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
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.