Health

LISTEN: Pallavi Pant on decolonizing global air pollution research


Dr. Pallavi Pant joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss combatting air pollution in India, and how she’s working to elevate the voices of fellow female scientists.

Pant, an air pollution scientist and a staff scientist at the Health Effects Institute, also talks about why she chose to pursue research at a nonprofit, tools she uses to explain complex pollution data, and what it means to be language enthusiast.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Pant, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

Okay today’s show we gave our fellows a week off and I’m talking to Dr Pallavi Pant, an air pollution scientist and staff scientist at the Health Effects Institute. Pant is doing so much cool work and we talk about combating air pollution in India, elevating the voices of female scientists, and what it means to be a language enthusiast. Enjoy.

Alright I am super happy to be joined by Pallavi Pant. Pallavi, how are you doing this morning.

Pallavi Pant

Very good, Brian, and thank you for having me on the podcast today.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, thanks for being here and where are you talking to us from, where are you located?

Pallavi Pant

I am currently in Boston, where it is raining. But we just survived a mini heatwave, so all’s good.

Brian Bienkowski

Yes, maybe, maybe it’s a good thing it’s raining. Knock, maybe knock some of that heat out of the air. And a great day to do a podcast if it’s raining outside. Great, well I have become familiar with your work through Dr Ami Zota, who is the founding director at Agents of Change, and I find it fascinating, you’re doing so many things. But I want to start at the very beginning, if you could tell me a little bit about how you became interested in environmental health research and kind of the career path to where you’re at now.

Pallavi Pant

Absolutely. So, I am from India, and I grew up in Delhi, which is often in the news these days for being one of the most polluted cities around the world. But growing up that wasn’t my biggest concern. My introduction to environmental health, in some ways, came from fireworks, which we tend to burn during the Hindu festival of Diwali or the Festival of Lights. And our school used to have a program where, you know, we learned about how producing the fireworks and using them is really bad for the environment. That kind of sparked this, you know, interest in me for learning more about it and, unfortunately, at the time that I was sort of transitioning from high school to undergraduate programs, environmental sciences wasn’t a very big thing in India so we had very limited programs. And I actually started off with an undergraduate degree in plant biology or botany, but I did a lot of work on ecology and conservation, and then slowly sort of moved into environmental sciences for my master’s program, which was very helpful. That’s when I sort of started to learn more about the various options I had to pursue in this field. And then when I completed my master’s degree, I worked in India for about a year and a half, where I was helping set up a new organization that would fund work on climate energy and air pollution. So it was a very exciting space for me to work, I learned a lot, and I had a wonderful boss who has been an inspiration ever since. But I quickly realized that I needed more technical expertise to really make a significant contribution and so that sort of took me to England, where I did my PhD. And most of that work focused on air quality and air pollution in India and in the UK. I was looking at very different questions. But then another sort of spark was ‘great, you know, outdoor air quality is bad, but how does it really impact our health and what does it mean for us,’ especially in cities like, you know, Delhi and other sort of major megacities in the global south where pollution levels are very high. That then brought me to the US, where I’ve been for the last six or seven years. I did a postdoc, focusing on exposures to air pollution, and then joined the Health Effects Institute about two and a half years ago. And through this journey I think for the last decade or so, I’ve also been very, very fortunate to have worked with many nonprofits along the way, in various capacities and that’s just been a very illuminating and encouraging experience for me.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. And I’m wondering about that, if it was a conscious choice to work at a nonprofit, the Health Effects Institute, as a scientist because obviously there’s government positions, there’s a lot of folks that go into academia, and there are certainly opportunities and good things about nonprofits. And as someone who works at one, there are challenges at working at nonprofit. So was that a conscious choice to work in a nonprofit?

Pallavi Pant

It was a conscious choice, but one that took me a while to sort of get to. I think, originally when I went to the UK to do my PhD, I was very clear that I wanted to finish the PhD, come back to India, and continue the work that I have been doing. But I think those, you know, four years of research kind of pushed me more into academia, I was really interested in learning more, and doing more research work. But towards the end of my postdoc, I really had to make this choice of whether I would continue on in academia or switch back to nonprofits, which have been sort of a space of comfort for me and ultimately I did decide to go to the nonprofit world, in part because I really enjoyed the, you know, mission driven work which we are able to do at institutions. And also just the fact that often, but not always, nonprofits are small so you’re working with very close teams. There’s a lot of camaraderie and lots of, you know, good things to explore and grow into over time. Eventually I would also like to get to a place where I can do something on my own. So working at a nonprofit, is you know the best experience I can get for now to train for when that time comes.

Brian Bienkowski

I want to go back just quickly, I’m curious about this idea of fireworks, as part of a traditional, I believe this is a religious…Was that something that, was there awareness of the particulate—I assume this is particulate matter—was there awareness of that, is there awareness of that now, and were you thinking about that as, as a young, young woman growing up there?

Pallavi Pant

Yeah, this thing you know, this has been a very charged topic especially recently. But when I was growing up, growing up, there was a movement of sorts that actually the government was pushing where children were getting, you know a lot of awareness and training about how fireworks can be dangerous for health or the environment around us. And this was partly to address the problem of air pollution but partly also because the fireworks industry in India employs a lot of children, and in very unsafe conditions. So it was, you know, really meant as a way to try and encourage children to become aware about the issue, and then convince parents. And for a while it was a very successful tactic because children like me at the time started advocating for no use of fireworks and celebrating the festival in other ways. It was a while from then, when you know I really sort of grasp the full relevance of fireworks with respect to air quality and how that can have a huge impact. But I think at the beginning it was more of, you know, children like me trying to produce them so that we can just use some for a few hours. That was the initial sort of process that got me into this whole thinking.

Brian Bienkowski

Right. Kind of brilliant to instill some knowledge into young people, and then have the change kind of come from within instead of top down regulations that could cause all kinds of problems, it’s kind of a brilliant way of doing that. And you’ve become not only an accomplished scientist but you, I’ve seen you on Twitter, and I know you’re an excellent science communicator and you really put that at the heart of your work. And at what point in your career did outreach and communication become, become of interest, and how did you learn to do it so effectively.

Pallavi Pant

It’s been a very long process and I would say I’m still learning. The initial sort of thinking about, you know, how to communicate and what to communicate really came during my master’s program when I was working on a couple of different projects that were looking at air pollution levels in Delhi. And in the dead heat of summer, we were trying to interview people who were coming to petrol stations, and, you know, our gas stations, as we would say here. And interviewing them about their fuel use, how often they use their vehicles etc., and just communicating with people trying to get some information. This was around the time when Delhi had a major policy change where all public transportation was switched from diesel and petrol or gasoline over to CNG which was expected to bring some cleaner sort of benefits. And in talking with just, you know, people who have bigger concerns than air pollution or just how much levels are going to be, you started realizing how important it is to frame the messaging in a certain way so it could appeal to people. But that was sort of, you know, very abstract. I was trying to figure it out in my head what all this means, how it should be done, if there are ways to do it. It wasn’t until a few years later when I attended a course at UMass Amherst, where I did my postdoc, which was led by the Alan Alda center for science communication, that I really saw and sort of got introduced to the field of science communication and how to do it in a way that can be effective. And since then it’s sort of been a journey of exploring and learning and trying to test something out, see if it works and then do it again, and go from there.

Brian Bienkowski

What have you learned, can you tell me about some of the innovative outreach tools? I mentioned Twitter, I think that’s obviously, a lot of people are on that, a lot of people aren’t though as well. So, what are some of the tools or ways that you’re trying to reach folks, specifically in India to help limit people’s air pollution exposure.

Pallavi Pant

Yeah, so it’s actually been a very interesting journey for me because I started sort of doing my PhD program, realizing that a lot of work was happening around air pollution in India, whether on the policy side or the research side or advocacy side, but often there wasn’t a place for people to really follow that, or understand if new research is coming out, what that means. And I initially started on Facebook, which years ago was still a very active place for people to meet and talk and sort of learn new things. And from there, it started growing so I brought that same platform that I’ve, I’ve been running now for about eight years to Twitter and started connecting with others in the field. I personally didn’t join Twitter until a few years later, so it’s been for me also a very slow process. But the other thing that I found very effective and also very sort of satisfying in a way has been working directly with organizations and individuals that are trying to communicate to groups who are most affected by air pollution. And in some cases it’s the very boring things, you know, how do we put together a set of slides which can be used by someone. Or how do I tell this, you know, tell this group about the health effects of air pollution in a way that would be engaging for them. So in some cases I’ve done videos in collaboration with other groups, in some cases I have been really behind the scenes just trying to provide the scientific information, and then in other cases it’s been sort of very active and out there using social media—both Twitter, but also Instagram more recently. I’d say I’m still learning how to actively engage there. And then helping, you know, in some cases, helping others, figure out what their main message can be or should be in, you know, in sort of a world of relevant and important facts.

Brian Bienkowski

I think that point of working with local community groups is so important nowadays because I know as a journalism outlet, we will put something out, and a lot of times it almost feels like an echo chamber—that people that are interested in these issues see it, hear about it, share it. And maybe the folks who are most impacted by some of these issues are not sitting on Twitter, Facebook all day, sharing and talking and commenting. So I think that idea of finding the local groups, the organizations who are on the ground, and who already have done some of this groundwork is a really important point in a lot of science and science outreach. So before we move on I have other questions about your work, but I want to ask you a question that I ask everyone and that is, what is a defining moment or event that shaped your identity up to this point?

Pallavi Pant

Yeah, you know, this was, this was probably a question that I talked about quite a lot because as someone who grew up in India and then, you know, I’ve lived in two other countries now and there have been many different moments that have been very impactful in terms of what I have become today. But in, you know, in more recent memory, I think one of the things that also, in some ways was an important piece for me in terms of deciding academia versus nonprofit, was when I was in the job market and I was trying to actively look for positions. There were, you know a lot of considerations, there’s obviously your work, which is getting, you know, sort of, judged in some way and whether that’s worthy of future investments or not. But at the same time, you know, coming to terms with this idea that you are a minority, that you are a person of color, that you’re a woman, that you’re an immigrant, and you know trying to navigate that whole situation, and figure out where and how you can use your voice and your platform. It wasn’t always easy or you know, comfortable to do that. But I think some conversations around that time especially, I think one which will always stay with me was, sort of, you know someone commenting that as a, as an international person and a woman and a person of color, I would automatically get placed you know very high on the list of candidates for a position, because I checked so many boxes and there was no mention of my, you know, actual scientific credentials or the work that I had done. And I think that stayed with me and since that time, I have very consciously started thinking about how I use my voice as a person of color, as a woman, as an immigrant and, you know, highlight the challenges that we face. And, you know, places where our technical expertise and our sort of knowledge can often get sidelined because the other identities become more important. So that’s been a pretty defining moment in some ways, especially in the last few years of being in the US.

Brian Bienkowski

As someone who’s lived and grew up in India and moved to, to England, and then came here. I’m curious if you see this, what you just mentioned, are things getting better? You’ve been here a few years now, and I think I see this from the perch of Agents of Change where it seems like we are getting more diverse voices out there and there’s a community that’s excited about this and science is becoming more diverse, but that may be my bias because I work for this program. And I’m curious if you noticed that, if things are getting better, maybe some areas you see positive change going on.

Pallavi Pant

Definitely. I think you know we are, we are making progress and you know, as many have said to me, and I think I’ve sort of realized over time, as well, is that change is never going to be absolute, and it’s never going to be immediate. I, you know, seeing the Agents of Change program just myself and you know, learned about so many very talented people who are working in this field. There are also other very conscious efforts in places which you know nominally wouldn’t necessarily think about more diverse voices or including experiences and expertise which is relevant to the work we do, especially in environmental health. So there’s definitely, you know, positive movement and progression. One of the other areas that has been of interest to me and is very near and dear to my heart, has been the issue of, you know, who gets to do the science and where they get to do the science. So that kind of ties in with this question as well. And for a long time, it’s you know been pretty much a norm that oh, if there’s research that’s being done by people in the US or in Europe, it’s almost always considered more valuable or you know, more prestigious than people who are doing similar work in some cases but are publishing out of India or out of Bangladesh or Nepal. And even in that context when we think about, you know, the, the need to highlight voices that’s happening more and more now, one of the terms and I use it, you know, with a lot of caution, because it’s getting overused a lot, is the idea that science needs to be decolonized or at least made more, you know, equitable across geographic spaces across, you know, the types of groups and individuals who can be seen as credible voices. So on both of these trends which, you know I tend to pay a lot of attention to, I think there is progress. We still have a long, long way to go but I think there’s good signs to keep one encouraged that we will, we will continue to see good change. And we will continue to see more voices and more programs like Agents of Change and others that will bring us those, you know, credible experts who are very engaged in science but also can bring those very unique perspectives to the table.

Brian Bienkowski

This leads me really nicely into my next question about who gets to do the science. You’ve been, some of your work has focused on mobilizing women air pollution scientists in India, can you tell me a little bit about how and why you’re doing that and it’s importance?.

Pallavi Pant

Yeah, so this is, you know, really something that came out of my own experience working in India, on the topic which often isn’t on the top of, you know, people’s lists. So, as a woman, especially as a relatively young woman with no gray hair, it’s been challenging to navigate those conversations when you were, you know, the only sort of person on the table who is like 15 years, you know 15 years younger than other people, or a woman. And then there’s all kinds of sort of social, you know, layers of how people function that gets played into that as well. And in the last few years as I have been able to sort of, you know, find my voice and be more vocal and active about what I think, and what I think needs to happen, I’ve also thought about ways in which I can use my experiences and struggles in some cases, to help others who may be going through similar things. There’s, you know, all kinds of questions related to navigating your career or even finding the right opportunity that works for you. And I’ve been lucky because there is the whole other, you know, set of women, thinking about similar issues, wanting to do something together collectively. So we have been able to, you know come together, create a sort of community which is very slowly growing and building. But the idea is that women get the same opportunities to represent their voices within the South Asian context, so the Indian context, as any other expert would. And in some cases, you know, it’s very simple things like calling out if people are setting up these panels which are all men, or helping people identify where the experts are that are women. And on the other end of the spectrum, focusing on, and you know sort of brainstorming with people who may be looking for jobs, who may be trying to figure out their career options on what they should be thinking about, how should they be having conversations when, you know, they’re looking for a job or they’re trying to negotiate. That’s a whole sort of mix of very, very different things. But it’s very early days and hopefully we can continue to promote that and actually become a community that can advocate for larger change at the societal level as well.

Brian Bienkowski

I know in a lot of countries there are unique vulnerabilities for women when it comes to air pollution or other pollution, whether it’s kind of household social dynamics maybe doing indoor cooking, things like that. So I’m wondering if that is the case in India and if so, how this would seem to have more women air pollution scientists would kind of be better equipped to tackle that.

Pallavi Pant

Yeah, absolutely. So in India, even today, more than half of the population across the country uses solid fuels like water or animal dung, for cooking. And they’re often doing it inside homes which means they’re getting exposed to very high levels of air pollution. And cooking and taking care of children in India still a job that is you know very traditionally a mother’s job or a female’s jobs, so it could even be your grandmother or your aunt who’s really doing that. And what ends up happening there is that, you know, women are not only getting exposed themselves to all of this air pollution, but even the infants and the toddlers, the children that they’re taking care of are often getting those very high exposures, resulting in a lot of, you know, health impacts over their life course. And there has been a push for greater representation of women in, you know, places where decisions are being made around these issues. And I think it’s been very hard to name because the last five or so years especially in India, I’ve seen a huge turnaround where evolution has become a very visible topic that’s on the agenda in many different places. Women have become more engaged with that, and not just from the air pollution lens but also from the gender lens and from the equity lens and from the, you know, economic participation lens, it’s becoming a very relevant issue. So over time, I’m hopeful that we will see more participation by women, either because, you know, they have something to say, or because it’s realized that they are the ones that are bearing a very disproportionate burden, and therefore, their needs need to be catered to and that, in addressing air pollution.

Brian Bienkowski

Do you get back to India a lot? I’m assuming the last year has been difficult just because of travel and lockdowns and COVID. But do you get back and do you miss it?

Pallavi Pant

Yeah, last year has been, you know, difficult because I do go back pretty often. And I have been in part lucky and in part, you know, sort of strategic about where I work, because I want to always be able to work in India and in South Asia. So, in fact, right before the lockdowns were implemented in the US and in India I was there for a week which was very lucky, very terrifying at the time because I wasn’t sure what was going to happen if I traveled, but I’m glad I did. And I think that in itself has also been a very enriching experience because, you know, sometimes you kind of move away things change and you’re not really able to keep up with what’s changing and what’s happening. But throughout my time during my PhD in my postdoc and even now that the Health Effects Institute, I have been able to meaningfully participate and engage in air pollution conversations in India, be there, you know, professionally, but also for personal reasons because my family still lives there. And I’m hoping that, you know, as the situation improves with respect to COVID I’m able to go back soon.

Brian Bienkowski

Yes, for sure I think we’re all fingers crossed that we’re not heading into another bad fall and winter. But we can we can set that aside and keep things positive here. So as someone who’s, who’s traveling and going through different cultures, you call yourself a language enthusiast. And I have to admit I’m currently learning Polish. I grew up in a, I am I’m very Polish, I have a family of immigrants here, they’re in Detroit. And I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about what you mean and how this manifests in your work as a scientist and science communicator.

Pallavi Pant

Yeah, you know, I sometimes joke that if I didn’t get into air pollution, I would probably be studying languages. I tried my hand at a few over time. And I think, you know, it’s sort of been a very good experience trying to see a culture through a language, even within India we have a lot of different languages, a lot of dialects. And each brings with it, you know, nuance and like sort of cultural connotations and how people think and how people feel about issues. So learning, you know, different languages has been a window into how people think. What they place emphasis on or not, how they communicate. And it’s been, you know, maybe not a very direct translation but, in indirect ways it has been very helpful in thinking about ways in which I can communicate with people and you know what I should be thinking about or not thinking about. One issue that for a long time, I hadn’t thought about is which language do I use to communicate and, you know, by default, since I studied English throughout high school like early sort of schools and then thereafter, the de facto language of communication becomes English, even though, even in India there are many other languages that are you know spoken and understood much better than English. So more recently I’ve, you know also started thinking about the importance of communicating in a language and what that means and, you know, how that’s sort of received by people. Though, my hope is that in, you know, continuing my work around communication, I can begin to bring some of that more directly into my work and, you know, communicate in languages or at least in sort of ways that people most easily, and, you know, most commonly sort of communicate with each other and more. And on the other hand, I think one way in which learning languages has been helpful just as a person is also that it allows you to connect with people easier. So if I’m, you know, able to understand what someone’s saying in Spanish or in German, I tried my hand at Mandarin, you know, it’s been a very, very slow process so hopefully one day I’ll get there. But it just also gives you a moment to connect with people and, you know, becomes a … language can bring people close very easily, so that’s sort of where this enthusiasm for languages comes from for me.

Brian Bienkowski

I noticed when I went into a Polish Art Center and I greeted the woman with “dzień dobry,” which means “good morning,” and used a couple of the language, the couple of phrases I had learned, I saw her eyes light up. You know, there is this connection, this recognition of ‘you’ve spent some time to learn, to learn this.’ I also find trying to learn other languages like, for me it’s very similar to learning music. I, I play music and it’s, it, your brain trips, as you’re learning these things, and you have to kind of keep walking it and walking it and you keep tripping until you get it. And it’s just, personally, I find it a really good brain exercise to try to learn.

Pallavi Pant

Definitely, I would totally agree with that.

Brian Bienkowski

So this, this whole program, Agents of Change, is geared toward bolstering people’s science communication skills and get these voices out there. And you happen to have a, as we mentioned, a very active and engaging Twitter presence, and you’re also the social media editor at The Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. I’m just wondering if you have some tips and advice that you’d give to scientists wanting to increase their presence on social media platforms.

Pallavi Pant

Yeah, you know, this has been a very sort of near and dear topic for me now, because, for me personally I think being on Twitter has been a very strong way of networking with people, connecting with other like-minded individuals who are thinking about things in the same way that I am, or who are interested in conversations on difficult topics sometimes. So I think my experience, which has been very positive so far, and very sort of all about learning and exchange and collaboration, has biased me to this idea that, you know, that Twitter can be an excellent place to meet new people and learn new things. That’s where I learned about Agents of Change for the first time. And I think, I do appreciate though that not, it may not be for everyone. So for people who are trying to figure out what their voice is or what their best platform is, it is helpful to just sort of think through what you are most comfortable communicating, and how much, you know, how much of a personal glimpse do you want people to have in your life, versus how professional you want to keep it. And, you know, those are all, I think, decisions we need to make for ourselves, especially when we are on platforms like Twitter or even Instagram. And I think many people are now taking to TikTok to talk about science, but I know that’s not going to be me. I’m happier writing things and not really being in front of a camera. So trying to figure out what is most comfortable for you, and then knowing that it’s, you know, only going to help if you are actually able to engage with people and have a two way sort of exchange of information and ideas and dialogue. And in, in some cases, knowing when to not engage can be equally important. So to what extent are you going to, you know, get into discussions which can get controversial. In some cases, you know, people have really bad experiences with trolls. So trying to find that sweet spot for yourself where it’s a platform you feel comfortable with, and it’s, you know, you know how far you’re going to go and what kind of things you want to talk about. And then, for me another really good thing about Twitter that has been very helpful is that there’s a lot of really good people who have a lot of knowledge to share. And I have learned a lot from it, you know, hashtag scicomm and scipol, in particular. I highlight those two, they just have tons of resources. So engaging with those and, you know, taking slow steps perhaps at the beginning, but getting comfortable with what, you know, what things you’re willing to say are not in a public platform. And remembering that, you know, social media lives forever, so it’s not going to go away one day. If there are things that you would not want to say in person, maybe it’s good to not say that on social media. And then the final thing I’ll probably say, which has saved me a lot of time, is using the tools and you know different platforms that are now available for you to manage your social media engagements. That is really helpful, saves a lot of time. So if you are someone active on social media platforms, definitely check out, you know, things like TweetDeck and HootSuite and Buffer that can allow you to synthesize and manage your content as well. And then the final thing I’ll probably say is that, with social media, it’s still important to, you know, even with social media, I should say, it’s still important to have those in-person connections with people. Sometimes it’s simple things like testing out an idea, does it make sense or not. And then, you know, finding, continuing to push yourself into some discomfort to see what comes out of it, because that can help you grow overall, those would be some things I’ll mention.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Those are excellent, excellent tips. And when you are not doing air pollution science and science communicating and traveling, do you have time to read? And if so, what is the last book that you read for fun?

Pallavi Pant

I really enjoy reading. And you know that sometimes in the form of books, sometimes in the form of just sort of depressing news articles. But a book that I just recently finished is called “A Burning,” it’s by an author of Indian origin Megha Majumdar. And I have to say, by the by the time I finished the book it wasn’t a lot of fun because the, you know, book delves into very, you know, difficult topics, especially in the Indian context right now. We have a lot of, you know, tensions between different religions and ethnicities and, and how that intersects with power and fame and success. So that’s what the book was about, but it was interesting, very engaging. But at the end of it, you know, you just sort of felt a knot in your stomach about where the story ended. But I’m glad to have read that, and I’m now looking to read something more light, and maybe, you know, sort of mentally engaging, which doesn’t require me to feel a lot of heavy weight.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, books that don’t make you cry sometimes are good too, or make you feel down about the world. And I only read light books so maybe I can send you a couple, couple suggestions. Well, Pallavi, this has been a really engaging conversation I’m so glad we got the chance to do this and thanks for being here today.

Pallavi Pant

Thank you. Thanks a lot, this was fun. And you know, I hope to see other great people on the podcast in the future as well, so thank you for what you’re doing.


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