UNCONVENTIONAL. UNUSUAL. A TRANSLATOR. The two adjectives might describe Dr. Mike Rodgers' approach to knowledge. The noun names what Rodgers does with what he learns.
"The majority of my career has been spent getting people with different disciplinary foci to work together," he says. "You can't assume that good things will happen just because you've put people together."
Rodgers trained as a physicist. His first full-time job was working as an engineer, and he earned his Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary field that combines meteorology with chemistry.
"As a consequence, I've been professionally exposed to many different fields and have worked to develop what I generally refer to as a 'Scientific American' understanding of a lot of different areas," he says.
In a society where scientists increasingly have been trained to develop depth of knowledge in specific areas -- a vertical orientation -- that makes Rodgers something of an exception.
"Depth of knowledge has substantial merit," he says. "A veneer of knowledge in many fields can be more dangerous than useful, because it can lead to insanely wrong conclusions at times. In my own case however, I felt it desirable to sacrifice some depth of knowledge to gain additional breadth."
Why? Because managing the air quality issues in which he is an expert requires more than just an understanding of molecular changes in the atmosphere. It demands interaction among people from policy, chemistry, transportation, industry and other backgrounds -- and in most cases, someone to help them relate to each other.
"It's important to have sufficient breadth to be able to serve as a linkage between disparate groups of more specialized individuals," Rodgers says.
Being a translator does have its drawbacks, though.
"You have to be prepared never to be the most knowledgeable in any area," Rodgers says of his work. "Somebody is always better than you at everything. I work with very good specialists."
Rodgers' background and everyday duties encompass many of the fields of the specialists he brings together on large projects. His undergraduate and graduate training at Georgia Tech was in optics and lasers, his bachelor's and master's degrees in physics. He worked for many years developing laser-based instruments that detect atmospheric chemicals, and completed a doctorate in atmospheric sciences. His dissertation on detecting atmospheric nitrous acid in Atlanta won the Sigma Xi outstanding doctoral dissertation award at Georgia Tech. Gradually, his interest moved from lasers to atmospheric chemistry, and then to collecting data on the polluted environment.
Rodgers is jointly appointed to Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and School of Public Policy, and has taught in Georgia Tech's College of Engineering, College of Science and the Ivan Allen College of Management. His graduate students have majors ranging from civil or environmental engineering to public policy or earth and atmospheric sciences. In recognition of his work, he was among the first Institute Fellows named at Georgia Tech in 1994. The Fellows are outstanding scholars in the early to middle years of their professional development who show potential for major contributions as future leaders.
Among the challenges Rodgers is proudest of meeting -- one that paved the way for bringing diverse groups of researchers and other colleagues together -- was putting together Georgia Tech's Air Quality Laboratory (AQL). He began working toward that goal with two graduate students in 1987; this summer the lab will include 55 staff members and students, and it is still growing.
Starting the lab was difficult, he explains, because university atmospheric chemistry groups historically have been rather small and disciplinary-specific -- a professor and few graduate students, for example.
"The interdisciplinary nature of atmospheric chemistry and the very large number of chemicals that you have to measure, however, means that measurements in isolation are rarely very useful," Rodgers said. "Measuring many different things generally requires a lot of different capabilities, and historically that's not been the province of individual university research groups. The development of the Air Quality Lab to a substantial scale was necessary for being a full partner with the federal labs in major research projects."
Located within Georgia Tech's School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, the lab is now among the world's largest university research groups in air chemistry. AQL will be responsible for approximately $3 million in sponsored research during 1995. Rodgers has worked to develop a strong research infrastructure at Georgia Tech that has spawned several university based programs -- as well as collaboration and coordination with government labs, private industrial firms and others in which universities could be full partners.
Organizing large air quality programs and successfully executing them has become one of Rodgers' trademarks. One of the most influential of the programs he helped lead is the Southern Oxidants Study (SOS), an alliance of universities, state and federal agencies and industries conducting intensive research into the formation of ground level ozone air pollution in the United States. He was an original principal on the project. As mission scientist for the summer 1992 Atlanta Intensive portion of SOS, Rodgers led about 150 scientists in collecting data on ozone pollution issues. He was the program scientist for the Southeastern Regional Oxidant Network (SERON), which is part of SOS and manages network operations and data analysis. Now, he serves with colleague Jim Meagher of the Tennessee Valley Authority as chief scientist for SOS' chemical and meteorological measurements program.
Rodgers also is co-director, along with Mike Meyer of Environmental and Civil Engineering, of the Georgia Tech Research Partnership for Mobile Source Emissions Research. The program is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National University Center of Excellence in mobile source emissions research. Georgia Tech is participating with partners EPA, General Motors, Ford and Toyota, along with some engineering consulting firms.
"SOS and the mobile source research center are complex and integrated programs," Rodgers said. "I think that's something unusual for universities to do, and I think we've been successful at it."
Atmospheric chemists face one major problem every day, Rodgers says: Many things are going on at once in a constantly changing environment of wind and weather, humidity, and solar radiation.
"The experiments are difficult to perform, and concentrations of many important compounds are very low. This often requires the very best analytical methods available," he says. "Often the weaknesses of techniques and technologies that work well under laboratory conditions become strongly exposed when mounted on an airplane, or when you are sitting in the middle of a muddy field in a rainstorm in mid-summer in Baton Rouge. That's where the real challenge comes in."
The challenges of atmospheric chemistry are similar to those faced on a larger scale in managing the environment. Policy, legislation, regulation, scientific research and industrial production are evolving simultaneously, and at different speeds. As a result, Rodgers encourages his graduate students to cross-train themselves in different disciplines. Many are getting Ph.D.s in one area of expertise and master's degrees in different areas -- combining civil engineering and public policy, for example. The students will be naturals for attacking certain types of interdisciplinary problems, he maintains.
"A person who is professionally competent in both policy and air quality, or in economics and air quality, has many advantages in research on economic incentive controls as a replacement for regulation compared with two specialists who are trying to communicate with each other," he explains.
The most important change developing in air quality and other environmental areas is a switch from a problematic to a management viewpoint. Historically, air pollution and quality have been looked at as problems to be solved -- and some of the biggest have been deciphered, Rodgers notes.
"Now I think we recognize that the chronic problems are the most difficult -- the ones that are most closely related to our lifestyle," Rodgers explains. "I use the word 'manage' instead of 'address' or 'solve' because for the rest of our life on this planet, we will be 'managing' environmental problems. It requires re-thinking a lot of the ways we do things, from product development to engineering and production."
Managing environmental issues such as air quality also requires the recognition of scientists that their work is increasingly linked to policy. In fact, Rodgers believes that scientists doing air quality research are also doing air quality policy, whether they acknowledge it or not.
"The work that you do impacts public decision-making. I think it is very important for scientists to begin to recognize that, and to actively interpret their results for laymen and decision-makers, rather than depending on others to do that translation," he says. "My suggestion is not that scientists have to go the point of becoming policy analysts -- but very often, it just isn't enough to send a publication to a scientific journal and believe that we have discharged our social responsibilities. Trying to express the real issues of air quality in terms that non-specialists can understand is an extremely important part of what we do."
Scientists consume large chunks of public resources, Rodgers notes.
"In my own research this year the Air Quality Lab is receiving more than $3 million in sponsored funds," he says. "That's more than a dollar for every Atlantan. We need to give them news they can use, but not in some esoteric form."
To that end, Rodgers works with lay groups and policymakers to help them understand air quality research and its implications. He speaks to civic and professional groups that examine the role of scientists in society and managing air quality. And Georgia Tech's air quality laboratory maintains long-standing relationships with teachers and students in area junior and high schools -- going to the classroom, and bringing teachers and students to the lab.
Rodgers continues to be a translator of air quality research and related issues from the lab to students, policymakers, legislators, engineers, industry and colleagues in other disciplines. Ultimately, he predicts, experts in all scientific and technological fields must make a similar commitment to change -- and to interdisciplinary solutions -- thus adding some breadth to an extraordinary and admirable deep understanding of the ways things work.
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