IFLScience Meets: Dr Craig Poku On Air Quality, Tackling Internal Bias And Losing Data Just Before A Presentation

Image courtesy of Dr Craig Poku, front right. 

Based in York, northern England, research associate Dr Craig Poku has long held an interest in the natural world and as luck would have it, combining this with his love of math was a match made in heaven for studying urban air quality. Here, Dr Poku describes the journey that led him down the environmental path, and how he has been able to use his position within the scientific community to shine a light on poor representation within Earth sciences.

What do you do?

I am a research associate in urban air quality at the University of York.

What did it take to get here?

Since I was young, I was always interested in the natural world. And when at school, I found that I gravitated towards science subjects. I went to university to do a math degree, which led me onto doing a master's, which I absolutely hated. So, I dropped out! This gave me the opportunity to work within Adult Social Care in local government. However, during this time, I realised that I wanted to continue with research but in a different setting. I had applied for master/PhD programs and was offered a place at Leeds to do a PhD in Atmospheric Sciences, which focused on improving our understanding of UK fog. During my PhD, I was always focused on "why should we care?" With this thinking, I was always bringing in societal elements into my work and the nature of my research led me into reading a lot into air quality impacts on fog formation.

After finishing my PhD, I began my first research scientist position investigating how we could improve fog forecasts in Delhi, India. This position gave me an insight into air quality impacts on fog formation, where combined with my growing interests in environmental injustices made me want to go into air quality research. I've always been interested in air quality given that I grew up in London, so doing research that could help communities such as my own became quite important to the way I navigated science. I then saw the opportunity at York being advertised and here we are today!

Imagine you’ve met yourself as a teenager at a careers fair: How would you describe what you do to your former self?

Urban air quality is a mess of a problem that requires interesting maths and physics to address it. Given how much you like maths applications Craig, this could be an area of interest!

What's the most common misconception about your line of work?

In my current role, my biggest fear was that not having a chemistry background would mean that I would not be able to go into air quality research. However, my time in research has allowed me to realise that with most science, it's not as clear cut what background is the best for that bit of research. This thought process has become more critical given that research topics such as air quality, climate change, and food sustainability all require interdisciplinary ways of thinking as they're all so complicated.

What has been a particular source of pride for you in your career?

In my previous role, I was fortunate to co-lead a project called "Black in Geoscience" week, which focused on discussing the poor representation in our field. What I enjoyed about this project most is being able to connect with so many Black scientists across the world. In addition, I enjoyed seeing the impact that the project had as people were more willing to discuss the internal biases that they hold in the field.

Any particularly memorable missteps?

I had a big presentation to deliver to my department. The night before saw me working late and, long story short, I accidentally deleted the wrong folder meaning all my data was gone... After an initial panic, I realised that I had some plots that I could still present even though they weren't in the best format. Fortunately, I was able to have some help from photoshop and after that, I was a lot more careful!

What do you never leave the house without?

Would have to be my headphones, I mean how else can I listen to my favourite podcasts whilst getting on with life?

What’s one piece of advice you'd give to someone wanting to embark on the same career?

If you think an opportunity would be right for you, go for it! I got to where I am because I spoke to a lot of people, realised what I didn't like doing, and figured out that actually what matters to me is ensuring the science I do gets communities involved.

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