A deep breath of fresh, clean air is truly satisfying. Beyond that pleasure, the public benefits of clean air are enormous – fewer cases of lung cancer, asthma, and other respiratory ailments; and fewer pollutants in the environment which can harm plants and animals everywhere. LaToya Myles, an air chemist in NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory, studies chemical pollutants in the air. Her measurements in field studies in various locations indicate not only where pollution levels are problematic, but also which chemicals and in what quantity. Such studies are a key step in remedying air quality problems.
Why is your research important?
Air quality is important to every human being. For most of us, breathing is an unconscious action; we don’t think about what is in the air that we breathe. That’s part of my job. I study how pollutants travel through the air and how they affect human and environmental health. It’s important to understand these complex processes and maintain good air quality. After all, the atmosphere is a shared resource that doesn’t have boundaries or borders. Poor air quality in one location can affect communities and ecosystems elsewhere.
What do you do to share your passion about research with broader audiences?
I speak to students about science and how we rely on STEM (scientific inventions, technological breakthroughs, engineering innovations, and mathematical advancements) in our daily lives. I enjoy speaking to students in elementary and middle schools because they often see science in a very abstract way, like theories and laws written centuries ago that have no relevance today. As a scientist, I see my role as two-fold: first, to help them realize how science touches each of us every day; and second, to show them that anyone can acquire the skills and knowledge to become a scientist or researcher.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
"...the atmosphere is a shared resource that doesn’t have boundaries or borders."
I enjoy collecting data in field studies. Field studies are opportunities to test my theories in the real world using advanced instruments to measure gases and particles in the air. It is particularly exciting to discover an unexpected outcome and work with other scientists and engineers to understand the results.
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
Most of my work is conducted in a lab and in field studies. The instruments used in field studies must be tested and calibrated in a lab first to ensure proper operation under different environmental conditions. I have conducted field studies in Florida and in California where high temperature and humidity can present demanding conditions for sensitive instruments. We can simulate some of these conditions in the lab, which makes it easier to ensure that the instruments will work properly in the field.
What in your lab could you not live without?
I cannot live without my water purification system. Much of my work depends on collecting air samples, which are often analyzed in water-based solutions. I use a water purification system to remove salts from tap water, a process called deionization. Solutions prepared with deionized water have a higher purity and less contamination.
If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
I would invent an instrument that could accurately measure multiple air pollutants in real-time. Current sensors often measure only one or two air pollutants. Measurement of more types of pollutants requires more sensors. A multi-pollutant sensor that could measure many types of gases and particles in the air would be cost-effective and time-efficient.
When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
As a high school student, I spent my summers participating in enrichment programs at various universities. I learned about engineering at Mississippi State University, acoustics at the University of Mississippi, and chemistry at Alcorn State University. Those experiences fostered my interest in science and helped me understand just how broad science is and how many positive opportunities it offers.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
There are many good books about science for those interested in future careers. Two of my favorites are The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Both of these books highlight the need for scientific integrity while also relating true stories about science and how it can be used to make life better for millions of people. However, there are tangible elements to science that must be experienced first-hand. In addition to reading books and articles, I often recommend hands-on experiences in a laboratory or in the field for budding scientists.
What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
I least expected that I would have input on the types of research projects that I pursue. Many bench scientists are assigned project and tasks, but at NOAA, most scientists are invited to share their thoughts about the types of research that are relevant to the organization and about how we can best fulfill our mission and goals. I appreciate having my scientific perspective included in long-term plans and strategies, and I find it very satisfying to see a research project blossom from a simple question into a field campaign and eventually a published paper. It’s a 360° process.
Do you have an outside hobby?
Yes, I have several outside hobbies. I’m an avid reader, gardener, and community volunteer. Volunteering allows me to give back in many ways to different communities.
What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
I would probably be a librarian. Reading has long been a passion for me and being a librarian was one of my childhood dreams. Whenever I can, I volunteer with Friends of the Library to promote reading and support libraries in my community.
Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
Dr. Percy Lavon Julian is my favorite historical scientist because he conducted pioneering work in chemistry. Dr. Julian overcame great odds to pursue his passion for chemistry, and his research continues to change lives for the better.
LaToya Myles is originally from Mississippi and is a magna cum laude graduate of Alcorn State University with a B.S. in chemistry and a B.S. in biology. She also holds a Ph.D. in environmental sciences from Florida A&M University. She is a member of Sigma Xi, the American Chemical Society, the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Geophysical Union.