Public Interest in Environmental Issues from Massachusetts to Missouri

Friday, September 14, 2018

By James Rowe, Project 2 Grad student

Recently I found myself staying in St. Louis, Missouri to attend a conference for researchers who focus on atmospheric science. The conference was located downtown near the river, which gave ample opportunity to check out the St. Louis Arch and the recently dedicated National Park that surrounds it. From here I was able to gaze upon the gushing waters of the Mississippi, watch the sun cast its light on the heartland of America, and listen to the symphony of cicadas that sounds so sweet to someone from the south like me. Needless to say, I was struck by such natural beauty residing in the middle of a bustling urban center. And, in my opinion, I think the residents of St. Louis were as well. I was never alone at the park, there were always crowds lounging on the open grassy spaces or running along the river paths.

Another observation I made about St. Louis was that the people seemed very interested in the research conference I was attending. The mayor had made a formal declaration dedicating the week to the conference, businesses hung signs in their windows welcoming members of the conference, and locals stopped to ask us about our work. This was unusual because, to be frank, my research doesn’t have much crowd appeal. I focus on aerosol particles, which are small pieces of liquid or solid materials suspended in our atmosphere. They are too small to see, but they have huge impacts on our health and climate. These particles are important for the work of the MIT Superfund Research Program (SRP) because harmful chemicals are sometimes found within aerosol particles, affecting the transport and exposure of those chemicals (see this post by fellow MIT SRP researcher Dr. Hélène Angot for more details). The conference was dedicated to aerosol research (literally, called the International Aerosol Conference), so I expected to be talking about it with colleagues. However, when I ended up talking with a local man named Antoine about them, I was rather surprised. He had heard that the conference was about air pollution, and wanted to know which area we studied. We ended up talking about the chemistry that happens in our atmosphere and how that relates to our health. After saying goodbye, I was left wondering, what makes everyone so curious?

Now that I’m back in Boston, I could sing equally elegant praises about the outdoor features of our city. The Charles River and surrounding esplanade constantly draws us out of hectic urban life into the beauty of nature. And here too, in Boston, there is what I consider to be an increased level of interest in environmental issues. I’ve seen this mainly through the MIT SRP’s partnerships with community organizations like the Friends of the Malden River (FoMR) and the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA). These organizations aren’t groups of professionals getting paid for their work, they’re simply residents; teachers, business people, retirees, who want to do what they can for their environment. They organize clean ups for their respective water features, host events to engage the public, and invite speakers to come and increase their understanding of the environment. After seeing all this during my first year of grad school, I am again left wondering, what makes these people care?

Among other reasons, I would propose that maybe having access to natural elements within the city keeps the citizens of St. Louis and Boston in touch with their environment and more concerned about it. Taking this to be true, our work as part of the SRP becomes that much more important. The SRP stems from national efforts to clean up Superfund sites, which are areas of heavy chemical contamination throughout the US. If our research can help remediate these areas and make them safe for public use, then maybe local citizens will have more access to their environment, take a greater interest in the safety of the environment, and take steps to prevent future environmental calamities like Superfund sites. This process may take years to complete, but it certainly motivates my work with the MIT SRP today.