UI professor: MacArthur award 'completely blindsided me'

UI professor: MacArthur award 'completely blindsided me'

Walking back to her office after class a few weeks ago, engineering Professor Tami Bond got a call on her cell phone from an unfamiliar Chicago number.

She thought it might be news about a friend expecting a baby. Then the voice said, "Can you have a confidential conversation?"

After that, it's all a blur. Something about a $625,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.

"I know I said something, and I know they said something. But it was really just so much of a shock that I've blanked it out," Bond said Wednesday. "It's almost like being in an accident — in a good way."

The MacArthur grants are awarded to individuals with "exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work," according to the foundation.

Bond, a professor in the University of Illinois Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is a pioneer in understanding the effects of black carbon — the dark soot that floats into the air when organic matter is burned — on human health, air quality and the atmosphere.

The genius grants are a surprise to recipients, though they're notified several weeks before the public announcements. The MacArthur folks had in fact done background research on Bond and talked to some of her colleagues but swore them to secrecy.

"They completely blindsided me," she said in between answering the congratulatory emails that flooded her inbox Wednesday. She was able to send out messages to family and close colleagues a few minutes before the announcement Tuesday night, "so they'd be sure to hear it from me."

This year's grants went to 21 people, including UI graduate Mark Hersam, professor of materials science at Northwestern University. Hersam, who received his bachelor's degree and doctorate at the UI, investigates the physical, chemical, and biological properties of nanomaterials.

Other winners include a physicist who uses mathematical models to study brain connectivity, an IBM researcher hoping to improve the security of cloud computing, a lawyer working to increase support for Native American women at risk of domestic violence, a poet, a cartoonist, a filmmaker, and two housing activists.

Bond is considered a world leader in the study of aerosol emissions. She studies particles released into the air when fuel is burned — from cookstoves to biomass to diesel engines.

She has formed partnerships with the World Bank to measure emissions from diesel vehicles in developing nations and with nonprofit organizations to measure biofuel-cooking emissions. She uses models to put together a picture of "where it all comes from, where it goes, and what it's doing to the atmosphere."

Her findings indicate that global black carbon emissions are an important contributor to man-made climate change, according to the foundation's release.

She is also pursuing practical, low-cost solutions, such as training people in developing countries to measure and evaluate their own cookstoves.

Bond's work — cited by global policy organizations and published in prestigious journals — 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, UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise said the recognition is well-deserved and "not at all a surprise" to those who know her.

"Professor Bond is an exemplary scholar, a great mentor and teacher, and a dynamic voice for using science and practical engineering solutions to address the grand challenges of aerosol and black carbon pollution threatening our environment and our health," Wise said.

The grant has no strings attached, intended to give recipients "maximum freedom to follow their own creative visions," according to the MacArthur Foundation.

"It means I don't have to do paperwork," Bond said with a laugh.

It's not enough to support a new research program, but Bond would like to use it to connect with social scientists and others working on "how energy choices relate to the atmosphere." One example: while American cars have strict emission standards, what's the effect of all the older cars still being used in Central America or elsewhere?

"I'm interested in what slips through the cracks," she said.

Bond does get some pushback from those who question climate change or its sources.

"My feeling is I think there is uncertainty in our understanding of the Earth system," she said. "The thing we can do to improve our understanding of how Earth will or will not respond is to have a better characterization of our input to the Earth's system."

About Tami Bond

Age: 50

Research focus: Measuring effect of 'black carbon,' or soot, on air quality, human health and the atmosphere.

Education: Bachelor's degree in 1993 from the University of Washington, master's degree in 1995 from the University of California at Berkeley, and Ph.D. in 2000 from the University of Washington.

Other work: Postdoctoral associate for two years at the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratories; visiting scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research from 2002 to 2003.

At the UI: Joined faculty in 2003. Currently professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and affiliate professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

How did she get interested in engineering? "I was poor and had a car that broke, and I had to fix it. It was frustrating but satisfying."

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