Your research  

Can you introduce yourself and your role at the Brahmal Institute?

My professional expertise places me somewhere between an aerospace engineer and an atmospheric scientist. I began my career working on these topics in Boston, learning from some incredible researchers at Harvard and MIT to explore the different ways that aviation can benefit us and understand all of its unintended consequences. 

I left the US in January when I joined Imperial as the new Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Aviation. My goal at the Brahmal Institute is to establish new, transdisciplinary teaching and research programmes which can connect engineers directly to the monumental – but solvable! - challenge of aerospace sustainability. 

Are you able to tell us about your research?

My work seeks to understand what aerospace emissions do to the environment and how we can reduce those impacts while ensuring that we don’t lose all the benefits of the aerospace sector. This could mean trying to calculate how much ozone depletion we expect from a new fleet of supersonic aircraft or trying to understand how much a rocket launch contributes to climate change.  

By improving our understanding of these outcomes, we, as aerospace engineers, can design new solutions, allowing us to continue expanding our horizons without harming the environment. 

What initially sparked your interest in sustainable aviation and environmental research?

I’ve always been fascinated by anything that can fly, in particular birds and aircraft. My love of mathematics and problem-solving meant that I wanted to know things like how a passenger jet gets off the ground or how a kestrel can hover.  

This collision between the natural and manufactured world left a deep impression on me. I want to be able to create new and exciting opportunities for people, without sacrificing our environment. This tension has been reflected in the rest of my career, and it's why I’ve continuously moved between aerospace engineering (e.g. my time at MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics), and environmental science (e.g. my time in the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, and at the Atmospheric Chemistry Modelling Group).  

What are the most promising avenues for reducing the carbon footprint of aviation activities and what obstacles might stand in the way of implementing these solutions?

One of the most interesting sustainability challenges in aviation is that an aeroplane’s carbon footprint extends beyond CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. Contrails – the distinctive white cloud formations from an aircraft’s exhaust – also significantly contribute to climate change. 

If we can learn to accurately predict the cold, humid regions of the atmosphere where these contrails form, pilots could then fly underneath them, preventing any contrails from forming in the first place. This is a promising idea to reduce climate impact.

Whilst there have been some very exciting trials, there’s still a lot of work to do to improve our ability to predict contrail formation and our understanding of the long-term climate effects of contrails. 

As your research is primarily computational, are you able to give insight into the unique challenges and advantages of using computational models? 

Computational models are incredibly powerful because they give us insight into what the Earth might look like if we make different choices. These models can incorporate a wide range of different expertise, using input from many different disciplines. These include - but are not limited to - atmospheric chemists, geophysical fluid dynamicists and cloud scientists.

This inter-sector expertise means that the modelling data is continually improved with computational advances.  This ability to analyse more complex data better informs aerospace engineer’s solution development. 

Although promising, it’s important to remember the limitations of such models – while several models may agree, that doesn’t mean they’re right!  

That’s why computational models are only one part of the wider discussion to reduce the environmental impacts of aviation. To get to the best solutions, you really need to connect people who are deeply knowledgeable in engineering solutions with those who are deeply knowledgeable in environmental science.


Who are some of your role models/mentors in the field that have inspired your current career trajectory in sustainable aviation? 

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have had many great mentors. I give particular credit to my old PhD advisor at MIT, Steven Barrett. Without his advice, encouragement and support, I would never have been able to meet the many other incredible people who have helped to guide me to where I am today. 

What advice would you give to early-career researchers or students interested in pursuing a career in environmental science or sustainable aviation?

Keep a quantitative focus. Environmental science can sometimes be perceived as soft or qualitative because the systems we are dealing with are so messy and uncertain. However, we need quantitative engineers and scientists who can pick apart the mechanisms causing environmental damage and then use that knowledge to create innovative technological solutions. 

How do you navigate interdisciplinary collaborations in your research and how might they help us to achieve net zero quicker? 

 In my experience, most researchers are delighted to join such collaborations. I’ve found that people are eager to know how their work can contribute to a sustainable future. These kinds of collaborations are critical to the net zero mission. I honestly don’t believe it would be possible without them. 

Interdisciplinary partnerships can also help projects to move past pessimism for complex issues. I might assume that something is infeasible - on the grounds of cost or complexity - because I’m used to thinking of the boundaries of my problem or my system as being fixed. It’s then exhilarating to talk to a colleague in a different sector and hear them say “well, actually…”!


What is the most important message you believe everyone should know about the intersection of aviation and climate change?

I do not believe that everyday people should be blamed for wanting to travel, to see the world and to see their families. The “easy” solution is to raise prices, but that would make air travel only available to the rich – increasing inequality and closing doors of opportunity. 

On the other hand, I also believe that we cannot ignore the harm that aviation causes to the environment, and making aviation sustainable is not going to be easy. Achieving that goal in the next three decades, without making transport even more inequitable, is going to take a coordinated effort between industry, engineers, scientists and government. 

What book or movie has had a significant impact on your worldview or perspective? 

The Periodic Table, one of Primo Levi’s autobiographies. Before I read this book, the only people I had seen who really lived and breathed a technical topic had been stereotypical TV scientists who had complete disdain for emotion. This book showed me that a deep love of science and engineering could be a beautiful thing and a source of creative inspiration (even against the background of one of the greatest atrocities in modern history).  

What is your favourite place to visit/thing to do?

Above all else, I appreciate the chance to spend time with friends. It doesn’t hugely matter to me where I am, or what I’m doing, as long as it’s in good company.