18. Storm Chasers
But no need for foul weather gear
I recently attended a really interesting presentation by a professor from another institution. There isn’t a lot of technical overlap between this professor’s research and my own research interests, though we are both interested in different environmental exposures. At the introduction to her presentation, she described her motivation for research as ‘storm chasing’ which, to me, was a little weird.
But after learning how she defines storm chasers, I realized we are more alike than not. And we need more of them.
As an academic scientist, my success is largely dependent on whether I can a) secure research grants, b) conduct research with a reasonable likelihood of success, and c) make some sense of the results and publish this research in scientific journals. Those are the major markers of professional success. It’s a tried and true approach, and young professors often have the most success when they just join the crowd.
The unspoken truth is that pursing scientific inquiry that is outside of the mainstream science is often undervalued, and it doesn’t matter if the project is funded by a grant. While institutions usually respect a professor’s interest in pursuing science of their own choosing, researching quirky, high-risk ideas that fail more often than not do not lead to the milestones that we are seeking - tenure, promotion, more graduate students, better laboratories, and so on.
The point is that pursuing out-of-mainstream inquiry doesn’t do as much for your career in an academic environment as more traditional or conventional research, which follows a well-worn pathway and is better suited for successful research products, like published papers, books, or invitations to prestigious conferences.
To be completely honest, publishing Up in the Air doesn’t do much for my career, either - it’s not a substantial marker of my professional productivity. But I’m not complaining and you’ll keep on seeing me here into the future.
Looking for Environmental Health Hurricanes
And now back to storm chasing.
The idea of storm chasing is that there are problems all over the world that need to be investigated. Some are well understood, but often overlooked, problems. Other issues are poorly understood because they involve a complex set of circumstances, are in marginalized populations who lack voices to make the problems known, or are problems that are simply not well defined. Sometimes, they are all three. And these problems aren’t always right in front of you.
But that doesn’t make these problems any less relevant or impactful to the communities who experience them. Ethylene oxide emissions, a cancer-causing gas, are a problem in rural Arkansas but I bet most have never heard of this problem. Boil water warnings once again in Jackson, Mississippi? I doubt there will be too many research papers around that issue. Air pollution that inundates a mostly-minority community near Newark? Certainly newsworthy, but unlikely to attract a multi-million dollar research grant.
The point is that these are valued communities, where people work and live and go to school, and they suffer from these burdens, and often more so than others because they are less resourced.
For these communities, this is the storm. There just aren’t enough of us researchers willing to chase them.
Investigating the Unknown Air
A common thread throughout my own career is that I tend to work in locations where there aren’t a lot of other peers. I’m not a recluse, but I like to work alone.
I don’t mean that I work entirely by myself - our research is a team effort, usually with a few students from my research team who partner with a few researchers in another location who, more often than not, are less equipped than we are with instrumentation and supplies.
I conduct research in very diverse places like Nepal and Bolivia, Ghana and Fiji, where technical capacity and cultural standards sometimes are quite different than from my own institution and culture. Our partners not only provide really important technical support as we study air quality, they help us translate some of the challenges that we encounter - sometimes both cultural and language!
Our results are always interesting - at the foot of Mt Everest, Kathmandu, Nepal is extremely polluted, choking its 3 million metropolitan inhabitants every winter. Fiji, in the middle of the South Pacific, has air quality on par with London or Los Angeles, cities with far more inhabitants, lots of industry, and plenty of upwind sources of air pollution.
Again, Fiji is a small island in the middle of the Pacific ocean, with air quality similar to what you see in major developed cities in America and elsewhere. How can this be?
Science shows us the way, and it’s really not that complicated. Air quality is driven by human activities like operating factories, driving cars, and burning stuff. It doesn’t matter if you are in Kathmandu, London, or Suva - the same chemistry applies.
The difference is that only one of these cities has high quality pollution monitors checking levels routinely. Are the people in the other two any less important? Are their lives valued any less than others?
We Have to Keep Looking
I am fortunate to have a well-stocked, modern research laboratory, lots of talented and hand-working students, and access to the equipment, availability, and resources that I need to follow scientific curiosity. I am also deeply empowered by the protections of tenure, that allows me to look for science in the places that might not lead to a new paper or grant, and do so without fear of losing my employment.
In my opinion, this privilege comes with a duty to engage.
It is unlikely that academic science will soon adapt to encourage focus on overlooked communities. But it is imperative that science keeps its gaze on places we too-often overlook. There are people who need our focus.
And too many of them are facing a storm.
Well done, sir, well done.