12 August 2019Air pollution in a tweet: communicating complex science
Pallavi Pant is an air quality scientist who aims to combine data and narrative to communicate the dangers of air pollution to a broader audience.
Air pollution is a complex issue that is difficult to communicate to most people. What causes air pollution? How does it affect our children’s cognitive development? What does air pollution have to do with rising temperatures?
Pallavi Pant is an air quality scientist who received her PhD in urban air quality in 2014. Today, she is a staff scientist at the Health Effects Institute in Boston. She is also Social Media Editor with the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, where she aims to communicate the journal’s work to a broader audience.
Helena Molin Valdes, Head of the Climate & Clean Air Coalition Secretariat, said: “Our digital age brings tremendous advantages—like the vast array of information readily available on environmental topics.
“But when it comes to communicating science, it’s vital to get the facts right. Young people like Pallavi—experts in their field with a passion to drive forward clear messages about air pollution, health and climate—are commendable in their ability to communicate the problems and how we can be part of the solution.”
This International Youth Day, themed “transforming education,” we asked Pant why, as a scientist, she feels compelled to tweet. How does she educate and bring complex messages to a non-scientific audience?
What influenced your decision to be a scientist, and is being a woman in this field a challenge?
I grew up in a household where curiosity was encouraged. I remember designing scientific experiments to test hypotheses as a kid with my friends. Throughout high school and college, I took steps towards a career in environmental science. In the early days, I wasn’t sure what aspect I would focus on; air pollution piqued my interest and I spent more time understanding it better. My personal experience living in Delhi—seeing the quality of air change over time—was another key contributing factor. Being a woman in science is fun and exciting, but also poses challenges. Occasionally, it has been difficult to deal with stereotypes that influence people’s interactions. In some instances, it is also about being safe—in the field working alone for example. But overall, I’ve had a good experience, and my mentors have been supportive.
Why do you feel it’s important to communicate science to a general audience?
Huge portions of important scientific research are still behind paywalls, and people are often unable to find accurate, reliable information, especially on digital media. Combined with the need for ‘bite-sized’ information, it is critical that scientists find ways to engage with the public, to dispel myths where they exist, and share useful information. After all, the goal for science is to help move towards a better future, isn’t it? During my PhD program, I started a knowledge platform—Air Quality in India—to publicize and communicate the latest science and policy developments on air pollution. I co-founded a similar effort for South Asia—Air South Asia. It is important that accurate, scientifically valid information is brought to the public. I also give public seminars on the topic of air pollution, and I answer queries from concerned individuals about sources of air pollution and possible impacts on human health. I engage with organizations that work directly with communities and point them towards trusted sources of information. On social media, I post curated content on air pollution.
The Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology is one of the first environmental journals to create its own social media platforms. What influenced this decision?
When I spoke with the journal editors, it was clear that they were trying to expand the reach and make the information accessible to a broad audience. I had some experience doing that, and this seemed to be an excellent opportunity to expand my skills too! We hope to disseminate new findings from research published in the journal on social media, and get others interested in the field of environmental health.
What is the biggest challenge you face in communicating air pollution science?
When we train as scientists, we are encouraged to speak in scientific terms. The first issue I encountered was to learn to take a minute and think about my choice of words, and how they would be interpreted by a particular audience. Air pollution science is often complex, and it is a hard task to explain the nuance of the science while making it engaging and interesting. For example, air pollutants can be primary [directly emitted] and secondary [formed in atmosphere from other pollutants], and control strategies are very different for both types of pollutants. Communicating this effectively can be challenging. Sometimes, it is only a matter of directing people to the right information. In other cases, some thinking is required. In all cases, the bottom line for me is to make the information relatable for the particular audience.
How do you hope to take your storytelling to a level where it can reach more people?
I am still learning ways to communicate science better, and weave data and stories together to generate meaningful narratives for people. This year, I am hoping to expand a large, open-source database on air pollution in India, set up a mentoring network for women in air quality in the South and continue working to expand the reach of the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.
Can you summarize the main threats of air pollution in 140 characters?
Air pollution impacts our health, environment & economy; we need to act both at personal & societal levels to improve the quality of air.
The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. This year’s regional finalists have been shortlisted and the winners will be announced in September. Stay tuned!