In 2016, Odaly S. Balasquide Odeh came to a crushing realisation in the happiest place on Earth – Disney Land. Like many other visitors, Odaly got to watch the celebrated fireworks show at Disney Land. However, instead of being fascinated by their beauty and grandeur, the fireworks made her sad because of the smoke and contamination that they were putting out into the atmosphere.
When she started university, Odaly ran her reflection past her honours professor and decided to focus on atmospheric pollution as a research thesis topic. In order to figure out how to meet the needs of her community, Odaly met up with local news reporters in Puerto Rico and identified specific topics within air pollution that were affecting her country and her people. Together, they identified the topic of the disposal and re-use of coal combustion waste.
“The thing that made me really focus on this project was the urgency I felt after the storm. It was something I needed to experience.”
Around one year later on September 20, 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Maria pushed the 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico into a humanitarian crisis. The powerful category 4 hurricane destroyed homes, limited access to running water, and cut electricity on the island. For many Puerto-Ricans, Hurricane Maria demonstrated the dangerous effects of climate change. For Odaly, it was a tipping point. She realised that her research into coal combustion waste and the effect that it plays on climate change was critical.
After Hurricane Maria, Odaly began focusing on her research with renewed vigour and specialised her project even more. She is currently researching how the ashes from coal combustion are being discarded and repurposed. She explained that the disposal or repurposing of these ashes are not sufficiently regulated in Puerto Rico and therefore can cause serious harm to the environment and the health of communities. She went on to explain that there have been many environmental and health problems arising in the areas where these ashes have been discarded or used, which might indicate a dangerous correlation. She has also been focusing on increasing education in the topic of coal combustion ash by-product and educating local populations on understanding the needs of the environment.
“After the storms we started experiencing, the passion for the project and the excitement to do something got even stronger and that was one of the reasons why I applied to the Millennium Fellowship. I stopped thinking I will have enough time after I graduate to work on this. I started thinking, I need to start on this and I can’t wait on this any longer. The planet needs us now.” !
Her enthusiasm for her project eventually led her to apply to the 2019 Millennium Fellowship. Through the Fellowship she has connected to students from all around the world and hopes to come together with them to fight climate change and its effects together. The Millennium Fellowship currently has 40+ students working on climate action and change initiatives globally.
Odaly sincerely believes that the world waits for no one. She thinks that if you have a good idea, you need to go out and implement it as soon as possible even if you do not have all the qualifications. When she first started this project, she faced a lot of doubts because she was a student researcher. However, she has persevered and has kept going because she knows that her research is making a difference.
She says, “I think the focus should be on not limiting yourself. It's not about having the overall professional experience, its about learning through process and the experience. It is important that we start doing things now.”
Odaly hopes that when she leaves her university she will have left a legacy for other students to build on her research in atmospheric pollution and in climate change research. She also hopes to have inspired others to look for the tools around them and not limit themselves to change their communities.