Take 10 with... Jennifer Salmond

Professor Jennifer Salmond, from the School of Environment, gives us 10 minutes of her time to discuss her research about how risks associated with poor air quality can be reduced.

Professor Jennifer Salmond, School of Environment
Professor Jennifer Salmond, School of Environment

1.  Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

Causes of urban air pollution and potential mitigation strategies.

2.  Now explain it in everyday terms!

My research examines the reasons for the build-up of urban air pollution at localised points in time and space. I use this information to determine when and where people are most likely to be exposed to high concentrations of air pollution and then look for ways in which the risks associated with poor air quality can be reduced. This could be by changing urban design, land-use or human behaviour.

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

I work with a team of people from the University and local companies - primarily Aeroqual and Mote - to develop novel cost-effective ways to measure air pollution using dense networks of sensors. Most of my time is spent working with research students and colleagues to design effective deployment strategies for the sensors and interpret the large volumes of data we receive back from the instrument networks.

I also work with teams of researchers to collect air quality data from people as they move around cities in different ways such as using active transport (such as bikes, walking or running) or when travelling in cars, buses and trains. This research not only helps us to understand the effect of traveling by different types of transport on individual exposure to air pollution, it also helps us to identify the role of urban form and design in determining where in the city pollutants build up. This can help us to put bus stops in places where people are less likely to be exposed to high levels of pollution, or to design cities in different ways.

By combining information about air quality and population behaviour it is possible to target cost-effective mitigation strategies in areas where poor air quality affects large numbers of people. For example I am currently working with Auckland Council to find out how to use street vegetation to reduce pedestrian exposure to air pollution along heavily congested streets.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

I enjoy it most when my research makes a difference to people’s lives, their health and/or their enjoyment of urban areas. I also like helping my students develop confidence and skills as they discover new things, work through the challenges they face and develop their own research trajectories. Watching their personal development and sharing their joy when papers are published or degrees are conferred is one of the best parts of my job!

5.  Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

I am surprised that, despite recent advances in monitoring technology and our new found ability to collect data about almost everything, everywhere and all the time, we haven’t seen a step to change in the ways in which we can manage and mitigate environmental problems. Instead, we have moved from dealing with the limitations created by not enough data to the challenges associated with dealing with lots of data but of variable quality.

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

The interactions between the atmosphere, human behaviour and urban form which determine urban air quality are so complicated that it will be very difficult to ever claim to understand the causes and consequences of air pollution perfectly or accurately predict the effectiveness of any proposed mitigation strategy. One of the biggest challenges in my area of research is therefore knowing when you have enough data to make a decision, recommend a change or identify the underlying cause of a specific problem.

7.  What questions have emerged as a result?

One of the key questions that has emerged for me is: ‘how do wider social, economic, institutional and political agendas affect the research questions that I ask and the ways in which I conduct my research?’ I favour applying a critical physical geography perspective to scientific research which encourages a reflective approach, with an emphasis on identifying and acknowledging the assumptions which underpin theoretical frameworks, methodological approaches and the ways in which knowledge gets transformed into policy.

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope my research will lead to better urban planning and urban design which makes cities cleaner, safer and more pleasant places to live thereby enabling our lifestyles to become more sustainable. For example, I’m working on an early warning system to help alert decision makers when we expect poor air quality and brown haze with colleagues at MetService and Auckland Council.

Once this is operational we will be able to help people to change their behaviour both in ways to protect themselves from poor air quality by avoiding exercise or heavily congested routes on polluted days, and to limit further pollution by encouraging people to choose public transport or use a heat pump rather than an open fires to heat their houses on high pollution days. I hope that one day my research will help guide urban planners with urban greening initiatives, so that the benefits of planting trees can maximised and negative impacts can be avoided.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I collaborate primarily with colleagues in Chemistry (Professor David Williams) and in the School of Population Health (Associate Professor Kim Dirks). My research would not be possible without collaboration both within and beyond the science faculty as understanding the causes and consequences of air pollution requires a truly multi-disciplinary approach and the combining of skill sets. It is also fun working with people from a variety of different backgrounds, with different perspectives and ideas which enrich the projects I am involved in. Good research is so much easier if you have other people to share the high and lows, and to laugh at your mistakes with!

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Trust yourself and take calculated risks. You do know what you are doing, you can do it, but it is ok to ask for help. The trick to success lies not in running perfectly from the start, but in picking yourself up when you fall, and not worrying when you stumble or need to lean on others, as you learn to run.