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New Faces: Lung-Wen Antony Chen

What do the environmental and occupational health professor and his hero Albert Einstein have in common? A passion for using science to change the world.

People  |  Nov 16, 2015  |  By Chelsea Sendgraff

UNLV professor Lung-Wen Antony Chen describes air pollution as a global problem that will require international cooperation to solve.  (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Born in Taiwan, Chen moved to the United States to complete his Ph.D. in chemical physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he measured airborne particulate pollutants over the East Coast. Since then he has influenced the U.S. EPA to update its measurement methods in all national parks. He also works closely with the Chinese Academy of Sciences to develop air quality policies in Xi’an, and is collaborating with researchers in Germany to develop a new analytical method for carbonaceous aerosols.

“I am fascinated about how I can apply fundamental physics and chemistry theories to really do something good for the community,” Chen said. “As a scientist, you have responsibilities.”

Tell us about your background.

Interestingly, I have a background in physics and chemistry. I started to study air quality problems when I went to the University of Maryland for my PhD degree. Then I got a job at the Desert Research Institute in Reno and worked there for 12 years. Basically, I studied every aspect of air pollution from the monitoring to chemical analysis in the laboratory and many types of modeling. It is still a very new area, especially health effects. We know that air pollution is bad, but the mechanism of how that really causes health problems and how serious that is… we still have a lot of unknowns.

Describe your current research.

One (area) is exposure assessment. The data we have now only comes from a few sources, so we set up a monitoring station here at UNLV. But what we have found is that the monitoring systems do not reflect a person’s actual exposure. We spend up to 90 percent of our days indoors, yet we don’t know indoor air quality. If you commute every day, you sit in a car and that air quality might be very different. How we can improve and understand personal exposure to air quality is important? One way might be small sensors that you can wear and walk around with. That is one of the things I am researching.

My second project is a modeling technique called source apportionment, which is looking at the chemical composition of a particle to know its sources. It’s kind of like a fingerprint; you can match them. We have to know the sources. If you know the air quality is bad, but you don’t know exactly where (the problem) comes from, then it is difficult to determine what to do about it.

Why UNLV?

We have experts here, and I am excited to work with them. I also find it exciting to be training the next generation of environmental health professionals and scientists. Also, it’s not bad to move to Vegas from Reno. Vegas is known for entertainment; it is a vibrant environment.

What is the biggest misconception about your field?

A lot of people do not believe in climate change or do not believe that air quality has as big an effect as other things. Do you know how much air you breathe into your body a day? Most people have no idea. You’re breathing in 40 pounds of air a day. Just the mass! How much you eat or drink is much less than that, so air quality is very serious.

Also, air particles have a health effect but they also have a climate effect, and climate change influences air quality as well. As temperatures increase, it leads to more ozone and more particles that form in the air that interact with each other. I believe in climate change, but some people don’t.

What inspired you to get in this field?

Before I came to the U.S., I never thought I would work in this field. I had the chance to work in the semiconductor industry, which makes computer chips, but my interest is to see how I can directly apply my studies to benefit society. So when I was at the University of Maryland, I looked around at different projects and found that they had a ship in the Indian Ocean that measured emissions from India into the ocean. I thought it was fascinating. That project directly linked physics and chemistry into real environmental issues, and that inspired me a lot.

Describe your work around the globe.

I go to China every year for a few weeks to work with the Institute of Earth and Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, to look at the air quality in Xi’an. China has many air quality issues, particularly in Northern China. Xi’an is not the largest city but still has a population of several million people. I help them identify the sources of particles, chemical compositions, and what technologies they should use to study the problem.

I also do research in Germany to develop a new measurement method for carbonaceous aerosols, which are the aerosols that contain carbon. We are trying to combine our expertise to be able to better characterize these aerosols.

Why is global work important to you?

We are talking about global issues — air pollution, climate change. Water pollution is more local, but air can transport everywhere. We can see air pollution from China in the U.S. We are in one environment, so international cooperation is very important.

What is your one tip for success?

Find your passion. I tell my students all the time that we only have limited time. If you don’t like something very much, then you probably will not be very good at it.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I watch a lot of professional sports, like the NBA and NFL even though I’m from Taiwan. No one plays football there. I started watching football when I moved here. I like the Baltimore Ravens because I lived there and they actually became NFL champions while I was there.

What kind of professor do you want to be known as?

I want my students to know that if they have any questions, I am always there. If a student has questions, it means they are interested, and I am eager to answer their questions. I want to help them to achieve any goal they want to achieve.

What are your hobbies?

I play table tennis. I am still looking for a good club to join in Las Vegas. I also like to go hiking on the weekends.

Who is your hero?

My hero would be Albert Einstein because he is a symbolic figure in physics. He was also very patient and really cared about society. In WW II, he wrote a letter to warn President Roosevelt about the potential effects of a nuclear bomb. People needed to know about the potential threat of these kinds of weapons.