The Road to “Genius:” It All Started with Science

By Sherri Hunt

Sherri Hunt and Tami Bond for web (1)

MacArthur Fellow Tami Bond (left) and EPA Scientist Sherri Hunt

When I started at EPA back in 2003, my mentor, Darrell Winner and I, began working with a recently funded grantee of the Agency’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, Tami Bond. She was my first insight into the projects EPA typically funds and we were extremely excited to follow her career as she investigated the effects of black carbon. Darrell and I would soon come to know Tami as a visionary and talented researcher that is changing the world with her ground-breaking research.

Over the past decade, EPA has supported Tami’s work through several grants issued to the University of Illinois where she has led projects investigating the complex relationship between black carbon and climate change. ​ A few months ago, she was awarded a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship. Also known as “genius grants,” these prestigious awards are given to individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits. Her scientific curiosity and resourcefulness have helped her become a leading name in black carbon research.

When I think back on my past 11 years working with the EPA, Tami stands out in my mind as a great role model for innovative and visionary scientists all over the world. She is a dedicated scientist that isn’t afraid to tackle big problems, yet still brings an attention to detail unlike anything Darrell and I have ever seen.

Tami’s global approach to black carbon research is a prime example of her ability to conduct meticulous research to investigate the world’s global problems.

Black carbon, a particle created through the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass directly absorbs sunlight and reduces the reflectivity of snow and ice, accelerating ice and snow melt. It also contributes to the adverse impacts on human health associated with ambient fine particles, including cardiovascular and respiratory effects. Although there is still some uncertainty about black carbon, it is clear the reduction of black carbon emissions will bring both climate and public health benefits.

Early on, Tami had the forethought to look at the detailed analytical problem that exists between the scientific knowledge base surrounding black carbon and taking action on climate change. Thanks in large part to her work, we now know that black carbon offers a promising mitigation opportunity for addressing some near-term climate effects.

The MacArthur Foundation applauds Tami for her creative “beyond the laboratory” work combining engineering and public policy to provide “the most comprehensive synthesis of the impact of black carbon on climate to date.” Her research indicates that global black carbon emissions contribute to anthropogenic climate change much more than we previously thought.

Although solving this puzzle is a daunting one, I’m confident a dauntless scientist like Tami holds the key to understanding the specific climate impacts of black carbon and helping millions of people breathe cleaner air.

About the Author: Sherri Hunt, Ph.D., is the Assistant Center Director and Matrix Interface for the EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy research program. She enjoys reading, running and connecting scientific experts to develop the next generation of work that will enable more people to breathe cleaner air.

 

Image courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Image courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

EPA STAR Grantee and MacArthur Fellow Tami Bond, Ph.D. recently stopped by EPA’s Headquarters in Washington, DC and answered a few questions for us.

When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?

I still don’t know if I want to be a scientist but I know I want to solve problems.

I grew up in Southern California which was very polluted at the time and it never occurred to me that that was weird. That there were days that you just couldn’t play outside and that was just the normal. After I had moved away, I was coming back to visit my parents. In Southern California there is a bowl of mountains and all of the Los Angeles pollution washes up against the mountains where my parents lived. As the plane was diving down into this cauldron of brown soot I just went “I have to do something about this.” That was my ‘a-ha’ moment.

I’m not sure I would consider myself a scientist really. I’m an engineer and I use scientific tools to solve problems.

Was there a moment when you knew you wanted to be an engineer?

I went to college for a year and then I left. I worked in an auto shop and I just wanted to learn a lot about cars because I thought they were cool. The environment in the auto shop was a little bit chauvinistic. So one day, I woke up and I decided I want to go to engineering school and then it just clicked. I figured I’m not going to work on cars – I’m going to design cars.

What do you like most about your research?

The ability to put things together. I enjoy the hard science and the discovery but we are still at a rewarding phase of scientific development. A lot of disciplines haven’t merged and people don’t know how to merge them. The notion that you can solve something using two or three different tools is fun.

What has the EPA STAR program meant to your work?

A lot. There are agencies that fund basic science but EPA is the one that really focuses on the use of basic science to tackle applied problems. And that’s what I’m attracted to — things that make a difference to people. I think I would be really frustrated if EPA or the STAR program didn’t exist.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in a career in science or engineering?

Learn the basics really well. Don’t worry about if it relates to what you want to do because everything will eventually relate to what you want to do.

What do you think our biggest scientific challenge is in the next 20/50/100 years?

This is probably not what you are expecting to hear but the ability to synthesize all the information that is flowing from the scientific community. We are generating knowledge at an amazing rate. A single person’s brain is not getting any more connections in it and yet the amount of information is growing exponentially. We need the ability to capitalize on the wealth of knowledge that we have already developed.

I can think of societal challenges like climate change or energy consumption that we’re going to have to tackle but I think that the challenge for scientists is in the way we do business so that we are able to tackle these challenges.

If you could have one super power, what would it be?

I would like to be able to become really small so I wouldn’t need to use instruments to look at particles.

 

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