STEM Untapped

Extended Episode: Dr Sarah Moller - Air Pollution Theme Leader, Knowledge Exchange and Senior Research Fellow

April 11, 2023 Episode 22
Extended Episode: Dr Sarah Moller - Air Pollution Theme Leader, Knowledge Exchange and Senior Research Fellow
STEM Untapped
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STEM Untapped
Extended Episode: Dr Sarah Moller - Air Pollution Theme Leader, Knowledge Exchange and Senior Research Fellow
Apr 11, 2023 Episode 22

In this extended podcast episode, you'll hear more from Dr Sarah Moller who is an Air Pollution Theme Leader, Knowledge Exchange and Senior Research Fellow at the University of York. Sarah and our student interviewers Assia and Gloria discuss about what Sarah studied in her PhD, what our student interviewers Gloria and Assia would do it they were elected officials, and what it’s really like for a scientist to work with the government and civil servants..

Some resources that Sarah recommends are:
National Centre for Atmospheric Science - website, news and Twitter
Dr Gary Fuller on Twitter and writing for the Guardian
The Naked Scientists podcast on Spotify and website

If you know a group of students who would like to interview female or non-binary role models, please get in touch by emailing

Likewise, if you know anyone who would be a great role model, let us know by emailing

Follow us on Instagram @STEMUntapped
Check out our website

Send us a Text Message.

If you know a group of students who would like to interview one of our role models, please get in touch by emailing

Likewise, if you know anyone who would be a great role model, let us know by emailing

Follow us on Instagram @STEMUntapped
Connect with us on LinkedIn @STEMUntappedCIC
Check out our website

Show Notes Transcript

In this extended podcast episode, you'll hear more from Dr Sarah Moller who is an Air Pollution Theme Leader, Knowledge Exchange and Senior Research Fellow at the University of York. Sarah and our student interviewers Assia and Gloria discuss about what Sarah studied in her PhD, what our student interviewers Gloria and Assia would do it they were elected officials, and what it’s really like for a scientist to work with the government and civil servants..

Some resources that Sarah recommends are:
National Centre for Atmospheric Science - website, news and Twitter
Dr Gary Fuller on Twitter and writing for the Guardian
The Naked Scientists podcast on Spotify and website

If you know a group of students who would like to interview female or non-binary role models, please get in touch by emailing

Likewise, if you know anyone who would be a great role model, let us know by emailing

Follow us on Instagram @STEMUntapped
Check out our website

Send us a Text Message.

If you know a group of students who would like to interview one of our role models, please get in touch by emailing

Likewise, if you know anyone who would be a great role model, let us know by emailing

Follow us on Instagram @STEMUntapped
Connect with us on LinkedIn @STEMUntappedCIC
Check out our website

Izzy  00:00

Hi, I'm Izzy host of the STEM Untapped podcast. This week we're releasing an extended edition of our previous episode with Dr Sarah Moller, a senior research fellow at the University of York. In this episode you can find out about what Sarah studied in her PhD, what our student interviewers Gloria and Assia would do it they were elected officials, and what it’s really like for a scientist to work with the government and civil servants.

Dr Sarah Moller  00:27

I’m Sarah. I'm a senior research fellow at the University of York. And one of the organisations that funds me is the National Centre for Atmospheric Science. And the work that I do is all around air pollution. I'm a chemist by background. But yeah, I now focus on air pollution. And actually, the work that I do a lot now doesn't have all that much to do with the core chemistry that I originally did. It's more around how we communicate science well with policymakers, and how we design science that actually meets the questions that policymakers have. So when they need to know things, how do we make sure that the science that we're doing now is going to be able to help them answer the questions they might have both now and years down the line, once the science that we're doing has developed into something that they can actually use. So I do a lot of work, talking between the research community and policymakers. But I do do still some research myself. Hopefully, that is mostly policy relevant, quite a bit around thinking about the bigger picture. So not just thinking about how a change that's aimed at changing air pollution will affect air pollution. But actually, how might changes in other areas also impact air pollution?


Assia 01:44

Well, first of all, we'd like to ask you, how has your day been?


Dr Sarah Moller  01:47

Yeah, I've had a good day today. As usual, my day has been quite full of meetings. So I spend quite a lot of time on Zoom talking to people across the country. I've also had a few meetings today with people that I manage. So there's a lady who runs a network for me, she's my network manager, and I had a meeting with her, and a meeting with one of my researchers who's, if you like, realising my vision for the research that I want to do.


Assia 02:15

And what have you been working on recently?


Dr Sarah Moller  02:16

I wear a number of different hats. So I've got quite, I've got quite a few roles. And probably at the moment, the pieces of work that are taking up most of my time are the STFC Air Quality Network. So STFC is the Science And Technologies Facilities Council. So that's one of the funding councils who fund science research in the UK. And that network has got a year left to run. And so this year, we're really focusing on trying to run activities that will make sure the new connections that we've made through that network, the projects that we funded through that network, and the people that we've involved in that network, continue to do things together and continue to have an impact past the lifetime of when we're funded. So next June, when we finish our funding, that's taking up quite a bit of time. So we had a meeting on Monday about something that's of interest to policy at the moment, which is around, perhaps not what everybody thinks about, around air pollution, ammonia from farming. And actually, what we need to do in that space to reduce the impact. And you might think that would only have an impact on environmental systems. So it might only have an impact on sensitive habitats. So plants and animals around where farms are, but actually, it goes on to form particular matter. So it also has an impact on human health because it forms particles in the air that we breathe in. And so it has the potential to impact urban air quality in other places, because it forms part of the background of particle matter that goes into cities. That's something at the moment. And the other thing is, I'm doing quite a bit of work actually in direct collaboration with Defra (so the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) thinking about how future changes might impact what we're calling the nutrient system, but basically, anything containing nitrogen in the air. So that's all the way from nitrogen oxides, which are produced in when you burn things. So from cars, from industry, but also, ammonia that I just spoke about, that's got that's NH3. So that's got nitrogen too, anything that's got nitrogen in forms part of that nutrient system. And so looking at how things like net-zero, the economic situation at the moment, the war in Ukraine, all those sorts of things, how those kinds of things might in a slightly longer term impact where nutrients go in our system and how we can stop them damaging things like ecosystems, habitats, and human health.


Gloria 04:58

What made you want to pursue a career in STEM? Do you have any role models that inspired you?


Dr Sarah Moller  05:04

It's a really interesting question. So I'm going to be entirely honest with you. I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do when I was at school. GCSE level, I did quite a broad range of subjects, including music, I did a couple of languages. I did all three sciences. So I did quite a broad range of subjects. And I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do. And I was given some advice at the time, that one, I was good at science and two, that it had quite good career prospects, because I think the other way I was heading was that I was really interested in art. And I was told it was a brilliant thing to do. But you have to be really committed to it. And it's potentially a harder road than science potentially. And so for me, because I really enjoyed science, I ended up doing chemistry, physics and maths plus philosophy for my A levels. And so then I'd really already chosen that I was going to go into a science career. I think my chemistry teacher helped with the fact that I was happy to go down that route to having had this sort of career discussion, because he, Dr. John Timney, he was really inspirational in the way that he taught chemistry, because he didn't just tell us about the things we had to know. He told us things about what he'd done when he was at university as a researcher, he told us some interesting stories about scientists from the past, that actually got me interested in the way that science is done in science in general, not just learning the things that I have to do to pass the exams.


Izzy  06:31

Girls, what's it like for you at your school? Have you heard similar things from your teachers that perhaps it might be harder to go in to like arts and stuff, or that careers are easier to find in STEM. What are you being told now?


Gloria 06:45

I think we're being encouraged to pursue a career in STEM, I think our school’s been really encouraging us.


Izzy  06:53

Sarah, do you think that having a role model, like your chemistry teacher is really important in getting people into STEM?


Dr Sarah Moller  07:00

I think having somebody, I don't think it has to be necessarily a role model, but somebody who really sparks your interest, even if it's not something sort of in that core space of Oh, that's really what I want to do. Because I think like I was saying, right the way, even through university, I wasn't sure I was going to stay in STEM, I had no idea what I wanted to do, I was still interested in communicating with others, and perhaps doing something more creative. But I actually think that having people who keep sparking your interest, so when you're thinking about what am I going to do next? It's not that I've made a planned decision to stay in academia, it's actually the exciting opportunities have come along. And people have spoken to me about them in a way that's made me think I really want to do that. And so it's lots of little steps along the way, where people being able to present something in a way that talks to me and the things that I care about, is what sort of inspired me to go into and stay in STEM.


Assia 08:00

So I know we've already talked a bit about this, but what is like typical general average day in your work life?


Dr Sarah Moller  08:07

Yeah, so I, while I work at a university, where actually a lot of people spend most of their day split between the laboratory doing experiments and in the office, I actually spent all of my day pretty much sat in front of a computer. And quite a lot of my day is spent reading emails and responding to them, or sat in meetings, talking to people. And so for me, it's really important that those meetings that I'm having are about things that I'm really interested in. Because I spend a lot of my time talking and listening. One of the things that I maybe like best is that I have probably at least once a month, maybe a couple of times a month, events where it's a lot more interactive, and it's a bit more of a workshop. And so you're actually discussing issues with people, and you're hearing people's perspectives, and you're giving them your perspective as a scientist. And those I think are the events that I that I really enjoy. But often they're more of a sort of a one off events that are scattered around my calendar rather than every day. And yeah, so I spend, I spend a lot of time either in in-person meetings, or in meetings over zoom, talking to people. And then I guess the rest of my time is spent putting together documents often to either communicate things that we've talked about to other audiences, or to make sure that we can agree that what we've talked about has been summarised in a way that everybody thinks is correct. So some of that is about, you know, effectively communicating what we've done onto paper and in a way that that is useful to send out to people. So I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the way that I'm going to write things and how I'm going to follow up on the activities we've had. So I do have sort of, try and have bits of time in my day where I can sit down and think about what comes next. What's the next strategic thing that I need to do to continue this activity and to make it have an impact?


Assia 09:58

What is the process of making an environmental policy from the lab to publication?


Dr Sarah Moller  10:02

That's quite an interesting question. And I think probably the first thing to say is it's definitely not a direct line through from something happens in research and a new policy is made that is very, very, very, very rarely how it actually happened. So from my perspective, when we're thinking about things that we're doing in the lab, we can do them as a purely academic pursuit of we really want to know what's happening here. So let's go out and measure what's happening on the roads in London, what the air pollution is doing, how it's changing over time. But if we actually speak to policymakers in the early stages of when we're developing that research, they can often say to us, we're really interested in this specific part of that, or this specific pollutant or how changes happen with respect to I don't know, it could be things like, this is very simplistic. But if you're right next to the road, how much air pollution are you breathing in? If you're a few metres back from the road? How much air pollution are you breathing in? And the reason they might want to know about that is because they're thinking about advice that they give people. But also, where should we put cycle lanes? Or, you know, where should we put paths and walkways? Well, we've got choices about that. And so it might make you then tailor your research slightly differently, so that you can still get the answers you need for us to develop our understanding of how the atmospheric chemistry works. But we can also answer some of the questions that policymakers might have. And so then, there's the process of actually doing the research. And often communication goes a bit quiet while the research is happening. It's really good. One of the things I encourage is that people try to keep having regular meetings, because priorities from policymakers change. And research never goes to plan, it always changes partway through. So just keeping that conversation going all the way through. And then once you've actually found something that's, that's interesting, that might have an impact on policy, having the conversations to say, look, we found something that's really interesting, often doing something like we have things where researchers go in and give like a seminar, we call it so. So give basically a lecture to the people in Defra, or in one of the other government departments about what they found. Sometimes that's just a, here's the information. Often, there's a bit afterwards where we have a meeting for them to have a discussion about it, and what it actually means for future policy development. And then it's likely that nothing really appears to change or happen. Because in the case of working with Defra, it's not very often that we’ll be given This is a specific question we weren't answering, can you get the answer for us? It's more of all of us research is starting to build up to tell us something about the way that we should be going about air pollution policy, and that over time, that starts to influence how a policy is made. And so for example, I don't know when there's discussions about perhaps where trees are planted, perhaps initially, it's a question of, oh, well, where is their space? Where do we need them? Where do we need green space? And then somebody says, well, actually, there's some issues around air pollution. So then that gets pulled into the conversation. And it might not be that that conversation happens straight after the research, it might be a few years later, but making sure that there's, the information is there for somebody if they want it, and so that when that discussion happens, they can say, Oh, we've got a briefing note on that, or I know the academic we should bring into this conversation, because I've spoken to them before about their work. That means that you can help to inform the policy. In ultimate policy development, we often think, oh, there's something that's really obvious from the science you should be doing to improve air pollution. But as a policymaker, they've got to think about not just what will happen to the concentrations, but what might other impacts be. So are we going to affect how safe it is for people to cycle? Are we going to affect how attractive it is for people to cycle? Are we going to affect what land use we can use for other things? How much is it going to cost us? Is there any reason that politicians wouldn't want to do it because maybe it's not perceived as being good thing to do by the public. And so it's not always the case that just because scientifically, it would seem like a really obvious thing to do, it will ever actually make it into policy. But I think the most we can hope for is that the science that we're doing helps to inform the decisions. And so if they decide, actually, although that might be a good thing to do, we can't do it for this reason, they are at least aware of either the opportunities that they've not taken, or of the things that they've done that might be bad for air pollution, but that had to be done for some of the reasons such as, I don't know, making it cheaper for people to heat their homes or something like that. 


Izzy  15:00

Does that ever get frustrating? Making suggestions to policymakers and them not taking your advice?


Dr Sarah Moller  15:09

I think, because I work so closely with the policymakers that I mostly talk to, those discussions are very open. And so for me, as somebody who's worked in a Knowledge Exchange role for quite a long time, I actually find it quite refreshing that they are so open about it. And it's not very often that they, it's a closed door, it's usually a not now, or, or it's something where, you know, the time isn't right, or it's not the right situation. And quite often the impact on the obvious one you would want to have, but it might impact another policy down the road, or it might impact thinking about strategy further down the road. I think, for other academics who have just sporadic interactions with policy, it can be very frustrating, because they send some information to a policymaker, they speak to them once, everybody's really enthusiastic, and then nothing happens. And they don't hear anything more about that process. And so it just feels like they're not being listened to. Where actually if they could listen to the process of discussion around the policy development, they might understand why, actually, the science wasn't the overriding factor there, there were other things which were felt to be as important or more important.


Izzy  16:18

How does that make you feel? Were you expecting that to be an answer that that's really the answer that scientists can do the work and then it might not necessarily affect policy, at least not straightaway, especially Gloria, you’re thinking of going into law? How does how does that make you feel?


Gloria 16:33

I think it's quite interesting, as I've always been more concerned, and how we can communicate policies to the public, and how that can be effectively communicated in the media and how it can raise awareness on it. And I wasn't really aware. 


Assia 16:48

We weren't expecting it to be such a complicated process.


Dr Sarah Moller  16:51

I think one of the things that you said that's interesting there is about, about that role of the public and, you know, how you how you make policy understandable to publics, I think there's a whole sort of cycle of how policy works, which means that actually making the science understandable to the public can mean that science can sometimes have more impact on policy. So as an example, when I started working with Defra, air pollution was not a policy priority. And it was actually quite small team who worked on air pollution policy in Defra. And then there was a whole load of things that happened, which meant that the media became quite interested in air pollution, including things like an air pollution event where we actually had Saharan dust, where people could see the pollution. Also, we were being taken to court by the European Union, because we weren't meeting some of our limits. And there were, I think there were a couple of other things, and they all sort of happened around the same time. And so there was a real media interest in pollution, which meant there was lots more information going to the public about it. And from my perspective, it seems that, obviously, the media report what the public are interested in, but that got more public interest. And the more public interest there is that sparks interest from other researchers, but also from policymakers, because essentially, they have to respond to the things that the wider public say are important to them. So if people are saying air pollution is really important to us, what are you doing about air pollution, then there's suddenly pressure on politicians to do something about it. And it being of raised profile within the media can make a real difference to that, but if people don't care about it, it’s not reported in the media. So I think there's a real role for the public to play in how politically acceptable environmental policy is, or any other policies.


Izzy  18:43

And another quick question about that, sorry, girls, how does change in government and government policy affect the research that you do?


Dr Sarah Moller  18:50

So I guess that's up to me, in some ways. Changing in government can make a difference, because when the government changes, the civil servants themselves don't change. But it might be that the priorities of government change. So civil servants will get moved around within government, depending on where priorities are and what balance of work there is. So for example, I mean, if we've just had a flooding event, lots of people get moved into flooding and off things that are less urgent. And similarly, over time, as a new government comes in and has new priorities, civil servants are moved to work on the things that are most active at that point in time. So it can change who I'm talking to, how many people I'm talking to, how much resource they've got to do things. But actually, the civil servants provide that long term if you like, because they don't change when governments change. And they still have as, you know, their overriding thing that they are trying to deliver on government priorities, it's unlikely that air pollution will become something that they say we just don't care about that anymore. So there is usually still the need for it. In terms of my research itself, like the air pollution, science I do rather than the communication stuff, I think it's much less impacted by changing government. Much like communicating with the public, though it's about talking about the science in a way, which appeals to things that are important to the people that you're talking to. So while the civil servants don't change, the way you might couch the messages might change to appeal to what you think is important to the new government. So if they cared more about economics, you might frame it in that term, if they cared more about net zero, you might frame it in those terms, using the things that really interest and excite them to talk about the science that you think is important.


Gloria 20:45

So you mentioned about encouraging cycling being important in possibly helping to tackle the issue with air pollution. What do you think can be done to encourage the use of public transport in the UK? And how effective do you think implementation of the congestion charge?


Dr Sarah Moller  21:03

So I think encouraging, it's one of the things that I'm quite interested in encouraging public transport and active travel is, I think, seems it's one of those things that seems really obvious and seems really easy to do. But actually, there are a whole load of things that have a knock on effect. So for example, I would say that rather than public transport, active travels seems to be, you know, a really big thing. So walking, cycling, because it has huge human health benefits, aside from the air pollution benefits. And anything, that means that we've got less cars on the road, even if they're electric cars, because electric cars still give out particulate pollution from tires, brakes, wear on the roads, is a good thing. So you've got sort of double the benefit, you're helping with the obesity crisis, but you're also helping with air pollution, which seems like a great win win. But then a lot of places where you might want people to do it, you've got at the moment, a lot of traffic. So it's perhaps not the safest, you don't have the best infrastructure yet, because there isn't enough investment in it. They're not very attractive, because you're cycling along a busy road next to a huge line of traffic, which doesn't seem very appealing. And so all the things you might want to do to make cycling more attractive, like having more green space, and removing it slightly from traffic, it all requires quite a lot of investment and actually changing the way that we plan our towns and cities. So it's a huge undertaking for anybody to do with no guarantee that anybody's going to take up, and no real payback of money. So I think it's something that's really difficult to show that it's needed. And similarly, with public transport, you've got, to me, you've got a real vicious circle of if people don't take public transport, there isn't the money to invest in it. And so the services might not be that good. But until people start investing in it, there isn't the money to improve the services to make them to make them attractive. I suspect that if somebody put me in power, I would not stay in power for very long as a local councillor, because I would like to say, be stricter about what we do about car travel into city centres. But I think we have to be aware, that that impacts people differently, and that there are lots of people who have issues with mobility. And so I think the issue is that we need to get so many different people talking together to come up with solutions. And I think there's lots of local councils and government groups that are thinking about this kind of thing. I think it's just that there isn't actually an easy solution. You're right. Public transport and active travel have got to be a huge part of what we do for our cities in the future. But I don't have any magic solutions for you. Because actually, I think it's I think it's a really difficult space. I think it's really hard to come up with what will work, and you need businesses to tell you, you need people with disabilities to tell you what they need, you need public transport operators to tell you what they need all together and to try and think about okay, what solutions can we come up with the actually don't disadvantage people and provide the kind of infrastructure we need and don't cost so much money that government can't do them and all those other things.


Izzy  24:12

Gloria, Assia, Sarah was saying that if she were in a position of power, what do you think you would do if you were like an elected official? Or an MP? Or what would you do to change things like air pollution?


Assia 24:25

I think as a person who owns a bike, I don't really use it. I'm not around the city because like Sarah said, there's no cycling lanes, and it's like the idea of driving when cars like the deters me from using it. So instead of use public transport, which is still like a good alternative to cars, although I can’t drive yet. But um, so I think it's I think just building cycling lanes is a really big thing. I think that cycling and investing in public transport. 


Gloria 24:57

I always thought that it always starts with raising awareness and getting people interested and so I've always thought that I think we need to get more people involved. People, they're aware, but they're not actively aware. As a government official, I'm not sure. And it's quite difficult to find a way to go about it. But I think that that would be one of my driving.


Izzy  25:23

Have there been any awareness days at your school or?


Assia 25:27

I mean, going on from Gloria’s point, I think that like, not a lot of people are aware of the impacts of air pollution, because I know it has a lot of detrimental health impacts, there's a lot, I think I read in an article somewhere that was pushed 40,000 premature deaths annually because of air pollution, and there’s asthma and lung disease. So there's a lot of detrimental health impacts, I don't think that people are aware that it comes from air pollution, like people are aware about plastic pollution, climate change, stuff like that, but no one really thinks about air pollution in the city they're living in. So I think it really, increasing public exposure to just no normal people is really important.


Dr Sarah Moller  26:05

This is one of the reasons why it's really important for us, as scientists to talk to the public because we have a perception for how much public engagement people do, and the things that go out there around things like Clean Air Day, but we don't really have any awareness of how far reaching you know, me as a physical scientist, how far reaching that that work goes? And how much your general member of the public, particularly people in schools, because it used to feature in some of the curriculum. But I'm not sure that it does anymore, I don't know. So it's interesting to hear what you guys have experienced and what you know, because I think that has to influence how we go about communicating and getting people interested in what we're doing.


Izzy  26:54

There's a lot of talk about climate change, when you're at school and or when you're engaging with like social media, girls, do you think of air pollution when you think of climate change?


Gloria 27:07

Actually, no, I think what more emphasis has been put on global warming as a whole rather than air pollution, I think also in schools, or may just generally talk about climate change. I think recently, with the drought, more emphasis has been put on global warming rather than air pollution. 


Assia 27:25

But I think as geography students, we sort of we’re informed more in depth into issues such as these, something that's why geography is really good subject that makes you more aware. I think maybe that every everyday person will probably just think about the extreme weather events. 


Izzy  27:44

Yeah, yeah. I mean, me personally, I never really, I don't think of air pollution when I think of climate change. I think of air pollution from when I used to live in London. And now I live in the countryside. And it's made a huge difference to my asthma, but I don't think of it as the on the global scale. So yeah, that's really interesting,


Assia 28:00

I guess, kind of relating to what we said earlier about changes we would do as an MP, what do you like recommend to people to change in their everyday lifestyle, to help sort of reduce impact on air pollution?


Dr Sarah Moller  28:15

There's quite a lot of things people can do both to reduce their emissions, so the amount of air pollution they create, but also to reduce how much pollution they breathe in, they're not all easy to do. Things that are good for both air pollution and climate change is reducing energy. So reducing your energy consumption has benefits for both. And so that's a really a really nice one. Thinking about things like turning off light switches, boiling the kettle three times, because there's three different people who want a hot drink, those sorts of things do make a difference, and reduce the amount of energy that's needed. Driving cars is a big thing in city centres. So walking or cycling, short distances, that can be cycled is really, really helpful. So in the UK, there's quite a large proportion of our journeys that are less than three miles. And so actually doing things that mean that you can cycle, having a look to see if there's any courses that you can go on that will make you feel more comfortable cycling might be things that it's worth thinking about, you know, where somebody takes you out on a road because I have to be honest, I haven't cycled down a major road since I was quite young. And so I might not feel comfortable with it right now. But if somebody would take me out a few times, and show me sort of road etiquette and all the rest again, I might feel more comfortable with it than I do now. In terms of walking, taking walking routes that aren't their major roads. So if you've got the opportunity to walk for an extra five minutes, but walk through the park, rather than walking down through a major road, that can really reduce how much air pollution you're exposed to because actually, it's quite a big drop off in some pollutants if you stand right next to the road or if you stand a bit further back from the road. Once you're into a park you can see quite a big drop in the amount of exposure. So actually taking slightly greener routes and not standing right next to the curb when you're waiting to cross the road but standing back a little bit. They're all very small things but collectively they can they can make a difference. Yeah, I think walking and alternatives to road transport, public transport is good. And I mean, not that you girls would be doing it, but things like solid fuel burning. So having wood burners in homes is really not good for either outdoor air pollution for everybody, or probably the air pollution in your living room, when you open the door to put your logs in and all the smoke comes out, it's, that's one of the things that's potentially quite bad that we don't think about very often, but actually isn't very good for air pollution at all.


Gloria 30:37

I think I was surprised to hear that just standing your feet away from the curb can make such a difference. 


Dr Sarah Moller  30:44

It’s not going to be huge. But if you every day stand next to a busy road for a few minutes waiting to cross the road, then anything you can do to reduce your exposure has the potential to help. So just standing back a little bit feel safer as well. And that means you're not breathing right next to the road.


Assia 31:01

So obviously, the public have, can control their emissions, but then at a much larger scale there's companies that deforest and burn biomass to produce energy. So I know I read on your profile that I think you've done some research on burning and biomass. So what did you find?


Dr Sarah Moller  31:23

Yeah, so I did, I did do some work on biomass burning, but actually, it wasn't biomass burning of the type that you're talking about. So it wasn't to produce energy. But it was actually about when you have forest fires in the north of Canada, what process has happened to the pollution when it's when it's emitted? Because there was some work done quite a while ago, which said that actually, forest fires from in Canada can affect the amount of ozone, which is one of the air pollutants we're concerned about in the UK. And even though it's quite a long distance for the air to travel, obviously air does move around. And some pollutants live in the air quite a long time. And as they're in the air, the pollutants are changing. So we were looking at what's the chemistry like very close to the fires. And then as you move away from where the fires burning, so we were flying over Canada, trying to look at, trying to look at the emissions from forest fires. And I guess, we found out some quite interesting things about the way that the chemistry in plumes is different to what it has been in some previous studies suggesting that actually, it depends on how hot the fires are, what land they're on, what kind of trees are burning. So it was, it didn't find out exactly what we were aiming to. But we did find out some interesting things about the chemistry of what happened in a plume from a forest fire. But so not, unfortunately, though, not related to industry or burning biomass in houses.


Assia 32:46

Linking to that I never knew that air pollution particulates could move such great distances, because on your profile, it says that you researched application in remote locations. And I was like kind of curious as to how air pollution would reach areas so far away from industry activity.


Dr Sarah Moller  33:05

Yeah, so it's quite interesting. Obviously, some, some pollutants don't live for very long in the atmosphere. So if you think about chemical reactions, some chemical reactions are really fast, and some chemical reactions quite slow. If a chemical goes to lots of fast reactions, then it's unlikely that much of it is left, if you like, by the time it's been transported anywhere, because it's all reacted away and become other things. But there are some pollutants that travel quite long distances. I mean, the work that I was doing in remote environments was looking at, in Cape Verde, it was really looking at what is the background atmospheric chemistry like so what happens in the atmosphere where there isn't much influence from people. But what we see there is that we still see some signatures in some of the pollutants that are indicative of there being human activities, partially because there's obviously still things happening around the island. But actually, we get air mostly off the sea there. So really, that's all about transport from other areas where things are happening. And unfortunately, most places, unless you're on an island in the middle of the ocean, you can really see the impact of human activities, whether that be the people who are living there, or whether that be the activities that are happening. So we did some work in Borneo in the rain forests, and you see huge amounts of emissions from the activities around running a forest, if you like, so chopping down trees, the machinery that they have, the processing that they have, you see big emissions from and then you see emissions from there. They were planting palm oil plantation so you see emissions from fertilising of those palm oil plants. So you actually have from almost any human activities, you see different emissions profiles, and some of those some of those emissions, we see a lot of particulate matter coming over which has been caused by emissions, either of gas phase or particle pollution in Europe that's been transported over the sea to us and then we export our pollution elsewhere. So yeah, it actually has quite a big impact when you look at pollution that you've got the spikes from where you live, the city you live in, then you've got sort of a band of pollution that's from other places upwind of you in the UK, and then you've got a band of pollution that's might have been transported long distances. And this, if you like, just your your background concentration that's, that's there from what's happening in other countries. It's why international action on air pollution is really important, because it doesn't stay in one place and it moves around.


Izzy  35:32

Does climate change affect how air pollution moves around?


Dr Sarah Moller  35:35

Yes, it might. So it's likely that climate change will change air circulation, and might change the position of certain flows of air, which will potentially change how air pollution has moved, but also the frequency of certain events. So things like when we get high pressure systems, so that's generally where we get really stable weather. So in the summer, that can be when we get nice, long, hot periods, we get little air movement, and so you get air pollution not moving around. And that means you get buildup of local pollution. But you also quite often get transport events from the east, which means that we're getting air coming from Europe. And so we quite often see high ozone events coming in those types of conditions. And it's possible that those heat waves might be more intense or longer due to climate change. And that that will impact what happens with air pollution.


Gloria 36:26

As Assia and I both hope to go to university, we're currently stressed with personal statements. But we were wondering, is there anything you wish you knew before going to university, anything you would do differently?


Dr Sarah Moller  36:41

I guess one of the things might be not to imagine that you have to have your whole career life planned out. I don't think I did. And I really worried that I might not have made the right choice about what subject to do. And that I didn't know what I wanted to do at the end of my degree. And it was something that caused me quite a lot of worry that lots of other people seem to have, I really want to do this, or I really want to do that. And actually, there are so many opportunities out there that I'm aware of now that I had no idea people did jobs in that that actually, I think coming towards the end of your degree or even before you go, talking around doing a bit of research, trying to find out the kinds of jobs that exist. There's a huge variety of things that mean that you don't have to make a decision really early on about what you want to do, you can wait and see what excites you at the time. So yeah, I think that that's probably the biggest thing that I wish I'd known. At the end of my degree, I wish I'd known to look around more, or the opportunities that are out there. Not that I wish I'd done something different. But just I feel like there's so many more things I could have thought about that I didn't even know could be a career.


Gloria 37:48

This is both related to I think, work and university with the idea of not stressing out too much. How do you find ways to manage your work life while also finding the time to enjoy yourself?


Dr Sarah Moller  38:04

I'm perhaps not the best at it. Because I really love what I do at work. And I hate leaving things unfinished. So I quite often take quite a bit of work, I sort of think about work quite a bit in my home life. But for me, I think the more that I've got into environmental science and talking to environmental scientists, the more interested and engaged I've become with nature and things. And so actually, I find that taking a bit of time out, even if I'm having just a really stressful day, and it's lunchtime, taking a bit of time out to get outside and sit somewhere a bit green go somewhere a bit green, makes a big difference to my mindset, and how productive I can be. So at weekends, I like to at least make some time to get outdoors and just go for a walk, do something in the forest somewhere green, do something somewhere where there's a bit of green space, sit in a park, to give me that bit of time where I can actually chill out and not really think about very much but just enjoy the nature and all the rest of it. And I think that really helps with allowing me to be more productive in in what I do. So I guess you both said that you're interested in geography, is there anything in particular in geography that really excites you?


Gloria 39:15

I've always been intrigued by the social sciences and I always enjoyed the interaction between geography and everyday life and how it applies to things are currently going on. It's very dynamic in nature, it's constantly changing. It's constantly researching geography and how it's always changing. It's always in the news now, especially the climate change. So I’ve always been interested in geography. 


Assia 39:43

I think I prefer the physical geography so like learning about physical processes, volcanoes, tectonics and whatnot. And I'm also really interested in environmental science and climate change. And also like, like kind of what you do which is getting people more aware that because I feel like people just don't care enough.


Dr Sarah Moller  40:02

I think that bit, I didn't do geography even at GCSE and I really wish that I had because I think now I see how much of the stuff, that social science side, along with the physical science side is really quite powerful in how we talk to people about science, in how we, for environmental science, it's so important. And actually, those two bits of the same, in your opinion of the same subject, actually are really important to happen alongside each other and having awareness of what goes on. You know, as a social scientist, having an awareness of what goes on in the physical sciences. And in a physical scientists being aware of what social scientists are doing and working with them allows us to do far more than if we try and do it in isolation. It's quite nice that both of you are here, but one’s gotten interested in the social science side, and one’s got an interest in the more physical side.


Assia 40:54

So one thing about school is that it's all like, it's either science or it's the arts, it's really separated. I feel like when you go out into the work world, everything sort of links, and there isn't really a clear distinction between the two. It's all very interdisciplinary.


Izzy  41:10

Yeah, remember that, because that is a way that you can find joy in anything you're doing, you can use that. There's a thing such called STEAM, which is Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths, and you use the art to do things like you've been talking about in this conversation, to help explain science to other people, but also to, like you're talking about going into nature, you know, that isn't necessarily a science, it's how to how to learn about it properly, and how to enjoy it and how to keep going in a career that could sometimes probably be quite difficult.


Gloria 41:43

Have you always wanted to do a PhD? It seems quite daunting.


Dr Sarah Moller  41:48

No, I had absolutely no plans whatsoever to do a PhD. In fact, after three weeks, I did a four year undergraduate course. So it was a Masters straightaway. And after three years of it, I was pretty sure I wanted to stop then. But because I'd signed up for the Masters, I was like, well, I might as well do the Masters project and finish the Master's course. And then I do my Masters project with somebody in the atmospheric chemistry department. And I really, really loved the research project that I did for my Masters, which was actually flying a helium balloon in our chemistry department carpark and looking at profiles of air pollution through the, like, from the ground upwards to try and see if we could make measurements of volatile organic compounds. So some kind of hydrocarbons through the atmosphere. And it was really, really interesting, and the group was really vibrant and exciting. And so that kind of sparked me on, I quite enjoyed research, but I still wasn't really sure that I wanted to do anything. So I went off and did a year doing something else doing watersports and stuff. And my supervisor for my Masters got back in touch with me and said, I've got a really exciting PhD where you can do lots of things that you like, so you can travel, you can get involved in the science, you can run instruments, but also it's going to be quite interesting environmental science, and that, this was where I went to Borneo and to northern Canada. And I just couldn't turn it down, it was just too big an opportunity. And that really really sparked my interest in atmospheric science because it was such a brilliant PhD.


Izzy  43:18

Sarah are there any resources like social media accounts, or magazines or TV programmes that students who are interested in atmospheric sciences and chemistry in general and everything that you do, could look at to learn more?


Dr Sarah Moller  43:35

So I was having to think about this. And I was gonna recommend something which unfortunately doesn't exist anymore, which I'm really gutted about, but the centre that I worked for the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, they on their homepage and, they have a news part and actually keeping track of the news on there, they put up some interesting some interesting things about climate, air pollution and high impact weather, global change from an atmosphere perspective. So they have some really interesting news articles on there. And they also have a Twitter account, which is @AtmosScience. Then also on Twitter, there's somebody called Gary Fuller. And he writes articles for The Guardian called pollution watch. And those articles are quite interesting. He's an active researcher himself. But so he gives a, if you like, a scientific perspective, but he writes for The Guardian, so he knows about writing for public audiences. So they're, they're often quite a good resource to look at, I think, for being interested in science in general, The Naked Scientists podcast can be really interesting. It's not by any means focused on environmental science. It's right across the board, but I think they do quite a good job of doing some really interesting stuff.


Izzy  44:51

Thank you for joining another STEM Untapped podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, then subscribe for free on your podcast app. You can follow us on Instagram @STEMUntapped. If you know of a school or group of students who would like to interview female or non-binary role models do get in touch. Likewise if you know of anyone who would be a great role model then let us know our details are all documented in the show notes.