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Air Quality to Inform Policy at CARB

Gaining work experience through internships or partnerships is one of the most important elements of the Ridge 2 Reef (R2R) training program. These internships are designed to provide students an enriching experience in the field and bridge the gap between earning a PhD and finding work outside of academia. R2R’s commitment to serving students and facilitating their academic and professional success through the required internship is actually what attracted Annie Anderson to apply as an R2R trainee.

While many students take little time between earning their Bachelor’s and pursuing graduate school, Annie is one of the graduate students that took time to develop her work experience. She worked for six years in between her Bachelor’s degree and graduate school, employed by several global fortune 500 companies doing the environmental work necessary to ensure that their practices were safe. She has always been interested in a career in the environmental research sphere, so when she went back to school in 2017, she studied atmospheric chemistry. It was then she heard about R2R’s commitment to providing students with skills and opportunities to work outside of academia. She felt that the R2R program would be a perfect fit given her academic and work experience, and especially because she noticed that there are often more advantages outside of academia for students with internship experience.

Annie came to intern at the California Air Resources Board (CARB) at the recommendation of her PI. CARB is a unique, state-level governmental organization that oversees and ensures air quality in California. Annie’s PI felt that it would make a good fit for her as she was initially thinking about doing work regarding the local air quality. Annie’s goal was to connect environmental research and policy to address how poor air quality usually disproportionately affects working-class people.

In order to get this research started, three directors at CARB pitched their research topics and gave Annie the option; sort of like speed-dating, but for research! She then decided to research how the increasing number of wildfires in California are changing the chemistry of the air, specifically ozone formation. Ozone is a unique pollutant because it is not directly emitted. Instead, it is formed from a chemical reaction in the air from precursor emissions. Depending on the specific mixture of emissions in a local area, ozone increases or decreases will be dictated by direct emissions of one of two groups of pollutants: either NOx or volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Both of these are emitted in huge concentrations from wildfires. Much of this research was done remotely and independently. Annie met with her manager usually once a week to set a direction for her work, but given that much of the data she worked with came from satellites, she was able to work on her own remotely in Irvine. This independent research wasn’t Annie’s only duty. At CARB, she also went to group meetings and got feedback from team members and was given speaking opportunities to present her research to an interdisciplinary fire management group of about 50 people in remote presentations. Ultimately, her research showed that the major increase in VOC emissions from wildfires changed how sensitive different areas’ ozone formation was to the NOx and VOC precursor emissions. She observed that during the wildfire season, wildfires increased ozone by 14 ± 5 ppb in the central part of the state (often pushing the area well over the Clean Air Act hazardous level of 70 ppb total). She also found that burning days identified outside of wildfire season had a much smaller observed increase in ozone formation, and were likely associated with agricultural or prescribed burning. This data will be helpful to weigh out the pros and cons of fire management policy as it relates to the impacts of air quality on affected groups of people.

Annie notes that this three-month internship was an expansive opportunity and a “big confidence builder.” She was able to employ her PhD problem-solving skills in a brand new research area, which R2R encourages students to practice in small groups. The internship was also a way to gain important experience beyond her PhD laboratory research on atmospheric chemistry of pesticides. Overall, her internship and R2R have been valuable experiences both academically and professionally.

Co-authored by Annie Anderson and Jacqueline Markham

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