The McKelvey School of Engineering’s Rajan Chakrabarty and Randall Martin are a world apart when it comes to research.
Both study the Earth’s atmospheric components, particularly — though not exclusively — aerosols, in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering. These are tiny bits of solid matter suspended in air. They can absorb and reflect light, contributing to the warming and cooling of the atmosphere. And when they are below a certain size, smaller than 2.5 microns, these particles can enter a person’s bloodstream and penetrate the lungs.
PM2.5, as it’s called, is the leading global environmental risk factor for mortality.
Though the focus of their research is similar, Chakrabarty, the Harold D. Jolley Career Development Associate Professor, conducts his research with both feet firmly planted on the ground. He chases wildfires, takes measurements from household cookstoves in developing countries, and watches the chaotic motion of a few aerosols — or even just one — using high-tech instruments in his lab.
By contrast, for his research, Martin, the Raymond R. Tucker Distinguished Professor, depends on data collected from above the clouds, on the edge of space. Using NASA satellite data, as well as data from a network of air-quality monitoring stations that span the globe, he uses computer modeling to better understand the composition and movement of aerosols around the planet.
But this is not a story of never the twain shall meet. On the contrary, the two research methods are intertwined, depending on each other in more ways than one. And their data meet to inform some of the most consequential aspects of our lives: They meet in the lung, where PM2.5 makes us more susceptible to infections such as COVID-19. They meet in the increasingly ferocious wildfires of Utah, California and New South Wales, which send brown carbon spewing across the globe. And they meet in an atmosphere altered by aerosols that absorb and radiate heat — destabilizing the climate, making extreme and deadly weather events more common while threatening our homes, our livelihoods and our health.
They meet, as Martin says, “because in the end, they’re the same aerosols.”
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