was already interested in computer applications and the sources of information and data we can collect from the environment that can inform the design of our buildings or even cities. During my master’s, I devoted my time more to focusing on building technology topics that take climatic aspects into account, since climate is one of the most important drivers of the way we design our buildings or cities. If we look at the vernacular architecture, and the way the old cities were built, we see that the context and the structure of the buildings and the city itself assimilated the climate that they are located in. My research in this area then came along with an interest in programming, which became a great tool to support my ideas in developing tools that architects can use in their design process to improve their design and create environments that are more healthy and attractive to live in.

You are also a lecturer at TUM, currently teaching at the chair of Building Technology and Climate Responsive Design. Based on your experience, what are the most important skills for master’s students/doctoral candidates for a successful career in science?

One of the main qualities or tools that is necessary to build a career or even to succeed in academia is critical thinking. It generally does not hurt to put a question mark at the end of every statement, and always self-reflect and rethink it. Maybe there is a new way to understand or perceive a phenomenon. This is why critical thinking is one of the biggest tools leading to success in an academic environment. The other important factor is to keep learning and learning and learning because we are living in a world where the pace of knowledge creation has been increasing significantly. To be part of the flow and in order to have a valid contribution to a scientific field, we need to keep learning, even if we do not study or work in academia anymore.

Your international profile is very broad, starting with your bachelor’s in Iran, following your master’s in Northern Cyprus, then coming to Germany to do your doctorate and spending a year as a research fellow at the MIT in the US. Why did you choose this path and finally TUM for your doctorate? 

I think the path was half driven by my personal choices and half by the environment that offered these opportunities through being exposed to an interdisciplinary environment. My bachelor’s was in architecture, but during my master’s program, I moved to architectural science, which is not common since architecture is a very practice-oriented discipline. Then I wanted to pursue a discipline where I could continue to learn new topics and contribute to the architecture discipline as well. Moving to Germany and starting a doctoral position in building technology was something challenging, and I think this is something that will always keep me motivated. If I feel challenged and I feel like there is something to achieve, it will keep me on the path. When I looked for universities in Germany, TUM was one of the first choices because, especially in architecture, the university has a great reputation in terms of research as well as contribution to practice. I also want to thank my supervisor, Prof. Thomas Auer, for the immense support with his time, knowledge and resources during my doctoral studies.

What did you enjoy most during your research stay at the prestigious MIT? 

I really enjoyed the fact that I had the chance to work in a very interdisciplinary environment and be exposed to a different academic setup. Even though I was involved in the building technology program, I used the opportunity to explore the lectures from other faculties and departments. Due to the way the university is structured, you do not feel like you are bound to the lab or the department that you are working in. The number of “food for thought” events was a great opportunity to network with researchers from an entirely different field to share and learn from their stories and research challenges.

You are a founding partner of Climateflux. Could you tell me something about the Climateflux and your current projects? 

We started the idea of Climateflux in late 2019. The main concept behind Climateflux was driven by the activities we were doing at the university at that time. We wanted to push and explore the topic of urban health, which was pretty new in practice. As research comes with its own limitations on implementing the findings in practice, we decided to start Climateflux to address the practice-based needs of the topic. As one of the very first projects we got involved in the eMotional Cities consortium, funded by European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme. The project focuses on the planning of cities with regard to urban health and neuroscience using different data sources. There are different partners in this project ranging from urban planners to policy makers and researchers from medicine. In this project, we incorporate new sources of data, from the city, climate, human behavior, neuro signals, and physiology. We have recently acquired two new projects where we will focus more on developing solutions to bring the topic of outdoor comfort as a service to people’s daily life and have a small contribution to protecting people from climate change and improving the livability of our cities.

Did you always plan to found a start-up one day or how did you come up with this idea? 

The answer is “not really”. I think it was a pretty natural and spontaneous process. Besides the curiosity and motivation to bring our ideas into practice, an important contributor was definitely the training and coaching programs from TUM. Through different events, courses, and summer schools at TUM Graduate School, one can not only get involved in student communities from other international universities, but also build a network with people that work in practice. This platform of TUM was one of the main catalysts for me to take this path and move on as a founding partner of a company.

What was the biggest challenge and how did you overcome it? And what advice would you give to someone who wants to found a start-up? 

I think the biggest challenge is to convince yourself and be able to take the risk in the first place. In the beginning, no one can say if the project is going to be successful or not, so of course everything comes with its own risks. But in a startup, the risk is bigger; however you have to be a believer in your ideas. Nevertheless, the risk one takes should be based on a solid foundation that comes from know-how, professional network and being open, and self-reflective. I would say the biggest driver is taking risks while believing in what you are doing. This belief will also keep you motivated and bring you different opportunities. There is a lot of support from the university and the ministries for startups, which makes Germany, and specifically the state of Bavaria, one of the best places to found a company or startups. If someone has an idea, that can work out well in terms of practical solutions, I would definitely encourage taking this path and benefiting from the opportunities offered by the university, like UnternehmerTUM and coaching courses from the Graduate School during the doctoral studies. Do not wait to finish your doctorate to start; they can both go in parallel.

What are your plans for the future? 

That is a million dollar question for everyone! Our company is still very young and growing; meanwhile, my founding partner (Daniele Santucci) and I are very focused on pushing our ideas further into actual practical solutions from which people can benefit in their daily lives. Moreover, I would be willing to continue my path in academia, because for me, academia has always been a source of inspiration and motivation. This also offers the possibility to bridge the gap between research and practice, which exists in many disciplines, and our field is not an exception. This will definitely be a challenge for me for the next few years.

Interview Series by the TUM Graduate School