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Meet The Woman Who Just Won A ‘Genius’ Award For Setting Things On Fire

Tami Bond, Photographed at University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois, September 6th, 2014. CREDIT: JOHN D. & CATHERINE T. MACARTHUR FOUNDATION
Tami Bond, Photographed at University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois, September 6th, 2014. CREDIT: JOHN D. & CATHERINE T. MACARTHUR FOUNDATION

Tami Bond plays with fire. And she’s about to get a bunch of money to keep doing it.

Bond, one of the world’s leading researchers on a pollutant known as black carbon, on Wednesday won one of the most prestigious awards for creativity in the country: the MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Genius Grant.’ That grant amounts to a sum of $625,000 over the course of five years, and she can literally do whatever she wants with it. No strings attached.

While Bond’s not entirely sure what type of project she’ll fund with the money, it will almost undoubtedly have her looking at thick curtains of black smoke. In that smoke, she’ll be analyzing black carbon, a particle that when emitted absorbs sunlight, temporarily changing the energy makeup of the earth. Unlike carbon dioxide, black carbon — commonly called “soot” — does not stick around in the atmosphere for longer than two weeks. So it doesn’t cause global warming in the long term, but it does make it worse during the time that it’s here.

“Our long-term problem is definitely carbon dioxide,” Bond explained in an interview with ThinkProgress on Wednesday. “But the reason people are thinking of particles, what people called short-lived pollutants, is that they also change the climate now.”

A Rare Breed Of Scientist

Talking to Bond, it quickly becomes clear why she won an award for creativity. Her career is unlike that of many climate scientists, because she’s not just a scientist — she’s also an engineer. When she received her PhD from the University in Washington in 2000, she walked away a doctor in three disciplines: mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and atmospheric science.

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For Bond, the reason for this was born almost out of frustration. As an engineering undergrad studying combustion, she became well-versed in knowing where smoke comes from, and how it’s produced. But Bond wanted to know where the smoke went, and what it was made of. She wanted to know what it does to the environment.

“If you don’t know where it comes from, then you don’t know why it is,” she explained, “and if you don’t know anything about where it’s going, then you don’t know why it’s important.”

When she realized her passion was figuring out how combustion impacts the environment, she also realized she needed to change course. She did what many students do when presented with the same challenge: she asked a college adviser what she should do with her life.

“I went to this atmospheric science professor. He said, ‘Why don’t you work on light absorption?” Bond recalled. “I had no idea it would take me 20 years to figure anything out.”

Bond’s work on light absorption eventually helped her figure out something really important about black carbon: that it contributes way more to climate change than had previously been believed. That’s because of how much sunlight the black particles absorb, putting more heat energy in the earth’s atmosphere for as long as those particles stick around in the air. In addition, fallen black carbon can darken the bright surface of snow or ice, reducing its ability to reflect sunlight, and therefore causing it to melt.

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But because of Bond’s multidisciplinary career, she’s able not only to figure out what black carbon does, but what can be done to stop it from being emitted. The MacArthur Foundation says this is one reason she’s getting its genius award; she goes “beyond the laboratory,” travelling to remote locations to find out how populations who use lots of open-air burning can keep doing so without emitting black carbon. For example, a trip to Uganda to study cookstove emissions resulted in a discovery that kerosene lamps were actually much larger emitters of black carbon than stoves, and that the problem could be solved easily with cheap LED lamp replacements.

“I’m interested in the bridge between science, when you study physical process, and relevance, where you actually make a difference and figure out how to make a difference on the ground,” Bond said. “You just really need to be there to understand how things work and what can be done.”

The Black Carbon Buzz

Bond is an across-the-board leader when it comes to figuring out why black carbon is emitted, how it effects the atmosphere, and how we can stop it from getting into the air. The MacArthur Foundation credits her with providing “the most comprehensive synthesis of the impact of black carbon on climate to date,” continuing toward “a broader vision of how energy, with emissions as a focal point, interfaces with the atmosphere.”

“With implications ranging from local action to international policy assessments of climate impact, Bond’s work has the potential to unlock the role of energy in our climate system and to help millions breathe cleaner air,” the Foundation said in a statement.

Bond believes she really can help people breathe cleaner air and stop black carbon from impacting the environment. That’s because the beauty of black carbon is that, unlike carbon dioxide, it’s entirely possible to stop producing it. It is only produced from incomplete combustion sources, Bond notes, so it can be solved if those sources merely clean up their combustion processes.

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Right now, the most major source of black carbon is open biomass burning — agricultural burning, prescribed burning, and wildfires — but much of it comes from diesel engines and vehicles. The biggest sources are in South America and Asia, mainly because more open burning happens there.

With the money from MacArthur, Bond will likely do some traveling to somewhere where she knows she can make a difference. She is considering Nepal, or other areas in South Asia.

“I can say that there’s certain places that are ripe for being able to make changes, and it has to do with technical competence and commitment,” she said. “I think everyone should have clean household energy … so I hope to contribute in whatever way to the understanding of how that can be brought to life.”

In all, Bond is happy she’s finally able to talk to friends and colleagues about the grant; she found out weeks ago but couldn’t tell anyone. “I couldn’t tell my kids, so we were calling it ‘mom’s unnamed conflict,’” she said. And beyond that, to figure out what she’ll do with it. But the best part, she said, is having the validation that her niche career is meaningful.

“It is nice to have it be recognized, to know that it’s real, that it produces value to bridge disciplines,” she said. “It felt pretty lonely for a while.”