Meet Tracey Holloway
Tracey Holloway is a self-described matchmaker, providing a bridge between data and public policy, and a link between students and their dream jobs.
Holloway, a professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UW-Madison leads an air quality research program in the Nelson Institute Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE).
While the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies administrative offices are located in Science Hall, SAGE, one of four Nelson Institute research centers at UW-Madison, is located at the Enzyme Institute. SAGE connects science with decision making on energy, land use, public health, and more — the science policy interface around environmental issues.
“We try to focus on getting the best available science and making it useable for decision makers,” Holloway explains. “We are not an advocacy organization. We just want to connect advanced data and tools with real world information needs.”
Broadly, Holloway says, her work relates to air quality and looking at chemicals in the air that make people sick. The same chemicals that cause asthma, reduce life expectancy, and make for itchy eyes, also often impair visibility, and reduce crop yields. These chemicals have been regulated in the United States since 1970 and Holloway says that makes for a “good news” story.
“Most of our air is getting cleaner and cleaner,” she says.
The reason? Technology and policies have been put in place across the United States with the goal of cleaner air. Cars have cleaner burning engines, power plants use scrubbers and other technologies, and energy-efficient appliances reduce energy use (and cost) at home.
“We spend a tremendous amount of money to achieve healthy air,” Holloway notes. “We are using more energy and driving our cars more, yet our air is getting cleaner because we are investing in clean air technologies. And it’s a great investment! We can clearly see the benefits of cleaner air in the U.S.: longer life expectancy, fewer hospital visits, fewer kids with asthma. This investment pays us back around to $10 to $20 for every $1 we spend.”
As with any big investment, she says, it’s important to have the best information available to make sound decisions. In this case, that information comes from science.
Holloway’s science involves using computer models to understand the complex system of atmospheric chemistry. Air quality is a complicated system where chemicals come out of tail pipes and smokestacks, mix in the atmosphere with naturally occurring chemicals. Then, they all get cooked up in the atmosphere through chemical reactions, moved around by wind patterns, and deposited by rain or snow. Computer models include all of these factors as mathematical equations, so that Holloway and her students can examine how these competing processes affect day-to-day air quality. These models can be used to assess how emissions in one area can affect atmospheric chemistry downwind, how alternative energy strategies could improve air quality, and to evaluate connections between climate and chemistry. One project research led by Holloway examines the potential benefits of broader solar energy deployment in urban areas. Another evaluates the air quality impacts of biodiesel for trucking, modal shifts from truck to rail, and broader use of natural gas in trucks.
“I find my research really exciting because it connects energy, chemistry, weather and public health,” Holloway says. “We link the computer models that run at SAGE with satellite data from NASA and ground-based measurements from state and national air agencies.”
Holloway earned her Ph.D. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences from Princeton University in 2001, and completed a certificate in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
While still a student in 2000, she saw a faculty opening at UW Madison and applied. The hiring process was lengthy, but that worked out just fine for her. After completing her postdoctoral work at Columbia University, Holloway came to work at UW-Madison in 2003.
“The position was a perfect fit for me to connect my science and policy interests with energy,” Holloway recalls of accepting her first faculty job. “And, the idea of living in Wisconsin was like a dream come true.”
Holloway grew up as the middle child in a Chicago family. “Growing up in Chicago, we thought of Wisconsin as a place where people went to camp and vacationed — it was like heaven on earth,” Holloway recalls.
Today, much of Holloway’s work connects with NASA. She leads the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Science Team, an initiative launched to advance atmospheric research linking satellite data with health and air quality management needs. She also works actively with the state of Wisconsin, serving on the Air Management Study Group of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, an advisory commission with representatives from industry, environmental groups, and researchers like Holloway.
One of Holloway’s proudest accomplishments is her role in the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN), which she helped found in 2002, and for which she now serves as President. Through her work with ESWN, Holloway also helps manage the Earth Science Jobs Network, a free, public listserv for job announcements in the environmental sciences, maintained by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).
“The Earth Science Women’s Network started with just six people and has grown to be the largest organization of women across the geosciences with 3,000 members worldwide working in over 50 countries and is incorporated as a nonprofit in Wisconsin,” she notes.
Networking comes naturally to Holloway.
“I love helping students find jobs! When I was younger I was quite the matchmaker,” she says. “Today, my matchmaking efforts go to connecting employers with our students and our students with great jobs.”
It’s making those connections that has earned Holloway a reputation on campus as someone who students can talk to and see advice as they strategize about their careers.
Holloway typically teaches two courses per semester. This fall, she is teaching Introduction to Air Quality — a soup to nuts introduction to science and policies around air pollution, and a graduate seminar in Energy Modeling, where students and faculty discuss the role of mathematical models for real world energy problems. Next spring, Holloway is launching a new class for freshmen called Building a Clean Energy Future, and a capstone class for senior undergraduates called Air, Energy and Policy.
The theme is clear.
“In my classes, I don’t want to have students only look at chemistry or only weather or only policy issues,” Holloway says. “I want them to be able to make connections across these areas in ways that are necessary to be solving real world problems.”
She likes to help her students think through how energy sources and energy consumption has changed over the past 40 years, and how we got to where we are now “But I also want my students to think about the future and what are the upsides and down sides of different energy strategies,” she says. “My goal is to empower students to be good decision makers, critical thinkers, and to have the tools that they need to move forward in whatever career they choose to pursue.”
Her students often go to work at energy companies, consulting companies, state and local government, health care or data analysis fields, or they continue onto graduate school.
“A lot of the methods that we use, like analyzing big data or understanding computer models or working with satellite data – these are skills that are transferable to a wide range of fields,” Holloway notes. “I try to bring lessons I have learned in the field back to my classroom and I try to make sure I am doing work that serves the state of Wisconsin. I also do work that connects UW-Madison students and stakeholders with national and international efforts, highlighting the excellent work at UW and the excellent students who we’re graduating.”
She’s mentored many students and keeps all of the thank you notes she has received over the years. Smiling student faces fill the photos that hang on her office wall.
“I track my work hours and work more than 60 hours a week,” Holloway notes. “But it doesn’t feel burdensome when you are meeting with students or you are giving a public lecture or working on an exciting new report. I work really hard to serve the state of Wisconsin, and I feel very fortunate for my position here, but it doesn’t feel like a chore. My mom was a small business owner and felt the same way. When you are putting in extra hours and you love what you are doing, it doesn’t feel like work. And that’s how I feel about being a professor at UW-Madison.”