Pervasive smell from neighbour’s cooking: A common indoor air quality problem in the society

Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, December 2022, Volume 5, #137

[Cite as: Fadeyi MO (2022). Pervasive smell from neighbour’s cooking: A common indoor air quality problem in the society. Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, December 2022, Volume 5, #137.]

Fictional Case Story (Audio)


Complaint about poor perceived air quality due to neigbhour’s cooking was a prevalent problem in high-rise public housing buildings in a country called Nextville. The complaint and the conflict it caused persisted because the pain points of all parties involved were not addressed. A university student tried to address the pain points to solve the complaint problem. The student’s journey to solve the problem and the life lesson the journey taught him are the subjects of this short fiction story.

I thank you all for having me here today. I want to share with you today a vital lesson l learnt in my life, with the hope you will benefit from it too. I was the best student in every school I attended, from primary school to A-levels. My name, Ifeanyi Obinna, was a household name in every school I attended. I was very popular because of my exceptional academic performance.

Many people in all the schools, including the teachers, called me a genius. Thus, it was no surprise to everyone that knew me in my pre-university education days that I was the best student with the highest CGPA (Cumulative Grade Point Average of 4.97 out of 5) in the graduating cohort at my university.

My university was ranked the best in my country, and it was extremely difficult to have such a CGPA as I had. For context, only 10% of graduating cohort usually had a CGPA of >4 out of 5 every year. I studied mechanical engineering, considered a very tough course in those days. I believe it is still the same now.

As expected by everyone, I got a very prestigious scholarship to study abroad at a very prestigious and one of the very best universities in the world, the University of Kentbridge, Nextville. The University of Kentbridge was ranked the number 1 university in engineering in the world at that time. It still maintains the same ranking now, several years later. The University of Kentbridge was a dream university for many of us then. Furthermore, Nextville was a beautiful country and one of the richest countries in the world.

I enrolled in a dual degree research programme. The idea was for me to embark on a Master of Science (by research) in Engineering Philosophy, seamlessly proceed to a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), and complete the dual degree research programme within 4 to 5 years. If I were to do an MSc (by research) and Ph.D. degree separately, I would have to spend 2 to 3 years and 4 to 5 years, respectively.

I had never travelled out of my country, Bunqua, before. So, I was very nervous about travelling, leaving my family, and travelling to an unknown place where I did not know anyone or have friends or family. However, I looked forward to taking an airplane for the first time. The day came, I took the airplane, and a few hours later, I arrived at Nextville at around 8 pm.

A staff member from the Office of Students Affairs at my new university came to the airport to receive me. The staff member drove me to the temporary apartment provided to me by the university free of charge. I was to move out of the temporary accommodation after a month and look for a place to rent and live.

The following day, I awoke to a lovely environment I had never seen before. I got ready and went to the university. It was a beautiful campus to behold and high-class facilities for research, teaching, and learning. I registered for some modules as required. For several weeks I met with the dual degree research programme director to discuss my research idea based on the research proposal I submitted during my application.

Students in the programme would only be assigned to a supervisor once a committee of three professors had accepted their research proposal. Students were expected to get their research proposal approved at the end of their first semester in the programme.

After several discussions with the programme director, I felt like an imposter. My initial research idea was rejected as it was of little interest to the country’s government funding the dual research degree programme. The interest for the programme was in applied research rather than traditional basic research. Thus, the government’s interest became the university’s interest.

The research’s primary focus was solving industry and community problems. The generation of new knowledge, if it occurs, typically attributed to basic research, should be secondary and will be considered a bonus in my thesis examination. However, the research proposal I submitted focused solely on creating new knowledge with no intention of interacting with the industry and community or solving their problems.

I could not resist the urge to ask the programme director why I was given such a highly competitive scholarship in a highly prestigious university if my proposal was totally off track. So, I asked him. The programme director smiled and told me that I was given admission mainly because of my undergraduate results and my submitted recommendation.

I was given admission because of my high potential, not because of the research proposal I submitted. Three students were admitted into the dual degree research programme every year. One slot was for an international student, which was given to me that year. The other two slots were for academically exceptional local students with at least three years of industry experience.

The programme director told me to submit a new proposal before the end of the semester. For context, I was supposed to finish my MSc within two years. If I passed my MSc thesis, which also served as my Ph.D. qualifying examination as I was in a dual degree (MSc and Ph.D.) programme, I would be a Ph.D. candidate and would be required to spend additional two to three years to complete the Ph.D.

Throughout my education in my own country, Bunqua, teaching and learning were very structured. I had never experienced failure or a lack of control in my education. We were told what to do, and we just followed without questioning. Our professors provided all the information to us. Even for our final-year dissertations, we were usually given topics to work on. Thus, there were very few uncertainties.

However, at the University of Kentbridge, Nextville, I experienced a very unstructured teaching and learning process meant to develop students’ critical and reflective thinking at the highest order. The high level of uncertainty I was experiencing for the first time was a real challenge for me, and I found it very difficult to cope. The lack of control dashed my confidence a lot.

I used to score A and A+ at the university in my home country. I only scored one A- for one module because I was severely ill during the examination and did not want to miss the examination. Even for that module, I was the best student. The next best grade after me was B+ for the module that year.

However, I was now scoring B and C grades at the University of Kentbridge, Nextville. I could not even score B+, not to talk of A grades. Anyone that knew me back home would never believe in their wildest dream that someone like me would be struggling with his studies. I also did not recognise myself or believe in my ability anymore. My academic decline due to the lack of confidence in myself, which started with my research proposal problem, did not stop there.

At the end of the semester, I still had no idea what to do for my research. I was in a new country with no industry contact or idea of how things work in the community. I felt alone and started to panic. To make my situation worse, at least from my perspective, the other two research students got their research proposal approved a few weeks after starting the dual degree research programme with minor corrections. At the end of the semester, my confidence in myself and my ability to do research reached the lowest level possible. Insecurity plagued me consciously and unconsciously.

At the beginning of the second semester, the last semester of my first year in my dual degree research programme, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. For context, students in the dual degree research programme were expected to have started working on their research in the second semester. The only positive light was that I had completed all three required modules in the first semester of my first year.

The loss of confidence in myself made it difficult to assess my strengths and realise my shortcomings. Thus, I could not capitalise on my strengths and correct my shortcomings. With time, I lost the ability to invest energy in developing my proposal. Developing my research proposal required high critical thinking and reflection as I was meant to solve a real-life, complex problem.

I was unable to do any form of thinking as I gave up easily when faced with intellectual problems due to low confidence. At a point, I felt there was no point in working hard. Furthermore, I did not want to ask my programme director or anyone in the programme for help to avoid them seeing me as unworthy of being in the programme. I thought that my judgment of myself as an imposter was enough. I did not want anyone else to judge me.

My inability to adhere to practice needed to improve my research quality, failure to seek help when needed, and inability to take risks moved my situation from a minor to a very serious one. At the end of the first year of the 2 years MSc phase of my dual degree research programme, I could not develop any meaningful proposal while the two other research students in my cohort had already started conducting their field and experimental studies. They had even started writing their MSc thesis. I felt like a failure.

It seemed to me at this point that my programme director was already fed up with me when he said that I would have to be suspended from the programme if I could not come out with anything meaningful when the new academic session started. It was at this point I knew it was a do-or-die affair. I forced myself to watch prime-time news to see if I could know of any problem in the industry and community. However, nothing I could work with came out of it.

I finally gave up and started thinking of what work to do to have money I could use to pay off my debt little by little once I was suspended from the research programme as the beginning of the new academic year was fast approaching, and I still had no idea for my research. Students suspended at the research proposal stage were required to pay back the full tuition fees and monthly allowances paid to them during their candidature.

I had several sleepless nights. One day, I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking of what I would do. Then, suddenly, the fight between my two neighbours the previous night at around 7.30 pm came to my mind for the reason I still do not know. Let us call the two Neighbours X and Y. Neighbour X went to challenge Neighbour Y over the pervasive smell causing discomfort and inconvenience to her.

“The smell of your cooking is unbearable! You cook all the time. Are you cooking for the whole country?” Neighbour X said to Neighbour Y in an unfriendly manner. “What do you want me to do? Close windows while cooking? Not to cook for my large family?” Neighbour Y replied angrily.

The discomfort experienced from the cooking smell from a neighbour was not peculiar to Neighbour X. I also had to deal with such a disturbing smell several times. This was not a case of me liking the kind of food a neighbour was cooking or not. I did not like how the cooking smell compromised the perceived air quality. I think the sentiment was the same for other disturbed neigbhours.

I started to think if this was a community problem, it could be an area for investigation for my research. I searched online to see if such a problem is common in the country. Behold! It was a major problem. Several such disputes have even involved police and society dispute resolution committee. I started to think I had a problem worth solving to have a major societal impact.

I thought a better understanding of the problem of pervasive smell from neighbour’s cooking is essential to developing a solution to solve it. I felt that a better understanding of the problem would aid me in developing a solution that maximises the comfort, convenience, and awareness (useful knowledge and thinking) the end users will gain from a problem solved with the solution. I also believed it would help reduce the extent of comfort, convenience, and awareness the end users would have to give away to use the solution to solve the problem.

I rationalised that creativity would be needed to solve such a complex problem requiring the needs of all parties involved to be effectively addressed to give value to them. I also rationalised that I cannot be creative with what I do not understand. Thus, I did my research to develop the required understanding. The developed understanding aided the development of a research proposal I finally believed was worth submitting for approval.

My background in mechanical engineering and engineering philosophy discipline-related modules I took in my first semester helped. The engineering philosophy modules provided strong background to us in the logic guiding the process of applying the knowledge and understanding of science and mathematics to create a solution to solve a problem and give value to both the solution’s developer and user.

I figured out that all parties were seeking improved perceived air quality (PAQ) and clean or cleaned outdoor air at an appropriate air flow rate to reduce concentrations of indoor air pollutants. They also wanted to reduce indoor sensible and latent heat building-up and fire outbreak risk in their apartments. The disturbed neigbours, like Neighbour X, were often forced to close their windows, causing heat to build up in their apartment.

Many were forced to turn on their air conditioning system, leading to more energy consumption because they were forced to close their windows. They were also forced to use an exhaust (range) hood in the kitchen to reduce the concentration of outdoor to indoor transport of air pollutants. Neighbour Y could not be stopped from cooking for her family. The concerns of Neighbour X and others could not be ignored either. They also could not be coerced into tolerating the discomfort caused by the pervasive smell of their neighbour’s cooking.

My proposal provided a detailed purpose (WHAT?) statement. What is a purpose statement, if I may ask you to think about? A purpose statement is a statement that addresses the problem that needs to be solved to achieve the intended goal. The problem to be solved in my case was compromised indoor air quality and perceived air quality, and the goal to be achieved was conflict resolution. The determinants of success of my stated purpose were clearly stated and explained.

I documented the reasons (WHY?) it is essential to achieve the purpose, i.e., solve the problem to achieve the goal in my research proposal. I also covered in the proposal the methodology (HOW?) to be adopted to develop and test the effectiveness of the solution to be used to solve the defined problem and achieve the required goal of the research.

When considering several possible methods to be used to achieve the purpose, I did a risk assessment for each method considered to reduce the risk of not delivering value, especially to the end-user of the solution. The method with the least risk at different stages of the problem-solving process was chosen and documented in my research proposal.

Finally, I developed a proposal my programme coordinator and the research committee deemed good enough to get approved during the first semester of my second year. I was assigned a supervisor and had access to the multi-million-dollar research fund to support my research from the MSc to the Ph.D. level. The funding is in addition to the allowance and benefits I received earlier. From there on, my confidence improved significantly, and I got my mojo, like how I was in my native country, back.

I developed the first version of the solution commonly available in the markets now worldwide. I did this after I went through the problem-solving process to define the problem, understand whose problem needed to be solved, the causes of the problem, and explore possible solutions that can be used to reduce or eliminate the causes of the problem and test them for effectiveness. I then chose the solution with the best holistic performance in achieving the purpose of the research.

To address the pain points of all parties involved, I developed, with the support of my supervisor and research assistants in the funded research project, an air filter with strong particulate matter (PM) adhesion and high capture capabilities with > 95% PM2.5 removal efficiency, and ~ 90% transparency. The developed solution also facilitated a high airflow rate. IAQ conditions and PAQ improved as a result. The integration between the transparent filter I developed and the building envelope, including windows, was considered and ensured.

In addition to improving IAQ and PAQ, the air filter, which is long-lasting and water and fire-resistant, significantly reduced sensible and latent heat build-up as it facilitated ventilation with clean air.

Energy consumption due to forced usage of the exhaust hood was reduced because residents did not need to switch on their exhaust hoods when not cooking. The ease of installing and detaching the developed transparent filter to windows and building envelope, even for a layperson, was also considered and ensured. A layperson could easily maintain the developed transparent filter.

Some of the feedback I got from participating residents included: “I can now cook all day long without any worries. I can now live happily ever after.” The residents said they were relieved after many years of the problem caused by a neighbour’s cooking.

The effectiveness of the solution I developed was confirmed through laboratory experiments. I wrote and submitted my MSc thesis and did my oral presentation. I passed with an A- grade. I did very well, although I spent an additional semester to the required 2 years duration for the MSc stage before becoming a Ph.D. candidate. At the Ph.D. level, I fine-tuned the solution I developed at the MSc level and conducted several field studies to prove my solution’s effectiveness in addressing the pain points of all residences in a real-life context.

Although my research started with addressing the problem of pervasive smell from neighbour’s cooking, the developed solution also addressed a problem plaguing many people worldwide, including the country, Nextville that funded my research project. Many of the pain points of the pervasive smell problem I was trying to solve were similar to the pain points of the problem relating to the IAQ burden caused by haze, outdoor cigarette smoke, and traffic plaguing many people for many years. The similarity is due to the outdoor to indoor transport of pollutants.

I graduated with flying colours. I got the best Ph.D. thesis award and received praise from the prime minister, ministers, the members of the parliament, the industry, and the community. In one news interview, one member of parliament (MP) said, “Residents in my constituency are happy because of this young and brilliant man and his team……. We need people like them who develop a solution to solve a problem and not provide a solution to a problem.” Everyone wanted to be associated with me.

For context, I was a foreigner receiving praise from my host country. I became an overnight celebrity. Many news agencies, TV, and newspapers wanted to interview me. I had several job offers, even to those I did not apply. The dean of my faculty even offered me a faculty position. I was six months into my post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Kentville then.

The university did not usually offer faculty positions to their Ph.D. graduates with no other teaching and research experience from another top university in the world. Thus, the offer by the dean was unprecedented. That showed how the university valued me.

Everything came crashing overnight when someone anonymously claimed and reported on social media that I plagiarised a significant part of my MSc and Ph.D. thesis. The person also claimed to have evidence to back up the claim. News agencies, TV, and newspapers jumped on this story and started raising questions to doubt my ability as a researcher, pointing to the fact that I am a fraud. The news was selling like magic, and every media organisation or individual wanted to cash in on it. One newspaper even went to the point of suggesting that a foreign researcher duped the government and citizens of the country.

The interests of the nation, the government, and especially the opposition parties on the issues prompted my university to investigate the case. Many people that were interested in offering me a job retracted their offers. I was even at risk of losing my MSc and Ph.D. degrees.

To say I was devastated would be an understatement. I could not believe why people would take such a claim with no evidence as a fact. Some were even saying, “what do you expect from a foreigner? They are always like that.” When I could not take the defamation anymore, I made a police report to clear my name.

As part of the university investigation, I had to face panel members formed by the university several times to answer several questions. I was made to submit a written statement, my raw research data, and other information to support my claim that the innovation was my idea, and I did not plagiarise anyone in my MSc and Ph.D. thesis.

The university decided to drop the case and not withdraw the MSc and Ph.D. conferred on me, as they did not find me guilty. The university could have also charged me for fraud and made me pay back all the money spent on my research, the scholarship, and associated financial benefits given to me during my research training programme if they had found me guilty. The university did not do that either.

After investigating, police found the person behind the claim. The person behind the rumour confessed that he made the false accusation out of jealousy and wanted to teach me a lesson and let me know my place. He confessed he made up everything and did not have any evidence to support his claim. He said he could not believe that a foreigner from a third-world country could come up with such an idea, and the praise I received caused him pain. He said the pain made him act cruelly toward me and did not care what would happen to me.

Surprisingly, the person happened to be one of the other Ph.D. students from my cohort in the dual degree research programme. The painful part was the culprit was a person I considered a friend. He was a brilliant student and had hoped to win the award for the best Ph.D. thesis at the university level that year. However, he lost the award to me. He could not take the loss.

It dawned on me that more fame, more problem, and jealousy, even from those close to you, is part of the territory. I was lucky that my dual degree research programme did not just train me to be a very good researcher and problem solver. It also trained me to develop confidence that gives me the ability to have resilience, grit, and a sense of control in the face of uncertainties and expected and unexpected problems that life may through in my path.

In retrospect, the difficulty I experienced during my research training was a blessing in disguise. The developed life surviving qualities helped me to overcome the false accusation made by someone I called my friend.

My name was cleared, and the government ordered all the media agencies to take down the fake news. The culprit was forced to make a public apology on TV and in the newspapers. He was also faced with legal issues.

My career picked up after that. I was made assistant professor of engineering philosophy at the University of Kentville and rose to become a full professor. I went on to develop several innovative solutions to solve industry and society problems. I was internationally known and respected for my chosen specialisation.

I am pleased to be invited back to my native country, Bunqua, to give a commencement speech to graduating class this year at this great university that trained me. I want you to remember that in addition to all the knowledge and skills you have gained at this university, you will also need to have confidence that breeds resilience, grit, and a sense of control to survive and excel in your workplace, the industry you are about to enter, and in life.

Your knowledge and skills will not be much of a benefit to you if you lack such confidence. Such confidence will require you to embrace self and continuous learning driven by critical and reflective thinking to give value to yourself and others. Thank you all! The End!

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