#winning: Rudi De Marco Helps Us Understand the Air We Breathe
This Earth Day, we have a particularly environmental spotlight for you. /dev/color member Rudi De Marco has worked with UC Davis in air quality research since 2012. Keep reading to learn more about his role in the global pursuit of understanding the air we breathe.
Our member spotlight #winning series goes behind the scenes with the leaders, achievers, and go-getters of the /dev/color community, celebrating how our members are shaping the future of tech. For Earth Day, we’re featuring Rudi De Marco, full stack software engineer and /dev/color veteran, who spoke with us about his work in environmental engineering.
What do you know about the state of our atmosphere? Before taking a trip, have you ever done your own research around the air quality at your destination? If you have, there’s a good chance you’re familiar with the work of Rudi De Marco, senior software engineer at the UC Davis Air Quality Research Center, and /dev/color member since 2016.
UC Davis has partnered with environmental organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and National Parks services for decades now. In the 1980s, the Air Quality Research Center launched a project called IMPROVE — Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments — to study visual pollution particularly in rural and legally protected areas. The causes of this “regional haze” can be damaging to humans and wildlife alike, and to protect and preserve air quality is first to study and understand it.
When Rudi joined the team at UC Davis, the IMPROVE mission to research and protect air quality had held true to their origins in the 1980s. But then again, so had their software. “The main thing that I did when I first started was I helped redesign their whole data infrastructure,” Rudi explains, “They were on old technology from almost fifteen, twenty years ago, and they hadn’t really had anybody to support, maintain, or upgrade it. There was a lot of room to make things more efficient.”
After Rudi had implemented this new infrastructure, he collaborated with the UC Davis lab staff and scientific data programmers to migrate and validate existing data into the new system. “Once we had a nice infrastructure and a way to build on top of this pipeline, then we started creating apps for the users to interact with — you know, better user interfaces, web applications, system applications… So I did full stack web application development for that as well.”
The “users” Rudi refers to span a wide variety of participants in the project, including researchers, lab staff, data scientists, and field technicians across 160 sites in the United States, Canada, North and South Korea, and The Caribbean. “We have mechanical engineers that design these sampling systems which have filters that capture atmospheric particulate matter,” Rudi explains. Site operators then swap out the filters containing the captured particles and send them back to the lab, where they go through a processing pipeline for different types of analysis, such as “mass measurements, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), etc.”
When creating apps for this many users, and making sure the system can integrate properly across all the various lab devices, you’ve got to stay on your toes. There’s no room for mistakes when the environment is on the line! But Rudi’s cut out for the challenge. He shares, through a smile, “We got it set up to where hardly anything slips through the cracks. It’s pretty good.”
Rudi’s user groups also include everyday independent researchers. “When we’re finished processing everything, we package it up and publish it out to all our contractors. Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Services, Air Quality Services — they get our data and they put it online for the public.”
“Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Services, [and] Air Quality Services get our data and put it online for the public.”
This is valuable knowledge, and applies not just to national parks and legally preserved rural areas, but places that might be closer to home as well. “I’ll hear stuff all the time, especially in urban areas, where they talk about the high concentration of pollutants,” Rudi tells us, “Our studies can actually help pinpoint where pollutants are coming from.” Citing a recent example, he explains how studies showed people in a particular urban community had high cases of respiratory issues. “[When] we looked at the concentration, [we] found that there were a couple of industrial plants nearby that had the pollutants in it.”
Working with UC Davis Air Quality Research Center has given Rudi an environmentally conscious perspective in his personal life. Having seen the effects of climate change firsthand through the hard scientific evidence of lab results, there’s no denying the very real reality for Rudi. “It’s really interesting working with researchers and getting insight from a scientist’s perspective, where the research and numbers tell the stories themselves.”
“The research and numbers tell the stories themselves.”
Throughout almost the past decade of Rudi’s life, there’s always been an emphasis on adopting work habits in the interest of the environment. “It’s a culture that we have within our lab, working with advocates of good air quality. Even before the pandemic, we were probably already telecommuting 90% of the time, because for what we do, especially in the Software Group, there’s often no need for us to drive out to the worksite and contribute to carbons. And we’re always encouraged to honor Spare the Air days!”
Before UC Davis, Rudi was already working in environmental engineering at a consulting firm — a small IT group customizing software solutions for the environment-related projects of large companies. But he found that since this job was more geared towards consulting, there wasn’t a clear path to “evolve and grow my skill set as an individual contributor as an engineer.”
Interestingly enough, though, Rudi never thought he’d ever be a software engineer. He actually stumbled upon technology through his love of music, and music production.
“I was going to a lot of studios during a time when personal computers and music production software tools were still relatively new. I experienced several occasions where recording engineers that were trying to adopt this new way of doing it weren’t really familiar with the computer side of things, so sessions would get canceled because something went wrong and they didn’t know how to fix it. So that was the opportunity I kinda capitalized on.” With recording music as his motivation, Rudi completed a two year certificate in computer hardware, which led to jobs addressing DSL networks and internet-related projects. “My original driving factor was that I was buying a lot of equipment for my music, and I thought, ‘Well maybe if I got a job for one of these companies, I could finance building my own home studio and also have the technical knowledge to fix any issues if something went wrong.’”
Rudi realized then how a degree in computer science would open up a lot more doors for him. “You know, software engineering and IT… you can apply it to any industry,” he elaborates. So he completed his computer science degree at a nearby CSU (California State University), making sure, of course, that he still had access to a fully equipped music studio.
“Software engineering and IT… you can apply it to any industry.”
Rudi certainly understands himself to be a uniquely trained software engineer. “I didn’t write my first line of code until I was, like, 22 years old,” he reflects, adding, with a laugh, “They didn’t have boot camps back then, otherwise I probably would have done that.”
In the CSU stage of his unique software engineering journey, Rudi felt a bit like an outcast in his environment, being both older, and browner, than most of his peers. He tells us, “I think I can only remember ever meeting two Black people in my CS program.”
Having been in an industry for so long that represents a mostly non-Black demographic, Rudi is very familiar with the concept of being “the only one.” “Going into college, I had to deal with always being the only Black person in the tech sector, then when I graduated and started working, it’s the same,” Rudi shares. “So I needed a program like /dev/color. I’m thankful that this program is around.”
/dev/color is a home for Black software engineers, providing a place to start and stay in the tech industry. We center Blackness, the Black experience, and Black excellence as a necessary workforce equity strategy. As we provide the framework and mechanisms for our members to hold one another accountable to ambitious goals, we’re committed to being an accountability partner in the greater industry. We encourage employers to walk the walk with us in deconstructing inequitable racialized systems and behaviors, in order to change tech for good.