Summer 2021

Breathe Easy

Helping communities breathe a little better is what this alumnus is all about.
Photography by
Natalie Stewart

Harold Rickenbacker knows the real value of a breath of fresh air.

He’s a clean air and innovation manager with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Washington, D.C., one of the world’s leading environmental organizations. Working with EDF+Business, Rickenbacker (ENGR ’19G) manages clean air projects in the United States and abroad and promotes technologies, business models and partnerships needed to reduce pollution and improve health outcomes.

“In many cities, air quality is better now than it was decades ago,” he says. “But urban air quality is still a health risk in far too many places. Premature death from air pollution is about 50% more common in cities than in rural areas. On days with higher air pollution, stock returns are lower, and students perform worse on exams.”

Rickenbacker works with local officials to develop technologies to better monitor air quality, particularly in underserved neighborhoods, where discrimination and poverty are already negatively affecting people’s quality of life.

Part of the solution, which he’s helping to implement, is installing hyperlocal monitoring devices to collect better data, street by street, on air-pollution and its causes. The data is helpful for convincing legislators to initiate policy for protecting the environment and at-risk populations.

“To me, it’s an opportunity to really have an impact on communities,” he says. “When air is healthier, communities are healthier.”

Growing up in rural Orangeburg, South Carolina, Rickenbacker always loved the outdoors and was taught to see “reduce, reuse, and recycle” as a way of life. The perspective eventually led him to Pitt, where he earned a PhD in civil and environmental engineering with a research focus on indoor air quality. Soon after, he was hired at EDF, where his star continues to rise. Recently, he was recognized by media company GreenBiz on its list of 30 under 30 sustainability leaders.

His efforts aren’t just helping to improve the environment but people's quality of life, too. It’s the human element that’s most important to him, he says.

“I’m an engineer by training, but I like to say I’m a social engineer and a community advocate by passion.”


Cover image: Harold Rickenbacker

This story is part of Pitt Magazine’s special Summer ’21 digital issue.