‘We can switch to cleaner fuels that don’t end up polluting our atmosphere’

Research Lives: Teresa Spohn, PhD candidate at MaREI in NUIG

You are interested in pollutants in the atmosphere over Ireland, what do you look at?
We measure small particles and changes in the atmosphere, including changes in ozone and levels of black carbon.

What's black carbon and why is it of interest?
It is like soot, and it gets into the atmosphere as a product of incomplete burning or combustion. That might be from human activity like burning fossil fuels or traffic emissions, or it might be from phenomena like forest fires or volcanoes.

Black carbon is pretty short-lived in the atmosphere, but because it traps a lot of heat it has a greenhouse effect, and this is linked to change in climate.

What was your PhD about at the NUIG base of MaREI, the SFI Research Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine?
I helped with setting up and validating various instruments and measured pollution in the atmosphere over coastal stations in Ireland. We were able to see changes that corresponded to the reduced transport activity during Covid-19.


I just recently defended my PhD thesis, which involved doing an interview online, as the examiner could not travel here. I was glad to be at home for that, with my boyfriend and our dog there for moral support in the background.

How did you develop an interest in atmospheric science?
Growing up in Germany, I had always been good at science in school and my concern for environment was there from early on. In the 1990s I joined a club to save the Amazon rainforest, which was a noble effort, even if it has been unsuccessful to date!

I studied computer science and information systems in college and I got a job as a mainframe operator, but my hobby was to fly small aeroplanes. Through my flying club I got involved in airborne monitoring and I decided to study for a Master’s in Earth and Atmospheric Science at the University of Houston. That led on to my PhD.

What was it like to switch from computer science to atmospheric physics?
Starting off, I didn't know much about the atmosphere or physics, but that is why you go to school – to learn. And I think my journey shows that it you are interested in something then with time and patience you can get there, it's never too late.

What kinds of challenges did you face as a PhD student?
It's pretty normal in a PhD to encounter some problems and challenges and that things don't go as planned. My project and supervisor changed after I had started the PhD, but the biggest challenge by far was in 2017 when I lost my partner to brain cancer.

I'm so sorry for you loss, I can't even imagine how difficult that was.
I found it hard to keep going after that, but I found comfort in the work, I had a purpose and I had promised him I would finish the PhD. It's dedicated to him.

And there was also the motivation that we are facing a climate crisis, we are in a race against time, so we need to do science that helps the planet and we need to reach people.

How do you think people can engage with the enormous issue of climate change?
I think we all need to listen to scientists who are working on this. They are gathering the data and insights. And as an atmospheric physicist I would say stop burning wood and fossil fuels – we can switch to cleaner fuels that don't end up polluting our atmosphere and affecting the climate.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation