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de Gouw, Joost
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/ Categories: Profile, Air Quality

de Gouw, Joost

Passionate about clean air and clear language

With the goal of improving air quality, de Gouw’s research focuses on understanding the origins of air pollution. In 2010, he was on the scientific team that analyzed the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on air quality and discovered a new set of chemicals that diminish air quality.

De Gouw gives frequent talks about his work at international scientific meetings and has given many interviews to the news media about air quality research. Recognizing his abilities as a captivating, clear, and succinct and communicator, the CIRES communications team frequently features de Gouw in videos, podcasts, and articles highlighting CIRES research. He received the CIRES Outstanding Performance Award in 2007, became a Fellow of CIRES in 2008, and has been an editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres since 2009.


Why does your research matter?

I think the work that we’ve done has really affected the quality of people’s lives. Our work has contributed to understanding the causes of air pollution and enabled regulators to address them. We’ve seen some very large improvements over the past decade. For example, we did some work in Los Angeles in 2002 and came back in 2010. The concentrations of a lot of pollutants that are directly emitted were 50 percent lower — that is a huge difference. Of course that is not just our work, but the work of the larger community. I think our field as a whole can be proud of that.

How do you share your passions with a broader audience?

I think communicating our science to broader audiences is very important. We often complain that our science is not properly understood, but we are partially responsible for that. We need to talk in a language that people understand, and often we don’t. And then people just tune out. So, I am trying to do my share and present in a language that people understand. I take every opportunity to cooperate with the communications team to make videos, podcasts, and press releases. I also have a very up-to-date group website at CIRES. I write it all myself and put it on the web myself.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I really enjoy looking at data. Once you have obtained the basic data, you look for patterns. You try out some simple theories of why you saw what you saw, and you test those theories. Of course to get the data, you need to do the fieldwork, and I enjoy that too. The part that is really enjoyable is that we always do this with a large, diverse, and talented group. People work hard and are very dedicated, and being part of a team like that is a privilege and really very enjoyable.

Where do you do most of your work?

"Our work has contributed to understanding the causes of air pollution and enabled regulators to address them."

We are involved in these large-scale field studies. We take measurements from aircraft, ships, and ground sites, but most of my own time is spent in my office looking at and analyzing data and making plans for the next field trips.

What in your lab could you not live without?

My laptop computer – I don’t go anywhere without it. But really what I should say is the analytical instruments that I use to generate the data, because that is where it starts. Without the data, the laptop would be nice, but it wouldn’t do anything.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be?

Mass spectrometers are now used so much in air chemistry research. To give you an example, when our research aircraft takes off, we probably have between 10 to 15 mass spectrometers onboard interrogating the incoming air in all kinds of ways. These days there are new types of mass spectrometers that are more sensitive and give you more detail. We would love to get our hands on one of those and then combine it with the other methods we have used for atmospheric trace-gas detection to build better instruments. But that is really daydreaming at this point.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

It was a very gradual process. When I was in graduate school, the first few years were really hard work. It was not clear that I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. It started to become more fun once I had some results and started to interact with people and get some recognition. Then I decided I liked it enough to become a post doctoral fellow. Many postdocs go through this process to decide between a career in the private sector or to stay in academia where they’ll move from one temporary position to another. At one point, I had an interview with a consulting company. Afterwards, I decided that it wasn’t for me. I wanted to go on doing what I like the most – being a research scientist.

Yes, it is difficult to depend on yearly contracts, but I get to meet so many very interesting and talented people. I travel a lot, and it is a really rich life.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

What I did a lot was read biographies of famous scientists, such as Haphazard Reality: Half a Century of Science by Hendrik Casimir. When I was in graduate school and needed some new inspiration, I read a lot of those. I always felt that it was good to realize that famous scientists were just regular people who struggled with scientific problems, had to work hard, and made mistakes. They did all that and went on to achieve results.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

It is the endless forms that I need to fill out to get people, especially international visitors, into the building. We have so many people who want to visit. Hosting visitors is a great way to enhance what we are doing, but sometimes, on our end, it seems like it is a problem rather than an opportunity.

Do you have an outside hobby?

Well I live in Boulder, so I hike, bike, and ski. I love camping and being outside. It’s a good way to take your mind off of work, and at the same time, it’s also a good way to generate new ideas. At work you can get too caught up in the day and do the mechanical parts of your job, but not the inspirational parts. I usually get my best ideas not at work but on my bicycle, hiking, or under the shower.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I think I would have been a teacher at some level. I come from a family of teachers. My dad was a mathematics teacher, and so was my grandfather. My other grandfather was a building contractor, so I like to believe I combine all of their talents by building stuff, doing science with it, and educating people.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

I admire three types of scientists. First are the ones who just kept doing basically the same thing over and over again and became so good at it that they went further than others ever had.

I also admire scientists who go completely outside the box. For instance, Arie Jan Haagen-Smit who discovered ozone chemistry in Los Angeles was also a plant ecologist. He made the jump from plants to the atmosphere, and that’s quite a leap.

Finally I also admire scientists who really enjoy science for the joy of doing science. They don’t do it for the fame or the power that comes their way, but they just enjoy the intellectual challenge. Eldon Ferguson, one of our previous lab directors, still comes in and he talks about ion chemistry, which he really enjoys, and I think that is really inspiring. I hope I can be like that later. We’ll see.


Originally from Helmond, the Netherlands, Joost de Gouw received a Ph.D. in physics in 1994 from the University of Utrecht. He joined CIRES in 2001 as a research scientist in the Chemical Sciences Division.

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