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Where Science Meets Social Justice, There is Aara’L Yarber

A young woman wearing a purple turtle neck smiles in the park.
2023 AAAS Mass Media Fellow Aara'L Yarber. Photo credit: Chelsey Laurencin.

As an undergraduate at Howard University, 2023 Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellow Aara’L Yarber accompanied her advisor on a field campaign to study air pollution in Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa. During her time there, the region was hit by the first hurricane to strike the island in roughly a hundred years.

This experience, says Yarber, helped solidify her interest in atmospheric science — and the implications of social and economic inequity. “I realized the innate connection between weather and society in a way that I hadn’t considered before when I saw people scrambling in the streets, trying to take cover, and the inefficiency of the early warning system that was there,” she recalls. “I became interested in developing countries, particularly West Africa.”

Today, Yarber is an atmospheric scientist and science writer who is currently working on her Ph.D. at Penn State University. Her research involves examining particulate pollution sources and their effect on West African air quality.

Multiple factors drew her to this work, says Yarber, including the connection that she felt to West Africa because her ancestors were from the region. She also realized that this research fit with her affinity for projects she describes as those in which “science meets social justice.” And finally, she became aware of the urgency and growing scope of the problem.

According to Yarber, the World Health Organization estimates that some 7 million people are killed due to air pollution every year, with low-income regions such as sub-Saharan African countries suffering the highest burden of disease attributable to air pollution.

Yarber notes that there are several culprits contributing to the hazardous, poor-quality air in this region — dust from the Sahara, particularly during the dry season, biomass burning (burning of living and dead vegetation), and emissions from vehicles and industrial plants in urban areas. These factors, combined with a lack of air quality regulations and urban population growth, set the stage for a potentially massive health crisis that is poised to affect billions of people.

Yarber’s work involves analyzing data — including information about weather and emission sources — from air quality sensors and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The problem? “We’re doing this using the very limited data sets that are available,” says Yarber. “Really, it’s an environmental justice and data justice issue throughout the region because there have been so few studies that have examined this problem.” She also notes that the little data they do have fails to separate emission sources, which is necessary in identifying the greatest sources of pollution.

“I am basically running a weather and air chemistry model for each emission source to see if the model is producing something that looks somewhat accurate based off the limited data that we do have available,” says Yarber. “My work seeks to understand the relative importance of these different emission sources.”

Analyzing dust in West Africa to help people breathe cleaner air wasn’t exactly what Yarber had envisioned doing with her life when she was a young child growing up in Los Angeles. “I actually thought I was going to be an artist all throughout middle school and high school,” she recalls. But there was always a pull toward science, which she attributes to the time she and her dad would spend outdoors, hiking and looking up at the stars. He inspired her to have a sense of curiosity about the world, and at one point, Yarber decided to study physics, and even astronomy, which she felt incorporated her interest in philosophy. “I still see myself as being somewhat torn between the arts and science — that’s kind of what brought me into science writing; I’ve always loved writing creatively, so this is kind of an extension of what I naturally enjoy.”

At Penn State, Yarber has continued to pursue her interest in writing, working as a science and environment reporter for the student-led newspaper. She has written about topics ranging from migrating exoplanets to the legacy of Black Americans in horticulture. Last summer, she interned at the American Geophysical Union’s newsroom, where she wrote press releases about emerging climate research.

This summer, she will be at The Washington Post as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow. She is excited to work with and learn from some of the top journalists in the nation, who are producing articles as well as other types of content including video, photo, and graphics. This opportunity, says Yarber, will not only give her a chance to network with professional journalists and hone her skills as a science communicator, but also support her passion for finding ways to use her work to help others.

“Because they’re not just a science news outlet and focus on a lot of policy issues as well, they’re right at that interdisciplinary intersection that I want to remain in,” explains Yarber. “I think there is some obligation for us as scientists to ensure that we are bridging the gap in terms of research and resources in developing countries that will be significantly impacted by climate change, that have less resources for mitigation, and adaptive efforts.”