HCP Undergrad Researcher Q&A: Jonathan D'Souza

November 7, 2020
HCP Q&A with Researchers: The Harvard-China Project on Energy, Economy and Environment, based at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is initiating a new Q&A series with our research contributors. This is the fifth.
Harvard-China Project Undergraduate Researcher Q&A: Jonathan D'Souza

"Effect of the COVID-19 lockdown on tropospheric ozone concentrations in the Indian subcontinent"
Jonathan D'Souza is a sophomore undergraduate at Harvard University, who is working with Professor Mike McElroy to study atmospheric chemistry in India. His role as a Research Assistant with the Harvard-China Project has been guided by the mentorship of a number of our research community members. Learn more about his project, in his own words: 

Harvard-China Project: We understand your current research, which evolved from a summer project with Professor Mike McElroy, explores the impact of the coronavirus on ozone in India. Can you give us a brief synopsis of your research, and what you are investigating?

Jonathan D'Souza: My current research investigates the effect of the COVID-19 lockdown on tropospheric ozone concentrations in the Indian subcontinent. India is of particular interest because of its quickly growing population, intense monsoon seasons, and emissions footprint as a transitional economy. While the virus forced many businesses to close down and industries to stall, it also provided researchers with a natural experiment to understand how the environment would react to differing levels of emissions of anthropogenic air pollutants. Unsurprisingly, the levels of most emissions fell sharply during the economic lockdown, as many factories shut down and travel decreased. However, the concentrations of one pollutant bucked this trend - tropospheric ozone - which increased sharply following the lockdown.

Many believe that higher ozone levels benefit the environment as it shields the Earth’s surface from harmful UV rays. However, the ozone layer responsible for this radiative shielding is in the stratosphere. When ozone builds up closer to the surface (i.e., the troposphere), it is a significant contributor to smog, suffocating plant life and leading to human respiratory illnesses, among other harmful effects. Our current research delves into the causes of increased ozone in India in relation to local meteorological patterns and the relative levels of ozone precursors, such as Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). We hope to reference the precursor emission levels in the COVID-19 lockdown conditions to refine understanding of the nonlinear chemical mechanisms behind net tropospheric ozone production. Finally, we plan to quantify the sensitivity of tropospheric ozone production to various forms of anthropogenic emissions in order to better inform future environmental policies.

Harvard-China Project: With much of the Harvard community teaching and learning remotely, that means research has also shifted to remote measures. Where are you currently based, and what are the advantages of conducting research remotely?

Jonathan D'Souza: My work has actually benefited tremendously from the shift to remote research. Although I am currently based in Philadelphia, PA, I have generously been provided the resources necessary to excel remotely in every aspect of my research. All of the background literature that I have read over the past couple of months (about Indian weather patterns, ozone chemistry, remote sensing, and more) has been readily accessible online through the Hollis interface to Harvard’s extensive library system. More importantly, most of my research is conducted by running GEOS-Chem simulations through Harvard’s Cannon supercomputer. GEOS-Chem simulations use meteorological data from NASA’s Goddard Earth Observing System to generate a three-dimensional model of trace gas and aerosol pollutants in the atmosphere. Much of my time has been spent customizing these simulations to best assist my research goals. As I continue my research project, I will have the opportunity to compare the simulated spread of pollutants through GEOS-Chem with observational data readily accessible through online databases of the Indian government.

Without Cannon or GEOS-Chem, my research simply would not be possible. I am eternally grateful for the virtual resources I have received from Harvard to assist my research. In fact, working virtually has given me the opportunity to seamlessly multitask between attending a meeting and conducting research work. The virtual environment has increased my efficiency and allowed me to directly apply what I have learned in class to my work, simply by switching tabs on my computer. Although I would love the opportunity to engage in person with the rest of my lab group, I have definitely embraced the shift to remote learning and enjoyed the experience of virtual research.

Harvard-China Project: A benefit of undergraduate research projects at Harvard is access to mentorship from other preeminent researchers in the same field. Can you expand upon the opportunity to collaborate with Prof. Mike McElroy, SEAS research associate Dr. Shaojie Song, and EPS graduate student Peter Sherman?

Jonathan D'Souza: I could not be more thankful for the opportunity to work alongside Professor McElroy, Shaojie, and Peter. From the moment I began my research in the summer, Peter has been there for me, constantly checking in to ensure that I am on track with my weekly goals. He has introduced me to resources both at Harvard and elsewhere and has helped me refine my research focus and objectives. I can always count on Peter to help me debug a GEOS-Chem simulation and offer a new perspective to advance my understanding of ozone chemistry in India. He has worked tirelessly with me to develop the data analysis skills necessary to collect and interpret emission data across India. Peter’s invaluable commitment to my personal growth has given me the confidence to tackle complicated problems and challenge the validity of prior conclusions.

While Peter has offered me constant support in every aspect of my research, I cannot overstate the value of Professor McElroy and Shaojie’s continuous oversight and advice. In our weekly lab meetings, they both ask targeted, deep questions that help me eliminate my personal bias and focus my research to answer the most pressing questions in the field. Through our conversations, I have been able to internalize just a fraction of their collective wisdom and experience in atmospheric chemistry. Earlier this fall, I was struggling to understand the chemical intuition behind ozone synthesis. Without my even asking, Shaojie mailed me Professor McElroy’s Atmospheric Chemistry textbook, a gesture that has increased my background knowledge and potential to drive chemically sound conclusions. Working with these three preeminent researchers has placed me in the best position to succeed by striking the perfect balance between constant support and driving motivation.

Harvard-China Project: What is the biggest lesson you have learned from your research project, both personally and professionally? What are your future career aspirations?

Jonathan D'Souza: Researching with the McElroy lab group [all members of the Harvard-China Project] has been one of the most formative experiences of my life. My research experience not only broadened my intellectual understanding of atmospheric chemistry, but it fundamentally changed my approach towards education and learning. The most important lesson I have gleaned from this research is that asking multi-layered questions is far more important than searching for a simplistic answer. The most interesting questions do not have an answer, as they require collaboration across multiple lab groups, with each team chiseling away at one tiny component of the larger question. Contributing to the global pursuit of knowledge excites me and allows me to unlock my true interests and passions. My experience has also taught me the importance of intellectual humility in my research. My work represents just a small piece of the global quest to understand the planet that we call home. I have learned that soaking in others’ advice gives me the best opportunity to contribute to that quest and grow both personally and professionally.

In terms of my future plans, I am open to pursuing many different careers. Although I am very interested in atmospheric chemistry and sustainability, I am also fascinated by space engineering and environmental consulting. As of right now, I am planning on pursuing a Joint Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science and Engineering and Mathematics. However, in general, I am interested in any field that encourages me to stretch my brain and creatively optimize sustainability with engineering and economics. I want to pursue a career that keeps me on my toes and allows me to tangibly engage with the solutions I hope to engineer. If this research experience has taught me anything, it is to always have a listening ear and an open mind. Ultimately, I will welcome any opportunity that presents itself and let my changing interests and intellectual pursuits govern my career path.