This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. In observance, USAID is spotlighting innovative women working in these fields. Below is an interview with Christa Hasenkopf, NSF International Research Fellow, affiliated with National University of Mongolia and University of Colorado.
Can you describe your work and why it’s important?
I have been conducting research on air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which has some of the highest measured pollution levels in the world. Nearly half of Mongolia’s population lives in Ulaanbaatar, and over half of that city’s population of 1.3 million lives in the ger district, which is a mixture of traditional felt tent housing, as well as wooden homes. The ger district is not connected to the city’s central heating system, so residents must use other methods, such as coal-fired stoves, to keep warm through the long Mongolian winter.
Christa Hasenkopf (third from left) with PEER group at an air quality monitoring station in Ulaanbaatar in 2012. Photo credit: Christa Hasenkopf
Ulaanbaatar’s position in a valley, as well as certain meteorological conditions, trap smoke from these stoves (and from coal-fired power plants) near the surface of the city. In the ger district, daily wintertime smoke levels get so bad that it rivals the conditions firefighters experience fighting a wildfire! Consequently, the pollution has catastrophic human impacts: it’s estimated that 10-25% of deaths in Ulaanbaatar over a given year are pollution-related. Pollution in Ulaanbaatar costs the country over 500 million USD per year.
There have been many different efforts to mitigate the pollution, but there is not a strong, sustained long-term program to evaluate their effectiveness and share results broadly with the public. With support from USAID’s PEER Program and the NSF’s International Research Program, I have been collaborating with Professor Lodoysamba, my Mongolian research partner, to identify the sources of the pollution, and monitor changes over time.
We are also working to spur public engagement on this critical issue. We have launched a Facebook page and Twitter account to share air quality infographics, current data, and opportunities to get involved with air quality issues in Ulaanbaatar.
Describe your own career path – How did you first get involved in science? What obstacles did you face along the way?
I fell in love with science, specifically astronomy, when I was a child. I adored books by Carl Sagan, and how he connected big picture topics like the Universe with the activities of tiny humans residing on a speck of dust orbiting a run-of-the-mill ball of gas. During my career, I have studied objects outside of our galaxy, then moved to worlds within our solar system, and now work to better understand issues affecting the atmosphere – and the humans existing in it – here on Earth.
The biggest obstacles I have faced are a lack of self-confidence in my ability and fear of standing out too much. Throughout high school and my undergraduate studies, I would be too afraid to ask a question in class or to speak up with my own ideas. Those sorts of fears keep you from truly learning and engaging with others, which are vital for becoming an expert at anything! These fears can also affect how high you set the bar for your career goals.
Where do science and development intersect?
Science has been transformative for the human condition. For example, in 1850, 25 out of 100 American babies died at birth. As the medical community developed a better understanding of how germs spread, it instituted simple interventions, like hand washing and instrument sterilization, and infant mortality rates plummeted. Today, the infant mortality rate in the U.S. is less than 1 in 100, and the world average is around 4 in 100. We have scientific progress to thank for that.
And yet, such a small percentage of the world’s population has the opportunity to pursue a career in science. A 2010 UNESCO study reports that 75% of peer-reviewed scientific papers – the primary vehicle through which science moves forward – are done by those in developed countries, which only represents 20% of the world’s population.
Eighty percent of the world’s population – those in developing countries – experience major barriers to contributing to the scientific community. We’re missing out on a ton of brainpower to help solve some big problems like the inter-related issues of climate change, energy production, and population growth that will require scientific and technical solutions. That’s not just a loss for the developing world, that’s a loss for the entire world.