Tucked into a university laboratory atop O’Hara Street, Harold Rickenbacker and his career run on tightly calibrated monitors. It’s a demand of his discipline, and in many ways, the self-declared data wonk thrives in an environment of precision and control. But Rickenbacker’s enthusiasm for statistical regressions belies an unusual dedication to the realities outside academic circles, to the people he believes are his ultimate audience. Harold Rickenbacker is an engineer no doubt. What he is engineering however amounts to nothing less than social transformation.
Harold Rickenbacker came to environmental engineering by chance, a coincidental encounter at Toyota’s Green Initiative Conference during his undergraduate studies. In his small town of Orangeburg, South Carolina, sustainability was about weathering industrial pollution and getting an education. For Rickenbacker, that information gap is problematic, particularly because historically disadvantaged communities, and communities of color most notably, suffer disproportionately higher burdens of environmental contamination. Even the recent wave of green building across the U.S. has widened that disparity, creating communities with access to healthy space, and others without.
After relocating to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue his PhD, Rickenbacker quickly began work on the city’s most entrenched health challenge—air quality. As a member of Dr. Melissa Bilec’s lab in the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, Rickenbacker worked with the Pittsburgh 2030 District to establish the city’s first indoor air quality (IAQ) baselines. Their partnership distinguishes Pittsburgh as the only city in the nation to evaluate IAQ on a district level, and the first to develop a standardized measurement protocol. “People are the most valuable assets in buildings,” Rickenbacker emphasized. “At the end of the day, buildings are only as healthy as the people who inhabit them.”
The question of who benefits from his research remains Rickenbacker’s driving focus, and he has created a vital network of citizen scientists in communities across the East End, primarily in Larimer and Homewood. While working with the Kingsley Association and Homewood Childrens Village, Rickenbacker equipped more than 200 residents to become environmental justice advocates, breaking down technical challenges in energy, climate change, and community resilience. In collaboration with the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), he further mobilized data collection through a bike-based air quality campaign funded by the Heinz Endowments Next Oxygen-eration grant. “There is value in working with engineers and data scientists, but how can I reach the people who are directly impacted by poor air quality? How can I translate these extremely technical results into something that families use to better their neighborhood?”
Rickenbacker’s community partnerships challenge the bounds of his discipline, and often find him straddling social work, community organizing, and environmental advocacy. Activist research is a niche that many academics caution others to avoid, but Rickenbacker finds them inextricably tied. “For as much as I rely on academic expertise, my research rests on what is nearly impossible to quantitatively measure—trust,” he resolves. “I couldn’t do what I do if people didn’t open their homes and lives to me.”
Five years into his PhD, Rickenbacker has been adopted into the communities he seeks to serve. Dinner invitations and tea stops abound, and he has entertained many a ‘nerdy conversation’ when he’s casually walking around town. Rickenbacker though won’t rest until he sees more people like himself in positions of leadership. Representation matters, and changing who conducts research and who directs scientific funding can transform towns like Orangeburg for good. Harold Rickenbacker is engineering equality, and nothing less amounts to meaningful success.
Celebrate the history of Pittsburgh’s green building movement at the 2018 Emerald Evening and GBA 25th Anniversary Awards gala.