In collaboration with Strathcona residents associations, Rivkah and the team she's part of are deploying sensors to address community air quality concerns in the neighborhood. With the aid of the sensors, the team will identify pollution hotspots or localized high levels of air pollution to address Strathcona’s air quality issues and design intervention strategies.

Research Description

Our research uses low-cost sensors to address community air quality concerns in the Vancouver neighborhood of Strathcona. A large body of research has shown that air pollution has detrimental effects on human health. The Strathcona neighbourhood in Vancouver is a community of concern for air pollution due to its proximity to Port of Vancouver and high proportions of Indigenous and low-income households. The port draws shipping, truck, and rail traffic, and their associated emissions of particulate matter and nitrogen oxides affect the health of Strathcona residents. The neighbourhood is adjacent to major roadways and downtown, which further exacerbates air pollution via light-duty vehicle emissions. Since pollutants have small-scale spatial variations, identifying hotspots or localized high levels of air pollution is critical to addressing Strathcona’s air quality issues and designing intervention strategies. We will use low-cost sensors to greatly increase the spatial coverage of air quality monitors within the neighborhood and will be able to capture those critical fine-scale variations in air quality.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

A Public Scholar is a researcher who showcases the value that research can have in peoples’ everyday lives. To me, this means that I can apply and see the value of the technical tools I develop in my PhD research in the real world. There are plenty of interesting methods or applications within any given field, but the most immediately impactful research is that which can be applied to help address communities’ and societies’ concerns.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

The Public Scholars Initiative is a good model for how to help broaden a PhD experience. It provides the freedom to go beyond the typical research questions in a PhD and ask how the work we are doing as students can be applied to aid in public good, even when it might be rare in certain research disciplines. PhD students can go outside their academic bubble and connect and learn from others, especially those in the government or communities, as well as share their area of expertise.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

I hope my PhD work will demonstrate how interested I am in being a community-focused researcher. Communication, openness, and creativity, as well as technical skill, are needed to successfully achieve air pollution and policy goals. Through my PhD and working as a Public Scholar, I will be able to grow all these skills simultaneously and will be well prepared for a role working on air quality projects for NGOs or the government.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

As our project is in Strathcona, a vibrant and diverse neighborhood in Vancouver, we will work with the Strathcona Residents Association (SRA). The SRA has long represented the community and our research will combine their deep local knowledge with our technical skills to effectively address their air quality concerns. The premise of our work is that we, as researchers, know a great deal about air pollution but we have nowhere near the knowledge of residents when it comes to their own community or their environmental concerns. Therefore, it is necessary for the research process to be collaborative and community driven.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

Once our project is done, I believe the Strathcona neighborhood and its residents will be empowered with more data and knowledge of their local environment. They can use this information to intervene in the path between air pollution production and exposure if they so choose. Academic findings can carry weight with public opinion and often can influence governmental decisions, which is useful if Strathcona decides to lobby for policy changes or other interventions.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I began considering a PhD while I was in my master's program. I was unsure of how a PhD would fit into my career goals but during my program, I began to interact with more PhD holders doing innovative research in non-profit and start-up spaces. After an internship at the Environmental Defense Fund where I worked with many PhD scientists, I realized a PhD would help me to do what I want most - to work on exciting projects that help people understand and improve air quality!

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

I chose to attend UBC for a PhD because of the proposed research project, my supervisors, and the availability of a broader community studying air quality and the social aspects of environmental issues. Both of my supervisors are appointed in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability so even though I am registered in Mechanical Engineering, I have access to a highly interdisciplinary department to inform my research. One of my supervisors, Dr. Giang, is a brilliant environmental systems researcher and an amazing mentor. My other supervisor, Dr. Boyd, is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment and offers expert guidance on environmental law and policy, as well as fantastic mentorship.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

I decided to apply to Mechanical Engineering instead of another discipline doing similar work because I wanted to work with my current supervisors and because I want to continue working to advance women in engineering.

For you, what was the best surprise about graduate life, about UBC or life in Vancouver?

How beautiful the city and campus are! When it's not raining, seeing the beach and the mountains at the same time is amazing.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

I've been fortunate to have a variety of research experiences through both academia and nonprofits. Seeing the research process in various stages has always been exciting, and it prepared me for planning and completing projects from start to finish.

Do you have any tips for students from your home country coming to Canada / to UBC Grad School?

Take care of your relationships and health. Graduate school can be hard! However, it can be easier if you don't take it too seriously and make sure you enjoy other parts of life.