Michael Bergin: Studying Tiny Particles with a Giant Global Impact

How do pollution and particulate matter affect the global environment and human health?

Michael Bergin joined the Pratt School of Engineering’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department in January 2015. An expert on aerosols, Bergin studies the environmental and human health effects of natural and manmade microscopic particles floating all around the Earth’s atmosphere.

Ranging in size from a few nanometers to tens of microns, particulate matter can be released into the air through everything from the burning of fossil fuels and biomass to the kicking up of mass quantities of dust through industrial construction and agricultural activity. Although there are various natural sources of these aerosols, human activity has caused their atmospheric levels to skyrocket in recent decades.

“A lot of my work has been focused on trying to characterize the extent to which this rise in particulate matter is having an impact,” said Bergin, who joins Duke from the Georgia Institute of Technology. “But now I’m also starting to work toward solutions for mitigating these impacts.”

Bergin earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota before completing his PhD in civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Along the way he also spent a year and a half as a Mombusho Scholar at Kyoto University in Japan and worked at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, before eventually joining the faculty at Georgia Tech, where he’s been for 16 years.

Bergin’s work has taken him all over the globe. He studied the smog in Beijing leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, and more recently determined that nearby emissions of particulate matter including dung and garbage burning is turning the Taj Mahal yellow—prompting the Indian government to take swift action to outlaw several sources of nearby pollution. He also visits supposedly pristine environments, such as high-elevation mountain ranges and the top of the Greenland ice sheet, to study how the world’s pollution is reaching even those remote locations.

But not all of Bergin’s research requires an airplane. He also works on environmental and health concerns here in the United States, such as figuring out how particulate matter may be protecting the southern states from the full effect of climate change.

“The southeastern United States is a fascinating area because it has not really been warming,” said Bergin. “Temperatures have been pretty flat, and the reason is likely related to the haziness that scatters some sunlight back into space so it doesn’t heat up the surface. There’s a real particulate matter climate effect in the Southeast.”

In the future, Bergin wants to begin taking a more active role in translating his research into policy. He also wants to develop inexpensive air-quality sensors so everyone in the developing world can be more knowledgeable about the quality of air surrounding them. For instance, as people in China become more affluent, they are becoming more worried about their local air quality. And in the United States, people have long been worried about the health effects of air quality, especially as their children are having higher incidents of asthma.

These ambitions are part of the reason for his move to Duke. Bergin sees the university’s strengths in the social sciences and the engineering school’s close ties with Duke Medicine as an opportunity to expand his horizons.

“I’m interested in the mental and physical aspects of air quality on human health,” said Bergin. “I also want to work with social scientists to try to understand why people make decisions—why the air quality is so bad in parts of America but some people don’t care about it, or why people begin to worry about the environment and start to take action.

“I’m really an engineer at heart, and Georgia Tech was full of engineers—people who think like me. But here at Duke, because it’s a liberal-arts university, I’m going to be pushed out of that box. I’m looking forward to new collaborations that will take my work in different directions.