A new ally in sustainability

Last fall, a new ally in the fight for a healthier, greener earth joined the ranks at Portland State. James Pankow brings his 30-plus years of knowledge of environmental science to the university.

Last fall, a new ally in the fight for a healthier, greener earth joined the ranks at Portland State. James Pankow brings his 30-plus years of knowledge of environmental science to the university, specializing in educating students about the effects of, and solutions to, pollution in the water and air.

Pankow’s research in air pollutants was honored with his election into the highly renowned National Academy of Engineers on Feb. 6. The NAE along with its sister academy, the National Academy of Sciences, has the distinguished duty of shaping government policy through the members’ expertise and advice.

“It was exciting. It’s a huge honor,” Pankow said, in response to finding out about his induction into the academy.

Pankow is the only non-retired professor in Oregon to be elected to the academy. He also received the 1999 American Chemical Society Award for Creative Advances in Environmental Science and Technology.

“One of the things that we’re interested in is to look at our air work. If we understand how these particles form in the atmosphere, then by understanding that process, you can understand how to reduce the emissions,” said Pankow. He also researches water contaminants that may damage our water supplies more than originally thought by researchers.

“I was always interested in environmental chemistry,” said Pankow.

Naturally, he decided to pursue a career in the field, and earned his Bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1973 from State University of New York, during the birth of environmental chemistry in academia in the 1970s.

Pankow and other scientists in his field constantly ask the question: How do we live on the earth and not damage the environment?

“If the population was one million, it wouldn’t be a problem, but there are several billion people,” Pankow said. “And all those billions have a chemical effect on the environment, because of the products they use and the pollution they generate.”

Pankow’s desire to find a solution to this question led him to further his studies at California Institute of Technology under James Morgan, one of the best-known environmental chemists in the country at the time.

He went on to get a Ph.D. in chemistry and engineering from Cal Tech in 1979. During that time Pankow took a job at Oregon Health and Science University doing research and teaching graduate classes in water and air pollution. He worked there for about 30 years before coming to Portland State in the fall of 2008 to continue similar work.

Portland State’s reputation for working towards sustainability, among other aspects, attracted him to the campus.

“I think [Portland State is] aware it needs to do more. Probably other institutions are interested in it, but I think PSU is one of the ones that takes it more seriously than a lot of the other ones,” Pankow said.

Pankow doesn’t leave his concern for the environment at the work place, but it’s something he practices at home as well. Trying to get his food as local as possible, Pankow and his wife are planning to expand their garden this year to grow squash, beans and corn.

“It’s more important than ever, this idea of getting your food local, and the reason for that is that there is so much transportation cost in getting your food,” Pankow said, who is concerned about the environmental cost as well the gas emissions caused by transporting goods long distances.

Along with gardening, in the little spare time he has, Pankow also enjoys skiing and snowboarding. He is currently learning the banjo, which he said he’s not that good at but wanted to learn because he, “always liked the way it sounded.”

In addition to his research at the university, Pankow is teaching undergraduate environmental chemistry classes this spring.

“I’ll be looking forward to teaching PSU undergraduates next quarter. It should be a great class,” Pankow said.

In Pankow’s view, “Doing important work and having it recognized and adopted and used by others and then teaching new students and having them carry it on,” have been the greatest benefits of his distinguished career and those benefits show no sign of stopping as he continues here at Portland State.