Staci Simonich pulled a plastic bag out of a freezer in her lab at Oregon State University. Inside was what looked like a filthy paper towel: an air filter, coated with dark gray particles that she and millions of other people inhaled during the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
“It was the most polluted place I had ever been,” Simonich said, “and the filters were the dirtiest I had seen in 20 years of air sampling.” From late July through September, Simonich and colleagues at Peking University collected particles out of the air atop a seven-story building in China’s capital. The goal: to measure the results of the Chinese government’s efforts to clean up the city’s smog-shrouded sky.
“There was improvement, but not as much as we were expecting. The particle levels were three times higher, on average, than at the Atlanta Olympics.”
Simonich’s research in China is just a portion of the work she does as a toxicologist and chemist at OSU. She specializes in studying how pollutants travel through the world’s atmosphere, tracking chemicals that hitchhike on airstreams from Asia and blow across the Pacific Ocean to mountains in the western United States. She also is a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee that is studying air pollutants entering and leaving the United States.
She got her first whiff of science as a child growing up among the paper mills in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Her parents encouraged her interest, giving her a microscope and telescope as Christmas presents, not typical gifts for a girl in the 1970s. What she really wanted was a chemistry set “to make things that blow up.”
She got her first experience as a chemist while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, collecting samples of polluted air in the area. Later, she traced pesticides in tree bark to map how chemicals travel around the globe. To conduct the study, she asked people all over the world to send samples of bark to her. Her work was published in the journals Science and Nature, a rare accomplishment for a young scientist.
She worked for six years helping Procter & Gamble create chemicals that would clean better without hurting the environment, then she came across an ad for a job at OSU. It was just what she wanted: a beautiful state, quality of life, the opportunity to train students, appealing research. “My heart raced,” she said.
Since coming to OSU, Simonich has tracked the movement of various airborne chemicals derived from pesticides, flame retardants, and stain-repellants, some that had been banned decades earlier because they were harmful to human health. She has collected samples from atop Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor and traced the chemicals back to China, Japan, North and South Korea, Siberia, California, Washington, and parts of Oregon.
Understanding the source of airborne chemicals will help regulators in the United States know which ones they have the authority to control, Simonich said. It will also help them understand how the use of fossil fuels in Asia impacts the quality of the air in the United States.
When Simonich isn’t testing air samples or spending time with her two young children, she can be found surfing on the Oregon Coast.
“I may be the only chemistry and toxicology professor with a surfboard on her Prius,” she said. “I want to know why surfing isn’t an Olympic sport.”
If it were, she might be carving waves in addition to monitoring air quality at the Olympics.