By LAUREL BUSBY
Special to CTN
You might call Sasha Engelmann, a Renaissance woman.
Like Leonardo Da Vinci, the 2007 Palisades High graduate has always been intrigued by both art and science.
In high school, she studied photography, the humanities and environmental science with equal verve. She was on the school’s first championship Envirothon team, under the auspices of her father, Steve Engelmann. The national competition combines the study of environmental science with presentation and creative problem-solving skills.
“It was definitely an origin point for a lot of my thinking and my work as an academic,” said the younger Engelmann, 31, who is now a geohumanities lecturer at Royal Holloway University in London. “It’s so vital to have these venues for people who don’t think in boxes and don’t think in disciplines.”
Engelmann’s current teaching specialty did not exist at her university until 2017, when she was the first lecturer hired to teach the subfield that combines geography with the arts and humanities.
Engelmann’s background uniquely qualified her for the position. She had just earned a Ph.D. at Oxford focusing on the artwork of Tomás Saraceno, whose floating sculptures not only created flying beauty, but also could collect data on pollution and dust as they bobbed through varied locales ranging from Europe to the Andes.
However, her journey through the arts and sciences began long before that at home. Her mother, Diana Engelmann, taught literature at Santa Monica College, while her father taught environmental science at Pali and also explored photography.
“I learned a lot from being in my dad’s classes,” said Engelmann, whose younger brother is Elliott, 30. But over dinner, “my mother could also give a mini-lecture about Jane Austen and the radical change she brought to literature.”
After graduating from Pali, Engelmann headed to Stanford for more explorations of art and science. She double majored in both earth system science and English and French literature, and also won a Marshall Scholarship, which financed her graduate degree in the United Kingdom.
At Oxford, she studied under Derek McCormack, a geography professor who incorporated the study of contemporary artists in his work.
“We really hit it off,” Engelmann said. “He mentored my master’s research,” which focused not only on air quality and children’s health, but also on an artist presenting this topic to children at London schools.
The research turned out to be particularly prescient for today’s world, as the issues she studied correlate to outcomes for coronavirus patients. For example, neighborhoods in London with long-term exposure to particulate matter have much higher death rates, Engelmann said. In addition, more than three-fourths of the deaths in Europe have occurred in areas with higher levels of nitrous oxide in the air.
These environmental inequities had been obvious during her master’s research. She learned that many children growing up in London have lung capacity that is 80 percent of what it should be due to damage from pollution.
“If you grow up that way, you can’t gain that lung capacity back,” Engelmann noted. “You have that infringement for the rest of your life.” In essence, “air is something that unifies us; we’re all breathers. But it’s also something that divides us.”
Royal Holloway, where she teaches, is part of the University of London system, and she noted that the effect of coronavirus has spread throughout the city in painful ways, also showcasing more inequities. For example, 26 bus drivers had already died by mid-April, which is “astronomically high compared to other workers.”
On the other hand, Londoners have also begun to hear the birds again as traffic noise has ground to a halt. “People are asking, ‘Are the birds louder?’” she said. “They’re not louder. The background decibel level has decreased so we can hear them.”
The past few months have also been a time of reflection and creation as Engelmann took a sabbatical in January to complete her first book, “Sensing Art in the Atmosphere: Elemental Lures and Aerosolar Practices” (Routledge), which is scheduled to be published this year.
The book covers much of the work she did to obtain her doctorate, which didn’t follow the typical trajectory of isolated study and writing. Instead, Engelmann first moved to Berlin to examine the creative work of Tomás Saraceno and his studio, Aerocene, which at the time had about two dozen working artists, a number that has since increased to about 80.
Her plan was to be there for two months to observe their work, but it didn’t work out that way. Saraceno welcomed her not just to study, but to dive into the work herself. This included a new project, Aerocene, which explored air travel, fossil fuels, and health through launching solar-powered, balloon-like structures over Europe, gathering data on the air and its currents as they flew.
“It was just a dream, being immersed in an artistic practice and getting close to Tomás and his colleagues,” Engelmann said. With the group, she traveled to Vienna, Bolivia, and Paris. “It was a really rich and vibrant, working and living collaborative experience.”
Some of the scientific data they gathered may even have an impact on the European Union’s governmental policy someday. The flying sculptures held pollution sensors, dust sensors and cameras, and one even captured aerial life, ranging from mushroom spores to spiders.
In addition, the artists discovered stable wind corridors over continental Europe that might allow for a different type of transport using these light solar-powered crafts. They approached the EU about their idea, which included giving right of way to light crafts over heavy craft like airplanes within the prescribed air-traffic corridors.
They received a positive response. The EU’s commissioner of transport now seeks to work with them on devising a new air transportation policy that might eventually mean reduced fossil fuel use in Europe.
“It’s an art project of dreamers, but it could now actually have an effect on policy in the European Union,” Engelmann said. There are varied forces that “keep us addicted to fossil fuel sources, but if you reorient the frame, you can see that other worlds are possible.”