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A woman in science: dust and parenting

In a climate change scientist, THEO PANAYIDES finds a woman who grew up treated like a foreigner in the land of her birth and won’t reduce science to soundbite

Funny how things turn out. I thought we’d be talking with Jonilda Kushta about all the dust in the atmosphere, but in fact we end up talking just as much about breastfeeding (a topic on which my input is limited). The language changes accordingly as we sit in her small office at the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia, shared with a colleague from the Computational Science department. When she talks about dust she speaks in English, the lingua franca of science, reflecting her position as Associate Research Scientist at the Institute; when she talks about breastfeeding – and her life in general, working in ‘regional modelling’ while trying to raise an eight-year-old boy as a quasi-single mum – she switches instinctively to her native Greek.

Is it actually native? Some might say not, since she actually comes from Albania, born in 1977 in the southern town of Gjirokaster – but Gjirokaster (aka Argyrokastro) is also the centre of the country’s sizeable Greek community, not to mention that Jonilda moved to Athens at the age of 16. The only non-Greek thing about her is perhaps her name, mandated by Albania’s then-Communist government (she was going to be called ‘Sophia’, after her grandmother); the family never abandoned their Greek – and Greek Orthodox – roots, and she has stories of secretly cracking the traditional red eggs at Easter then disposing of the shells (she doesn’t say how) rather than throwing them in the trash, where they might be spotted. In a way, they were foreigners in the land of their birth – then moved to Greece, and were foreigners there too. “We feel like we belong everywhere and nowhere.”

The whole family moved, even though it meant a reduction in circumstances. In Albania, Jonilda’s mum was a teacher and her dad an agronomist; in Athens, Mum became a maid and nanny, Dad a carpenter and furniture-maker. They moved partly because they could – this was 1993, just after the end of Communism – but mostly they moved because of her, Jonilda, because “I was the good daughter who studies, who looks like she has potential”.

From an early age, her academic prowess had been obvious. She liked writing poetry and prose, “as an escape” – but her real strengths were in so-called STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), impressing teachers and winning national maths Olympiads, hence the move away from rural Albania to a BSc in Physics at the University of Athens. After that, she worked for a while – a girl from a migrant family was always going to think about making a living – before being tempted back to academia, culminating in a PhD where she did more or less what she’s doing now, ‘atmospheric modelling’ based around simulations and the study of atmospheric patterns. Why did she focus on the environment? Why not apply her BSc to, say, astrophysics? Jonilda shrugs: “Because the environment is our daily life”.

She’s right, of course. That’s why she’s so easy to chat to, not just because she’s very personable but because we chat about the subject absolutely everyone is interested in: the weather. What about that big storm in early December? Wasn’t that something? What about all this dust in the atmosphere? Then again, she’s also quite a tough interview, because she’s responsible. She won’t dumb it down. She’s a scientist, not a tabloid headline. Jonilda is still, in many ways, the studious ‘good daughter’ of her youth, impressing with her seriousness of purpose and especially adept at mathematics, that incredible world where there really is a right and wrong answer. Maths is a discipline, and I use that word advisedly.

She does offer some juicy tidbits. The storm in December was probably a “Medicane”, a Mediterranean hurricane – an event that’s now become ‘a thing’, as they say, and likely to become even more frequent. Global warming isn’t just a threat, it’s already here: the Eastern Mediterranean “is a region that’s already living through the famous ‘climate change’ we keep hearing about” – indeed, our region’s status as an acknowledged “hot spot” is part of why the Institute (especially its Energy, Environment and Water Research Center, which includes Jonilda) has so much potential. When it comes to quick diagnoses, however, she tends to demur, as if unwilling to reduce science to sound-bites. Take the fabled dust, for instance. Is it really increasing? “Everything you ask, I should talk about in metrics,” she replies. “‘It’s increasing’ – what do you mean? The frequency? The duration? The intensity?”

Well, let’s say the frequency.

She pauses, even that criterion being too simplistic. There’s a gap between fact and perception, explains Jonilda. Let’s say dust storms become less frequent “but three of them have a duration of five days. What’s the [public’s] perception then? ‘We’re choking on dust!’.” Or what if most dust ‘events’ are in the 100-200µg/cubic metre range (i.e. elevated but not too alarming) but then, on one occasion, the dust shoots up to a life-threatening 7,000µg/cubic metre? At the moment, “the observations do not say that there is an increase” in the annual mean amount of dust, she concedes – but we still might be shifting to a new model of “very intense peaks”, leading gradually to desertification.

Then you have the changes in where the dust comes from. The urban legend about the war in Syria having made a difference is true, it turns out – though not because falling bombs have raised clouds of dust, simply because millions of fleeing farmers have left land uncultivated (satellite photos show a marked change in land use) and dry, un-irrigated land quickly becomes a “dust source”. In 2015, nearly half of our dust events – a significant increase – came from the Middle East, as opposed to North Africa. Even that, however, isn’t as alarming as the “new sources of pollution” in recent years: every third building in Lebanon now employs a generator (due to power cuts) and that country is also home to refugee camps, adding the equivalent of a new city whose inhabitants tend to burn a lot of wood for warmth. Worst of all, we don’t even know the extent of the problem. Cyprus, being an EU country, monitors air pollution, but our neighbours in every direction but west are more laissez-faire. Jonilda shows me a map on the wall, with red flags marking the locations of monitoring stations. Europe is packed to the gills, an unbroken corrugated sea of red; go east of Greece, however, and the map is almost barren.

One might surmise that it’s not looking good; but it’s not her job to surmise, her job is to model and investigate. The office is businesslike, its one quirky touch a Dilbert cartoon taped to the door. The fixtures include a whiteboard covered in arcane equations, like in a movie: ‘Ceej = Cecj + emis_anth (e – bc) x f’ reads one equation, ‘emis_anth’ being anthropogenic emissions and ‘f’ being “a factor”, says Jonilda vaguely (what she means is that it would take an even longer equation to define it). Her colleague uses a PC, but her own desk is bare except for a laptop – which is by design, because she’s very firm about not being tethered to a workstation; Jonilda’s hours have been slightly tweaked to accommodate the rest of her life. Thereby hangs a tale, incidentally switching our interview from English to Greek.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a serious-minded scientist approached motherhood seriously and scientifically. She read up on it – not just magazines but peer-reviewed scientific journals, “because that’s me” – even if she ended up embarking on the adventure a few years earlier than planned. (She’d hoped to finish her PhD first, but her body clock was ticking too loudly.) One conclusion she reached was that breastfeeding “according to World Health Organisation guidelines” is hugely beneficial for mother and child – an unpopular conclusion in Greece (it’s much the same in Cyprus), where new mothers are instructed what milk to buy even as they leave the hospital. Another, more general, conclusion was that kids need bonding time – which is why she now leaves the office around 3pm, stays with her son till bedtime then goes back to work on her laptop, even though by then “I’m usually so exhausted that, after about an hour, I’m in bed too”.

Much of this is down to circumstances, of course. Jonilda’s husband – aka “Skype dad” – stayed behind in Greece, though they meet up as often as possible (he has a good job as a sales manager), making her something of a single parent and adding to the burden of childcare. Still, she could’ve made other arrangements. Her very focused life at the moment – focused entirely on work and child; she’s barely gone out with friends during the three years she’s been here – actually seems quite consistent with the rest of her life so far, fitting in with the steady, studious journey from small-town Albania to a PhD and a scientist’s authority. ‘Did you go through a wild phase in your 20s?’ I ask, and she pauses uncertainly. “Not ‘wild’. Um…” stammers Jonilda, then laughs: “It wasn’t wild at all, actually!… Yeah, I think I didn’t really live that period, because everything was profession- or study-oriented”. She pauses again, thinking about it: “Though I don’t think, if I had the opportunity, that I would be wild. Because of my character, also”.

The smile is easy, the demeanour friendly – but there’s still a solid core to the inner person, something orderly and the opposite of sloppy. She’s focused, and perhaps a bit severe. Her husband tells a story about their first meeting, during her corporate stint after the BSc (it was at the same company where he still works now). “He calls me a snob,” she reports in mock-horror. “He says that nobody dared to speak to me, because I was so snobby-looking. Me?” gasps Jonilda indignantly. “I’m the sweetest girl in the world!” We laugh, of course – but you have to wonder (and she does wonder) if she might come off as a bit aloof without realising it. It ties in with something else, her memories of having faced discrimination at her Athens high school – though it wasn’t insults or violence, just a hurtful isolation. Was it perhaps a distance in herself which made others distant? What was she like as a person? “Sensitive,” she replies at once. “As dynamic as I was in my studies and career, I was sensitive in personal matters.” She smiles ruefully: “I’ve learned to camouflage it a little, but I still am”.

Maybe maths was another escape, along with the poems she wrote as a teen – a rational bubble-world where sensitive souls could always arrive at the right answer. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Jonilda Kushta persevered as a scientist, in a field where so many don’t. It’s a truism that not enough women enter the STEM fields, and not enough stay once they do; “In all the teams I’ve ever worked in,” sighs Jonilda, “women have been under-represented”. The hours are too long, the deadlines too tight, the projects too time-consuming for women who also want children – especially in an economy where both parents have to work, and taking a year’s sabbatical is almost impossible. It hasn’t been easy; it’s not easy now, trying to do right by her son and advance her career at the same time. Still, she keeps at it.

Take, as a final example, the aforementioned breastfeeding. Even five years later she’d weep, says Jonilda, just weep at the memory of the hassles she endured at the hands of the system (it may be a factor in why she hasn’t had another child). Paediatricians guilt-tripped her each time the baby was sick, making her feel it was her fault for being so stubborn; she found no support, only impatient sighs and raised eyebrows – yet she went on breastfeeding her son for almost two years (in parallel with bottled milk after the first year) and knows she did the right thing, and not just because she read it in the WHO guidelines.

“It wasn’t just food,” she recalls fondly. It was bonding, especially when the baby hadn’t seen her in a while. It was even medicine, when he felt a cold coming on and instinctively tried to bolster his immune system. “I won’t give up my child to you unless you persuade me,” was her dogged response to the naysayers – just as she now brings a scientist’s rigour to a world assailed by pollution and climate change. It’s a good story. The one about all the dust in the atmosphere isn’t bad, either.

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