Life | Work is a series focused on the personal side of Harvard research and teaching.
When Ju Chulakadabba was in elementary school in Thailand, she learned that industrial emissions are one important way that humans are changing the global climate. That’s when she realized that trying to make a difference wouldn’t necessarily be a far-off concern in her case, but a family matter.
Chulakadabba, a Ph.D. student in environmental science and engineering at the Harvard Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, grew up next door to a palm-oil refinery on the outskirts of Bangkok. The factory, which employs more than 100 workers, was owned by her grandparents and remains a family business. Chulakadabba grew up surrounded by extended family — she’s the youngest of eight cousins — and remembers playing inside the factory in a large pile of clay used to transform the naturally reddish palm oil to the clear yellow liquid used in a dizzying array of prepared food, cosmetics, and consumer products throughout the world.
Chulakadabba never worked there — her mother became a psychiatrist instead of entering the family business — but she does plan to return and apply her education in environmental engineering to help make the facility more sustainable. In the meantime, she’s fostered her interest in the environment during undergraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and most recently in the lab of Steven Wofsy, Harvard’s Abbott Lawrence Rotch Professor of Atmospheric and Environmental Science.
“I feel like my family is a part of the issue,” Chulakadabba said. “I want to do something.”
That desire had her flying around the skies near Colorado last fall in a Gulfstream V jet mounted with methane-sensing instruments. The eight-hour flight acted as something of a proving ground for a project, called MethaneAIR, which will send the jet flying around the country later this year mapping sources of methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide. The flight also tested instruments and algorithms for a second, more ambitious project called MethaneSAT. MethaneSAT has a similar goal except, instead of a plane, the platform is a satellite — expected to launch in late 2023 or early 2024 — and the hunt for methane sources will be global rather than national.