Clarity took the opportunity to chat with Dr. Cesunica (Sunni) Ivey and learn about her new role as an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Our conversation covers Sunni's research and environmental justice work, how she envisions the future of air quality data collection, and how designing research to focus on human exposure drives positive real-world impacts. 

Sunni leads the Air Quality Modeling and Exposure Lab, a research center focused on answering questions related to community-scale exposure and source characterization of air pollution. Sunni has used Clarity's sensor technology in some of her studies, which use advanced air quality modeling and data fusion approaches to address these questions. 

A transcript of our conversation is below here — welcome to the Bay Area, Sunni! 

Thank you so much for joining us today and lending us your time. The first thing we'd like to ask you is what initially interested you in studying air quality? 

Thank you for the question — my initial motivation for working in air quality was my overall enthusiasm for environmental studies. I was on the STEM track, specifically engineering, studying at Georgia Tech as a Bachelor of Civil Engineering student. I learned of the air quality technical electives as I went along the way, and I was very interested in that science. And that's when I decided to pursue undergraduate research under a principal investigator (PI) that focused on air pollution engineering.

What has been the focus of your research on air quality? Are there any specific topics that you generally focus on?

Good question. So my traditional training is in air quality modeling, and one of the most important air pollution management tools is the ability to simulate historical and future air pollution episodes. Specifically, this is very important for policy planning — for example, regulatory strategy planning. 

I also had a fascination with computers, so I was very excited about blending computers, science, and other types of technology for the purpose of mitigating air pollution. So while by training I'm an air quality modeler, more recently I've become interested in human exposures, and how we can apply traditional methods to actually improve people's overall air quality at the individual scale. 

Usually when you're participating in research, you learn how to become more skeptical, ask questions, and challenge traditional knowledge. And so I've since challenged my knowledge set in air quality modeling, and I'm asking myself, “Is this helping to reduce exposures, particularly for those that are disproportionately exposed?” 

What I'm learning is that we need a combination of methods. We need air pollution models for planning, and we also need very fine-scale measurements to uncover sources and exposures that we may not have been aware of. My own personal experience illustrates this — I've recently gotten into wearable sensing, and when I wore the sensor I found out that I was actively doing something that was culturally part of my routine that was generating a lot of particles. I've since stopped doing that. 

That transition from habitual behaviors to applying what I know as a scientist and engineer was difficult. And if it was difficult for me, I think it could possibly be even more difficult for the general public. And so that's where my research lies right now — trying to figure out how we can use science and math concepts to encourage human adaptation.

Thank you for sharing that with us — it’s great that your research perspective is shaped your own personal experience and individual level of air pollution exposure. I think that’s really important. Speaking of individual exposure to air pollution, have you observed an increase in public awareness of air quality in recent years with events like COVID-19 and more frequent wildfires? And if so, how does that impact your research?

That's a great question. I have seen an increase in public interest. The strongest marker is media engagement, and I have been receiving more media inquiries than in the past. Over 2020 and 2021, media outlets seemed to be quite interested in how the COVID-19 shutdown has impacted ambient air pollution due to a reduction in human activity. They are also interested in wildfire smoke exposure, because of the out-of-control fires we're seeing every fire season out here in the Western U.S. And usually, that level of media engagement reflects public concern and public interest. 

How does that affect my research? Well, it helps me justify what I do, for sure. It also gives me an opportunity to engage with the public in a way that is symbiotic. Through public engagement I learn what is important to people, and therefore I can iterate my research questions. As researchers, I think it's important that we keep in mind that we are serving the public. And what we do is for public good, so getting direct public feedback, through this renewed interest, I find to be very, very helpful.

Yes, absolutely. And speaking of research, what will be the focus of your research here at UC Berkeley?

Yeah, there are some really exciting things in store at UC Berkeley. I'm finding out that UC Berkeley is a place where you can really let your mind wander in very productive ways. My focus will continue to be in individual exposure monitoring, specifically to address environmental justice issues around air pollution exposure. 

I also want to dive deep into how human behaviors and human cultures inform the adaptation that is needed or recommended as a result of science and technological research. So I am, in real-time, developing this new concept, or moving into a new space where human interactions and human behaviors will drive some of that research inquiry.

That sounds very interesting — we will look forward to seeing that research as it is published! So as an air quality researcher, what additional air quality data do you hope to see collected in the coming years? And what gaps do you think exist in our current measurement of air pollution?

I'm excited about dense low-cost sensor networks, which are helping us to better understand air pollution trends in locations that are traditionally not monitored by federal- or state-sponsored monitors. That provides data autonomy to communities that may not have a reference monitor near their neighborhood. I'm excited about how low-cost technology is somewhat validating the lived experiences of people that have been complaining about air pollution issues for years. 

I'm also excited about how the Internet of Things and small wearable sensors are allowing us to provide more personalized data and allowing people to get more engaged and have a better sense of their own personal air pollution exposures. In 2021, we can go to Google Maps and figure out how long it's going to take us to get from point A to point B. And I think in the next 10 years, people will be able to do the same with their air pollution exposure at their fingertips.

Absolutely. You touched on this, but if there's anything else you'd like to add regarding the role that low-cost sensors have played in your own research?

I have to give credit to the researchers at EPA, CU Boulder, Carnegie Mellon, and so forth who have done a great job characterizing the fidelity of these sensors, because that allows people like me to have faith in the data so that I can go out and use these technologies for various justice-centered applications. Since sensors have been fairly well characterized, we understand the uncertainties that allow someone like me who is traditionally an in silico researcher to branch out and address other things in a cost-effective way. Low-cost sensors have allowed me to explore other research areas that probably would not have been possible if I had to use big bulky reference instrumentation — and I would say this is true for most air quality researchers that don't have a lot of resources, either. 

A lot of times access to expensive equipment is a barrier to entry into fieldwork for ambient air pollution studies, and low-cost sensors reduce or lower that barrier to entry. It actually creates a space where we can have more accessible and equitable research.

Thank you for sharing that. How can researchers best collaborate with social and environmental justice organizations to affect change with respect to air quality or other environmental justice issues? And are there any examples of this that you'd like to share with us?

So that's a very, very timely and important question. The best practices for engineers, when it comes to engaging with environmental justice groups, are not well defined. I'd say we're in the midst of developing those best practices. 

But as an example of how I think a successful implementation has come about, I'll point to my own research, and specifically the AB 617 program in California. AB 617 provides funding for symbiotic community-researcher relationships, which facilitated my research relationship with environmental justice groups in inland Southern California. And I'd say what allowed that to work was the fact that it is supported by the state legislature. So we felt supported, and we felt like people wanted to know the outcomes of our synergies.

Having formal support for this type of research provides quite a bit of motivation and security for people that are in this space, because environmental justice work is sometimes looked at as taboo. But that is very confusing to me because addressing disparity issues in the US, to me, is analogous to going overseas to developing countries and trying to fix their issues. And I really don't see why that is acceptable, and domestic research on disparities and environmental challenges is taboo. That doesn't make sense to me. 

And so, because it's taboo, we haven't fully articulated the best practices for those synergies. I think we're getting closer to finding a model that works because people are trying and we increasingly have the permission to work on these issues domestically.

Great, thank you for sharing that. That's very interesting. And speaking of how we can apply the findings from this research to help people, in what ways do you hope to see your research applied for real-world impact?

My research is built to have real-world impact. I choose research questions that have direct applicability to policy development and to human adaptation. So if anything, I hope that my research and the way I approach research would be motivation for other people in this space to be bold and design their research questions in a way that explicitly addresses human challenges. 

You know, it doesn't have to be sterile. We don't have to completely eliminate human elements from our research and engineering, we can actually center on human elements. And I hope that people are inspired to do the same thing across all engineering disciplines as a result of seeing my work.

Thank you for sharing that. And our final question today is if you have a takeaway message that you would like to share with readers.

I encourage the readers to interrogate everything they read, see, and hear through a critical lens, through the lens of their core value system — and to trust in their responses to that interrogation. 

If they find that what they're seeing or what they're hearing elicits an uncomfortable response, perhaps that means that there's work to be done by people at different levels of power. That includes scientific literature, it includes bills introduced into the State Senate. It also includes the rhetoric from our friends and family. 

I encourage people to take that critical lens in their work and in their day-to-day lives, because that's what moves us toward better solutions and an overall better quality of life for everyone. And be bold enough to take your core values with you when you're carrying out your research, when you're teaching, when you're consulting. Because that's truly what makes a difference.

Great, thank you so much for sharing that with us. And thank you so much for lending your time. We really appreciate you joining us for this conversation.

A bright future for air quality research in Berkeley

Thanks again to Sunni for sharing her research and insights with us here at Clarity! We look forward to seeing the impact of Dr. Ivey’s air quality research and environmental justice work in coming years. You can find out more about Dr. Ivey’s Air Quality Modeling and Exposure Lab here.