Air pollution is responsible for 10 percent of global mortality, according to the World Health Organization. It also significantly decreases global crop production, damages forests and ecosystems, and contributes to uncertainty in climate predictions.

While we often think of air pollution as the result of toxins emitted as exhaust from vehicles and power plants, the majority of pollutants are actually formed through complex, sunlight-driven chemistry of gases in the atmosphere.

Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz, an associate professor in civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, is headed to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador on a Fulbright scholarship to address these emissions from vegetation.

“The Amazon rainforest is a major global hotspot for emissions of reactive organic gases, which go on to react to manmade emissions to form air pollution,” he said. “These gases are emitted by vegetation to serve biological and ecological functions such as communication between organisms, defense against predators, and heat regulation. My goal is to better understand these gases and their impact.”

Although pollution exists virtually everywhere on some level, its presence varies on local and regional scales. Changes in environmental conditions, pollution levels, and lifecycle can affect plants in ways that change their emissions directly and may change the composition of an ecosystem and the ecosystems around them.  

“The ecosystems of the Amazon play a major role in global atmospheres,” said Isaacman-VanWertz. “To predict future changes in air quality and climate across the globe, we need to understand the spatial and chemical diversity of reactive organic gases in the Amazon. By understanding that further, there is potential for climate and land use change to alter those emissions to minimize their negative impact on air quality.”

The research will take place at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, which is part of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. The station is in Yasuní National Park in eastern Ecuador with an existing 40-kilometer trail system that extends into at least three Amazon ecosystems.

Isaacman-VanWertz will collect tests by placing samplers throughout the different ecosystems. He will use a set of novel samplers developed and manufactured by his research group. The samples will be collected onto gas measuring cartridges that can later be extracted in the lab for analysis.

Isaacman-VanWertz said there are few researchers in South America who study these sorts of reactive gases in atmospheric chemistry and almost none who use the types of tools and instrumentation that he will employ. He will bring this expertise to a group of Universidad San Francisco de Quito researchers who have decades of knowledge of the complex rainforest ecosystem.

“There are talented researchers in the area with critical local knowledge and perspective,” he said. “I hope to build longer-term collaborations with researchers throughout Ecuador and nearby countries.”

His program will begin in August and last four months, during which time his family will fully relocate to Ecuador. “I was raised in a house with multiple languages and cultures. My wife and I both lived in other countries as young adults,” Isaacman-VanWertz said. “I want to give these types of deep multicultural experiences to my young children.”

The Fulbright Program, founded in 1946, offers opportunities for life-changing international academic and cultural exchange. Funded through an annual appropriation made by the U.S. Congress to the U.S. Department of State, the program offers approximately 9,000 grants annually to students and scholars. Only 800 of those grants benefit U.S. scholars traveling abroad. Isaacman-VanWertz is among that select group of scholars for 2023.

Participating governments and host institutions, corporations, and foundations around the world provide direct and indirect support to the Fulbright Program, which operates in over 160 countries worldwide.

For advice and resources on the Fulbright application process, contact Virginia Tech’s Fulbright liaison, Nicole Sanderlin, director of global engagement in the College of Engineering. The Provost’s Office assists department, college, or division leadership in facilitating leave for Fulbright fellowships. The Global Education Office, part of Outreach and International Affairs, provides support and resources for incoming Fulbright scholars and the departments that host them.   

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