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Tracey Holloway: Air quality research improves human health

November 4, 2013

Since she was young, Tracey Holloway has been on a mission to make the world a better place. Although she didn't become the mayor of Chicago like she once envisioned, she found her calling studying the atmosphere.

Holloway is making her mark by connecting her research on air quality, energy and climate to issues involving public health and policy. She is an associate professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, a board member and co-founder of the Earth Science Women's Network and Earth Science Jobs Network, and deputy director of NASA's Air Quality Applied Sciences Team.

What is the focus of your current research?

Holloway: My current research focuses on air pollution, particularly the chemicals in the air that make people sick when they breathe them in, causing respiratory diseases or increasing rates of mortality. My work relates to climate change because many of the sources that contribute to health-damaging air pollution, like cars and power plants, are the same sources that contribute to carbon dioxide and other kinds of global warming gases.

My main focus is pollutants that directly impact human health, so my work ties together chemistry, engineering, policy, computer science and meteorology.

What attracted you to a profession in sustainability?

Holloway: I've always been interested in making the world a better place, both in terms of how large-scale decisions impact individuals and how individual decisions impact the big picture.

When I was in high school, I wanted to become the mayor of Chicago. That's how I wanted to change the world. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago and thought I would major in history or political science and then go to law school and into politics.

"I've always been interested
in making the world a better
place, both in terms of how
large-scale decisions impact
individuals and how individual
decisions impact the big picture."

Then I got to college and started taking science and math courses to round out my education. I found these courses very interesting and was really enjoying them, so I majored in applied math as an undergraduate. As an undergrad I got an internship at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center. That was my first exposure to earth and environmental sciences. It was so exciting!

I had an “ah-hah moment” walking through the halls at NASA when I saw on the door of the Earth Observing Systems offices a photo of a hurricane, taken from space. It looked like water going down a drain, similar to schematics I'd seen in my fluid mechanics classes. I realized that my undergraduate training in applied math could help understand the atmosphere.  So I applied to graduate programs in atmospheric science.

As soon as you start studying the atmosphere, the impact of humans is one of the most interesting aspects. Plus, as I got deeper into science, I remembered, "Wait, I planned to save the world!"

I realized that my interests in social wellbeing and atmospheric science could fit together. Human decisions and meteorology fit together with sustainability issues relating to weather, climate and what's in the air we breathe.  

What do you think your background and approach bring to the Nelson Institute?

Holloway: One of the strengths of the Nelson Institute is it has people from all different backgrounds who are interested in talking across disciplinary lines. Most real-world problems do not fit within a single discipline; they require different backgrounds and perspectives. I am mostly a physical scientist, but I love to work on health issues with public health experts or policy issues with colleagues in the social sciences.

When I was starting graduate school, nobody was doing much interdisciplinary work. I had these broader interests and I actually thought I would have to drop out of graduate school. In fact, I almost did. Through some of my professors, I learned that Princeton, where I was pursuing a Ph.D., had received funding to support scientists working in policy. I participated in this new program, where science doctoral students integrated policy analysis into their research and education.

What would you consider to be your biggest accomplishment at UW-Madison?

Holloway: The first thing that comes to mind is integrating undergraduates in research. I love teaching and I love doing research. So working with a team of students on a research project is really the best of both worlds. You get to know students quite well one-on-one and you get to engage them in the joy of discovery. 

"Working with a team
of students on a research
project is really the best
of both worlds. You get
to know students quite
well one-on-one and
you get to engage them
in the joy of discovery."

Another thing I am proud of is one of the projects I've participated in to support women in science, called the Earth Science Women's Network. I helped found the organization in 2002, and at that time it was just a group of six friends and me.

Now the organization is 1,500-women strong and we operate in 50 different countries. We just wrapped up a million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation and we now have a board of 10 women who run the organization. It's been nice to see projects that I put time into over many years grow and thrive.

I'm also really excited to see the environmental studies undergraduate major take shape. With the new major, I've been developing new classes to introduce undergraduates to the kind of work I do myself and the research typical of the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, or SAGE.

Do you have any words of advice for young people following in your path?

Holloway: I always suggest going to office hours and talking with professors outside of class. In a large school like UW, there are so many opportunities! If you like a class, the professor may be able to suggest summer internships, related classes, or alumni that you could talk with. I would not have been able to navigate a science career without asking for advice.

I also think getting exposure to research as an undergraduate is a win-win. If you like it, that experience will be very valuable in terms of getting into graduate school or jobs. If you don't like it, then you've discovered that, and you can keep moving to see what kind of work you want to do after college.

There are so many opportunities to get research experience here at Wisconsin, and research activities are often directly applicable to "real-world" problems and professions. I think it's important to capitalize on the strengths of going to school at a big research university; Wisconsin has strengths across the board, and there is something for everybody.

Elise Bayer is a junior majoring in journalism and environmental studies.