Anastasia Montgomery (she/her)
PhD Candidate, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences
Anastasia Montgomery is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She received her BS in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she first developed an interest in air quality research. Her current research examines the interaction of air quality and climate change in urban areas.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My research focuses on air pollution, which we care about because these hazardous particles in our air cause a burden to our public health and economy. Air pollution relies on two main levers: the emissions of pollutants (through cars, power plants, paints) and the state of the environment (through weather, physics, chemistry). To figure out what's happening with our air, I use ground-based measurements, satellites observations, and chemical transport models to identify where and why the pollution forms. By understanding how our societal choices and natural phenomena contribute to air pollution, we can continue to improve our air quality and climate outcomes.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
Not to sound like a total earth scientist, but what is more inspirational than the great outdoors? And I mean all of the outdoors—I love the city and I love the countryside. My research focuses on making these outdoor spaces more livable for everyone. I am very passionate about pursuing science that enables our ability to breathe freely, get around easily, and supports a society that cares for the health of our neighbors.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
I have made the mistake of not asking for help when I need it—it's super easy to get lost in your research rabbit hole (and in your life, really). Now I ask the “dumbest” questions to the smartest people, and it helps all of us achieve our goals more efficiently. I'm still learning to ask for help when I need it, but I do recommend this cheat code.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
I am lucky that my research gets to be so tangible. My lab group and I have taken our work into the community and to our policy makers to try to improve air quality. I have been able to provide insights into our air quality monitoring networks, the policies that influence our air pollution, and provide additional scientific studies for our community organizers who already do the work advocating for equitable air quality and climate policy. This also is challenging because the actual solutions to air pollution and climate change are slow, infrastructural, and multifaceted—so my science part ends up being easier.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
Once people understand what a burden air pollution is, then we really get to pursue climate mitigation plans. My science focuses on the instantaneous reaction of chemicals in our atmosphere, but some of these co-emitted pollutants can stick around for a really long time, and that's when they contribute to climate change. I've had conversations with people who were not keen on climate policy as these policies can be perceived as abstract and “in the future,” but they were more receptive to aiding the health of people now. I think if we can continue to emphasize the connection between immediate health benefits from transitioning off fossil fuels, then we will be able to decarbonize our economy with everyone on board.
I chose Northwestern for my adviser and for the University's interdisciplinary emphasis. Dan, my adviser, has been such a great advocate and so supportive of whatever ideas I come up with for work. Northwestern has supported my interdisciplinary work through the IDEAS Fellowship, which has emphasized training for work both inside and outside of academia, which is a really refreshing perspective.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I love to explore the city. Whether it be going out to eat, visiting a museum, or just hanging out in the park, it's really nice to disconnect from work and immerse myself in a totally different environment.
How would your closest friends describe you?
Passionate, straightforward, caring, and understanding. I am upset that none said "funny".
What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
Honestly, I thought "scientist" was a made-up job, but all I ever wanted to do was learn.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
If you want something that you don't think you are qualified for (internship, research opportunity, publication, anything), you should still try to get it. Sometimes, you will be rejected and be humbled, but sometimes, you will be surprised by the outcome.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I'm really excited about making the data I'm working with public, which I'm doing with two organizations. First, I'm working with a group of scientists and community organizers in Chicago to create easy-to-access urban datasets that include information about air quality and health (CHiVES, will be launching soon). I also will be working this summer with Microsoft Research on their air quality monitoring network. Their data is already live and accessible. Giving the public access to the kind of data and tools I use will allow for this science to be more accessible and hopefully make our air quality initiatives more equitable.
Published: April 18, 2022
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