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Duke Launches India Initiative with Talk on Air Pollution

Jackie Kennedy at the Taj Mahal, captured by Cecil Stoughton
Jackie Kennedy at the Taj Mahal, captured by Cecil Stoughton, by Cecil Stoughton

In an iconic photograph, former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy poses in front of the Taj Mahal during a visit to India in 1962. The photo is remembered as one of the most emblematic shots of Ms. Kennedy’s public life, but Duke professor Mike Bergin noticed it for another reason: if you look closely, you can see scaffolding lining one of the landmark’s marble towers.

Bergin’s theory is that the towers weren’t being fixed, but cleaned. The photograph, he believes, is an early artifact of the Taj Mahal’s gradual discoloration due to air pollution.

Along with Indian partners, Bergin led the 2009 study that determined why the monument’s once pristine white marble has slowly turned to yellow: layers of dust and pollutants from trash burning have been settling on its surface for decades.

During the inaugural event of the Duke India Initiative on Wednesday, Bergin discussed his latest research, which draws a parallel to the story of the Taj Mahal.

While visiting the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN) last year, Bergin noticed that the university’s solar panels were also covered in what looked like a layer of dust. Bergin and partners at IITGN found that the “dust” was made primarily of pollutants from trash burning, a common practice in many parts of India.

“It turns out that India is losing billions of dollars a year in solar energy production because of this air pollution,” Bergin said. “These are huge losses. When you clean the solar panels, after about two weeks, the energy generation goes up two-fold.”

But Bergin now has an even bigger question on his mind. “I think the most important research question we can ask today is about the interplay between poor sanitation and poor air quality, and how they collectively affect human health, both mental and physical,” he said.

To find the answer, Bergin and a team of Duke students are mining social media to compare air quality data with, for example, the number of Google searches for the word “cough.”

As a co-director of the Duke India Initiative, Bergin hopes this research and other activities across campus will contribute to a wider conversation about India.

Co-directors Sumathi Ramaswamy and Marc Deshusses said the initiative aims to create an intellectual community and to promote research and learning activities that bring students, faculty and Indian partners together.

“We would like you, the Duke community, to be the contributing parties and the driving force behind this initiative,” Deshusses said.

The initiative is currently accepting proposals  for faculty-led projects and activities that will support the initiative's mission on campus. Proposals are due September 29.


The Duke India Initiative is part of a broader effort by the university to support research and learning in and related to India. For more information about these efforts, including Duke’s new office in Bangalore, visit global.duke.edu.