Grandma who helps keep tabs on haze

SINGAPORE - Like any concerned grandmother, Mrs Indrani Rajaram kept her grandsons indoors during the recent great haze episode.

But Mrs Rajaram, 58, is more familiar with the hazards of air pollution than perhaps any other grandparent in the country.

During this year's, as well as in past haze seasons, the National Environment Agency's chief scientific officer has explained the finer points of air quality monitoring, air pollution and the PSI at every technical briefing for the media or policymakers.

She and her team worked seven days a week to monitor and maintain the network of machinery that measures Singapore's air quality and provides the PSI readings.

Singapore's worst recorded haze to date, hitting a high of 401 last month, was her biggest challenge in over 30 years on the job, she said.

In 1974, she joined the government's Department of Scientific Services fresh from a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Singapore, and was sent to the young Anti-Pollution Unit at the Prime Minister's Office to manage the newly set-up air quality monitoring network: six stations in rural and city areas.

"One was on the roof of City Hall," Mrs Rajaram said. "In those days, automatic analysis was not available, and it had to be done manually."

At each station, air samples would bubble through bottles full of chemicals that would absorb or react with the different pollutants. Officers would then collect these and analyse them in a laboratory at Princess House in Alexandra Road.

Mrs Rajaram, who grew up in a kampung in the MacPherson area, is the middle child of a housewife and a daily-rated labourer who worked at the Kim Chuan sewage treatment plant.

She attended Cedar Girls' School and put herself through university by giving tuition.

Why study chemistry? "I had such great chemistry teachers in school. One of them - he would come in with no books, no notes and just teach us."

When the university introduced a chemical engineering course, some of the male chemistry students who did well switched to that, but the girls were discouraged from doing so. "It was a different mindset. They didn't expect women to be working in the chemical industry on Jurong Island."

On graduation, she had a scholarship to do a graduate degree, but started work to support her parents. A sense of mission came later.

"What I've found most rewarding is the contribution of my team," she said. The anti-pollution unit, which later shifted to the Environment Ministry and the NEA, has helped policymakers come up with labelling schemes for paint that contains lead; phase out mercury- based fungicides; and develop air-quality targets.

This year, besides maintaining the air quality monitoring system, Mrs Rajaram's team also fielded the toughest of the 3,000 haze-related queries that the NEA received on its public feedback hotline - such as "Why can't we stop the haze?".

"People were just frustrated and angry for various reasons, and took the opportunity to blast us," she said. But the public is also more well-informed about air quality than ever, she noted.

At 26, she married Mr M. Rajaram, a police officer turned lawyer; they have three sons aged 28 to 32 and two grandsons aged two and four.

In 2000, she returned to NUS for a master's degree in environmental engineering. "I was probably the oldest in the class - my classmates were calling me 'auntie'."

Last year, she also became project director for all the NEA's environmental monitoring systems.

So what's next? "I'm a bookworm," she said, adding with a grin: "When I retire, maybe I'll do my PhD and become one of those people who calls and asks difficult questions."

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