Virginia Tech® home

All About Air Pollution with Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz joined Virginia Tech’s “Curious Conversations” to talk about air pollution and its misconceptions. He shared his insights related to how plant and human emissions interact and what that means for our shared environment, as well as how he got into this field of study and his hope for the future.

About Isaacman-VanWertz

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz is an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and an affiliate faculty member of the Global Change Center. His research focuses on understanding the chemical transformations of reactive organic compounds in the atmosphere – their physicochemical properties, their fate in the environment, and their impacts on ecosystems and populations. He is currently researching air quality in Ecuador with a focus on the impact of climate change on the Amazon rainforest and its feedback on the atmosphere.

Related Content

Travis Williams (00:30.434)

So, I guess what I'm curious about to start this off with is what is a common misconception that folks have or some folks have about air pollution?

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (00:57.122)

Sure. Air pollution is really complicated. There's a lot of different types of it. There's a lot of ways that it forms. And I think the quote you're referring to and the misconception you're referring to is that when we think about air pollution, a lot of what we think about is what we see coming directly out of buses and trucks and cars. And there are places where that's true, certainly. I mean, I live here sort of in the outskirts of Quito and you see buses drive by and you see big...poofs of smoke come out of the back. But one of the other, one of the big sources of air pollution is actually what we call secondary air pollution, or it's basically chemically formed air pollution. So a lot of air pollution is actually mixtures of chemicals in the air reacting with reactions that are driven by the sun, we call it photochemistry. And that forms things like particles and things like ozone as well. And so there's a lot of pollutants out there that you can't even see or chemistry happening that you can't see that's forming. Pollutants you can see. And so what I study and what my community studies are those sort of chemical processes that form particulate matter, form ozone, form those pollutants that are so bad for our health.

Travis Williams (02:13.71)

Okay, that's awesome. Well, I know, I guess, hmm. So I guess you're also right now, you're in Ecuador, and you're, is this part of the Fulbright Scholarship?

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (02:26.102)

See, yeah. Yeah, so I came in, it's part of sabbatical and it's part of Fulbright. So I was on a Fulbright scholarship or award for my first semester. So officially the Fulbright has ended but I'm still involved with them because I'm still in country. I still have meetings with them and chat with them. And especially right now, you've probably seen Ecuador made it to the New York Times a few days ago which is not usually a good sign.

And so there's been some unrest and some, the state of emergency was declared. So I've been in a lot of communication with Fulbright right about some of that. So yeah, so I'm in Ecuador basically to build some research relationships and to pursue some new research directions. And part of that is Fulbright and part of that is just building connections here in Ecuador.

Travis Williams (03:17.818)

Yeah, and what are you studying in Ecuador? What are you researching there?

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (03:22.006)

Sure. So the project that I sort of came in originally interested in has gone in a lot of different directions as these things often do. And I should say, actually, I didn't really mention it. One of the reasons I ended up at the university that I'm at is that we have a standing exchange program agreement between Virginia Tech, civil and environmental engineering, and I think a few of the other engineering programs and the university that I'm at. So there is actually a standing exchange agreement, which is how I've made some of these connections. So if anyone's interested, I'm happy to talk with them about what that actually can look like. So the research that I'm doing here is that the university has a research station that's sort of off in the eastern part of the country in the Amazon rainforest. And the Amazon rainforest is obviously really interesting for a lot of biological and ecological reasons. It's also really important for global air quality and global atmosphere and global climate. And so one of the big questions that I'm interested in is as the ecology and the climate changes, that will change the types of trees, the distributions of trees, the types of ecosystems in the rainforest and around the research station. And then that in turn will have a feedback, will basically have another effect on the air. So the temperature might change the types of trees there are. And then those trees will emit different chemicals into the air and that will do different chemistry. So we're interested in the sort of historical and also the future trends in the ecology and how that changes the atmosphere.

Travis Williams (05:02.17)

So let me see if I understand that because it's a little bit out of my level of expertise, right? So it sounds like what you're saying is you're trying to get a better big picture of how humans and the environment interact.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (05:19.826)

Yeah, absolutely. We're trying to understand how climate change, which changes things in a lot of different ways, changes our ecosystem, changes our forests, changes all of this. But then those changes go on to have other changes for the climate, right? The atmosphere changes the trees and the trees change the atmosphere and we go back and forth and back and forth. And so we're trying to understand sort of how those relationships are. And globally, the Amazon is just a really important place for global atmospheres. A lot of what goes into the atmosphere comes out of the tropics and out of the rainforest. A lot of cloud formation happens there, which controls a lot of how sunlight comes in and out of Earth. And so my goal here really is to understand the history and then the future of the rainforest, you know, on the Ecuador side, because we have a research station here and we have 20 years of...ecology research and biology research here. Since getting here, I've also formed all these relationships with professors here where we're also just trying to understand the air quality in the Quito area. There are some measurements here, but there's just not a lot. And so we're collecting samples in the town where I live, we're collecting samples at the university and just trying to understand what sorts of hazards might be in the air there.

Travis Williams (06:43.282)

Yeah, and ultimately, I would assume that maybe your goal is if we better understand how this thing works, we can better take care of it.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (06:52.522)

Yeah, absolutely. We really want to understand how changes might impact the climate and how climate might impact the ecosystems. And then hopefully be better at taking care of it, which is obviously a complicated political issue.

Travis Williams (07:13.61)

Yeah, it is. I am curious though from somebody who studies this, is there anything on an individual level that a person like me could do to maybe help in some small way?

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (07:27.426)

Sure, I mean, I think a lot of it are probably the things that you've been told for, you know, 10 years. And I think they're all still really valuable. Things like, you know, trying to drive less and biking to work and, you know, setting thermostats slightly down and things like that. Each of those are very small for an individual. But those, you know, vehicles are a major source of...of greenhouse gases in the US. Heating and cooling is as well, power generation is. So using electricity less is valuable. You know, a lot of these things need to change at a structural level, at a political level, right, where we can control how processes are actually being, you know, how power is actually being generated, things like that. But of course, it's never going to hurt to try to do less yourself or try to try to expend less, do more yourself. I think that it's always valuable for a person to do that. I do think that we need sort of political solutions as well. Things, you know, other things, sort of like things like eating less meat can be a major impact as well. You know, if you are in a position where you own a house and have the money to do so, solar panels, things like that can make big differences for your personal contribution, but obviously. I do think that at some point you need sort of national level, state level, political level interventions.

Travis Williams (08:55.418)

Yeah. Sure. Well, one of the questions I wrote down was I was going to ask because I'd read a lot about plant emissions in some of your work and I was curious and maybe we've kind of touched on that a little bit, but I'm curious what the greatest human factors are when it comes to plant emissions, how they impact.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (09:05.064)

Yeah. So the, when I talked about sort of that secondary pollution at the beginning of this, where, where a lot of pollutants, ozone and even a lot of particulate matter, um, is not coming out of the back of a truck directly, it's, it's forming in the atmosphere. And the way that it's forming is that what we call reactive gases, reactive organic gases. So there's these gases that get emitted that have carbon and hydrogen and sometimes oxygen in them. Um, and you know, a lot of them by

So it's basically the sites of things that you actually are used to smelling. So the smell of gasoline, the smell of diesel, that's a mixture of all of these reactive gases. But also the smell of pine trees is a chemical called pining. The smell of lemons is a chemical called limonene. All of these things. And in reality, that drives, like those types of chemicals are actually the fuel for the chemistry that happens in the atmosphere. And big picture, the way that chemistry forms pollutants is that we have...all of these emissions, things like the smell of pine trees and the smell of lemons, and those are actually much more on a global level, there's much more of them than there are the smell of gasoline, the smell of diesel. But they don't tend to form a lot of pollutants on their own, they form a lot of pollutants when they mix with the types of things that humans emit. So when we burn anything, whenever anything burns, it releases a bunch of stuff called nitrogen oxide, so.

It's nitrogen and oxygen or nitrogen and two oxygens, NO and NO2. And when those mix with sunlight and mix with the smells of trees and things like that, that's when you really get most of your sort of particle formation and ozone formation and things like that. There is some natural background, like the Blue Ridge Mountains, they're called the Blue Ridge Mountains because the forest is emitting all of those things and the sunlight is driving some chemistry and it makes that little haze that makes the ridges blue off in the distance. So there is some of that natural haze.

But really where we really get most of that pollution is when we're starting to do, when we start to introduce a lot of those nitrogen oxygen, when we start to burn a lot in those presence. So a human impacts, we're burning and combustion interface like meet up with forests and natural systems. That's where we tend to get a lot more of that air pollution and things like that. So sort of the single largest effect we have on air pollution isn't on the plant emissions, although a complicated and interesting story that I can talk about. But it's really on when we're burning stuff, it's mixing with those emissions, and that's forming the particle. So the plus side is that the way to solve that problem is you stop burning stuff, which is also basically the way you solve the CO2 problem also. So there's a sort of win-win on that side as well. Of course, the story is always more complicated than you want it to be. But generally, that's kind of how things work out. So you have sort of this fuel that's being released by forest around the world, and especially the Amazon. And that's why it's interesting where I am. And then you have almost this sort of spark or this catalyst that's being released by us that's causing all of that, you know, to turn into more pollution than otherwise might.

Travis Williams (12:28.601)

That's fascinating and stuff that I've never heard about that before, that idea. Now granted, this isn't my field, this is your field.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (12:39.982)

That's great. So I should tell you, I recently, I guess it's been about a year ago, with the help of the Science Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, and some folks they put me in touch with, put together an exhibit kind of about that idea at that science museum. So there's now an exhibit about the mixing of human emissions and natural emissions and things like that at the science museum, if you have a chance. Yeah, in Roanoke.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (13:09.782)

I was a supported national science foundation supported sort of a collaboration between me and the science museum there to put in an exhibit kind of about these ideas.

Travis Williams (13:10.17)

That's awesome.

Travis Williams (13:21.254)

Well, that is awesome. Shamefully, I've gone to that museum a few different times at this point, and I think most of my time there has been chasing a child. I don't know that I learned a lot.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (13:37.352)

That's fair.

Travis Williams (13:56.195)


Travis Williams (14:01.066)

Absolutely. I love actually love going up there and they have a um, there's another Whenever you're back, there's another you've probably you may have even been to it another children's section up there I forget what it's actually called, but it's just I forget what that place is called But you may know exactly what I'm talking about It's just like I was so impressed with it because kind of like a larger version of what is the wonder verse in Christiansburg In the mall here the wonder universe Just some you know

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (14:26.365)

Mm hmm. Yeah, wonder universe. Yeah.

Travis Williams (14:28.802)

Yeah, just inside stuff that I'll probably won't leave in this podcast.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (14:35.216)

Yeah, actually there's a really interesting relationship.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (14:42.75)

Is mama around? Sorry. Okay, just leave it, just go play for a few minutes. It's okay, she'll take care of it. Computer turned off, it's fine. Yeah, again, inside, so there's a really interesting relationship. Virginia Tech, I don't exactly know how the support of the funding operates, but basically co-employees and somebody at the museum as a liaison between the two. Her name is Phyllis Newbill. And there's a little bit of a, almost like,

Travis Williams (14:45.563)

You're good.

Travis Williams (15:10.951)

Oh yeah, I know Phyllis.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (15:12.722)

a cottage industry between people writing exhibits into grants as they were like what NSF calls broader impacts as basically a way to do outreach. And there's this really sort of co-beneficial stream of researchers get to do these outreach activities and the museum gets this sort of semi-constant stream of new exhibits, you know, supported in part by National Science Foundation. So if you actually go to the Science Museum in Western Virginia, there's a number of exhibits that you'll see from professors at Virginia Tech. about the bigger pictures of their research and stuff because of that sort of win-win scenario they've developed. It's really smart for everyone involved.

Travis Williams (15:51.226)

Yeah, that sounds really cool. Maybe that's something that I should spend some time writing about. Because I mean, I...

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (15:56.958)

Yeah, it's been great. I mean, I know a couple of people who have done exhibits there and it's really win-win. You got this really sort of interesting and unique angle to your proposal and the museum gets an exhibit, basically.

Travis Williams (16:11.298)

Yeah, that's awesome. Well, that's super cool. And as a parent, you know how valuable those types of things are on a rainy Saturday.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (16:20.146)

Absolutely. Yeah. So actually, my background, one of the things that made me very interested in that is that before I went back to grad school, I worked at the Science Museum in San Francisco, called the Exploratorium, which is a fairly famous science museum there, as basically a floor staff as an educator. And so when I went back to grad school, you know, I sort of realized that it was tough to make a full time career there, although people have.

Travis Williams (16:32.358)


Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (16:44.946)

done that obviously out of that line of work, but that as a professor, I could be still involved in that formal informal education side of things.

Travis Williams (16:53.574)

That's really cool. I was going to ask you how did you get into studying air quality?

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (17:01.85)

Um, the story is a little bit interesting. It's a little bit, um, unusual. I actually often talk to my graduate students about it because I think a lot of people have this idea that academics and researchers, you know, have known forever that they want to do this or that, and they really pursued it. And, and obviously that's true for some and that's a path, but I think that in my particular case, um, a lot of it is that the, sorry.

Baby, I'm on a call. Love. I put them away because you guys were fighting about them. You wait till tomorrow's out of the shower, please. So to answer your question, it is something that I talk a lot about with graduate students and with postdocs and when I do early career things at conferences, that my path is not particularly... I don't know if it's particularly unusual, but it wasn't prescribed.

Travis Williams (17:32.37)

You're fine.


Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (18:01.214)

in any way. It was very much when I was in undergrad, I really enjoyed doing chemistry, but I also really enjoyed the environmental science. And so I did some chemistry research, I did environmental science and I really liked those communities. But the research I was doing was, to simplify, it was basically like trying to find a new catalyst that would make copy machines better, which was sort of scientifically fundamentally interesting, but it wasn't a thing that I had a lot of passion about.

And so I left academia, essentially. I got my degree and I went out to San Francisco and I worked a number of jobs in informal education. And I found that I really enjoyed the education aspect but that I wanted to get back into research. And so I basically applied to grad schools and had a lot of conversations with people at Berkeley because I lived out there. And so I basically reached out to environmental chemists because that sort of was the bridge of what I had done as an undergrad. And honestly, I sort of got taken in by an atmospheric chemist. I had actually reached out mostly to water and soil chemists, because I think that's what a lot of people think about when they think about environmental chemistry. If they spend any time thinking about environmental chemistry, you think about water quality, you might think about soil, things like that. And I don't think we think a lot about air, and I certainly didn't. And so I basically...Um, you know, environment and atmospheric chemists took me into his group and I was open, you know, I think, I think being open to enjoying whatever you're working on at any time is a really valuable part of being an academic. And so I got into it and here I am basically. Um, but I also think it's been really interesting because I don't think it's a thing people think a lot about. Um, they don't think that much about the air they breathe unless they're specific issues, right. And, and Fortunately for a lot of us in the US, we don't live under specific issues anymore. Air quality is largely in the US a success story. It's not perfect. And there are certainly places, and particularly places without political power, that suffer from air quality issues. But as a whole, the country has done sort of quite well since the Clean Air Act. And so I think we don't think about it a lot. And so I think that has been sort of a fun aspect is trying to help people think about it more. One of the things I like to...

point out to people is that you actually breathe in more air by weight than you drink water. So you're actually more, there's more mass of air, more weight of air goes into your lungs each day than the amount of water you drink. Now, most of that comes back out, right? But still, the, it's something that we don't really think about, right? Air is nothing, but you breathe so much of it that it actually, the air you breathe each day, where it's more than the water you drink.

Travis Williams (20:40.744)

A lot of the water comes back out too.

Travis Williams (20:49.574)

That is fascinating. I think you just got some good life advice in there though for non-academic, just people in general, right? Be open to enjoying what you're working on. That's awesome.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (20:50.804)

Thank you.


Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (20:54.782)


Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (21:00.434)

Yeah, so I think that really was my path. I never said, you know, I did environmental chemistry and I was interested in that. But I never said I'm going to go do this. And I would say until several years into my into my doctorate, I wasn't sure I would go into academia until my advisor sort of pulled me aside and said, I think you'd be good at this and it's a pretty great job. And so, yeah, I think I guess my main advice is I don't think people need to know what they're want to do in a few years, especially at the like schooling level. I think being open to enjoying what you're doing can take you down paths you might not have expected.

Travis Williams (21:40.174)

Yeah, I think that is excellent advice. Well, I guess the last thing that I want to ask you about, because when we talk about pollution, we talk about climate change, those conversations can be kind of grim. I'm curious though, what gives you hope?

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (21:52.31)


Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz (21:57.518)

Sure. It's a really good question. I mean, I think when we think about the climate issues, it can be very difficult and it can be sort of depressing and sometimes. I think that there are really great examples from our history when we were able to come together and solve issues. And you know, maybe those issues were easier to solve in some way, but at the time they still felt huge. Things like the ozone hole. You don't hear about the ozone hole?

And it's not because we stopped talking about it. It's because it's not really a huge issue anymore. The world came together, saw a problem, figured out how to fix it. And over 30, 40 years, um, it has gotten better. It's not perfect. It takes a long time for, for the earth to heal, so to speak. Um, so I think that there are cases like that where you have seen that people can come together and have, have a positive impact. Um, and at the same time, I think. That when I was a child.

Right. Things have changed, right? When I was young, which is getting farther and farther away. But when I was young, advertisement didn't, didn't accent things like environmental benefits and things like that. Right. And you can argue that a lot of that is what we would call greenwashing, right? Where things that aren't really great for the environment get sold. It's great for the environment. But the fact is that, that. Companies see a selling point to being good for the environment, right? Which means that people are responding to that and people recognize that as important. So I think.

there will always be ways to be depressed about it. But I think that there are glimmers of hope in this idea that people clearly want to know that what they are doing is beneficial or at least not negative. They may still continue to do things that are negative or not beneficial, but they want to find solutions to that to some extent or another, right? And at the same time, we see a history of being able to come together. So.

Hopefully those things are enough and in time. I think there will always be issues. We, you know, certain things are too late and we're going to have to adapt and all of that. But your question is about where are things hopeful? And I think that's where things are hopeful. Where you see that people have an interest, even if they don't necessarily prioritize it, they have an interest. And that wasn't true when I was 10, right? That wasn't true when I was really little, or maybe it was just starting to be true. So things have changed in that.

So I think that's where I sort of find hope that, that all comes together fast enough to work well enough to avert most of the issues, or some, well, maybe not most of it, as much of the issues as we can. Yeah.

Travis Williams (24:38.774)

Yeah, that's really cool. That's really cool. Well, thank you so much for talking to me.