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IU Northwest professors awarded grant for innovative collaborative research

Researchers hope to engage citizens in air quality research and policy

IU Northwest file photo
Associate Professor Ellen Szarleta, Ph.D

What if you could collect air contaminants from your ownbackyard and relay the data directly to experts who would use it to influenceenvironmental law, to understand how weather affects pollution distribution, orto assist agencies in understanding less prominent pollutants?

Would it make you more interested in the science behind theair you breathe? More engaged in lobbying for environmental policy change? Morepassionate about furthering knowledge that affects your personal health?

With these topics and consumer concerns in mind, acollaborative and interdisciplinary research study was born between threeIndiana University Northwest professors. The team consists of Associate Professor of Public and EnvironmentalAffairs Ellen Szarleta, Ph.D.; Associate Professor of Chemistry Julie Peller,Ph.D.; and Associate Professor of Geosciences Erin Argyilan, Ph.D. The teamanswered a recent call for proposals by the Indiana University CollaborativeResearch Grants Fund (IUCRG).

The call for proposals emphasized the need for researchersto go outside their normal realm of research and to undertake pilot methods fordata collection. Their proposal, "Citizen Participation in EnvironmentalScience Studies: Addressing Air Quality Issues in Northwest Indiana," waslauded in February by the IUCRG as having high intellectual merit and a goodprobability of securing external funding at the completion of the pilot phase.Only about 10 percent of the proposals submitted received the seed money,according to the IUCRG.

The multifaceted study involves collecting air contaminantswith a method simple enough to be performed by average citizens and in a waythat studies previously understudied contaminants and often neglected factorssuch as weather direction. The grant money will be used to hire studentresearch assistants and for the monitoring equipment.

Peller, who typically studies water chemistry, introducedthe group to an apparatus about the size of pencil that serves as a holder fora set of protruding fibers coated with a material to attract certain types ofair contaminants. Though the technology is not new, Peller said it is not aroutine way of collecting air contaminants in the field. The researchers hopeto set out the device at four locations throughout Northwest Indiana for aperiod of time before bringing it to campus for analysis.

"We hope to collect data that is meaningful to us and thatactually moves us forward in understanding the pollution problems in the area,"Peller said.

While the typical citizen might assume that air pollution isalready monitored heavily in a place like the industrial Northwest Indianalakefront, the researchers say it's not necessarily monitored in ways that aremeaningful to all citizens. Due to limited resources, agencies must focus firston what is driven by legislation. Hence, not all contaminants are measured,evaluated or reported. In this way, Peller said, the project could serve toassist such agencies.

Typically a researcher of water quantity issues, Argyilanwill be delving into factors that influence pollution distribution such asatmosphere and weather patterns, population density, and vehicular emissions.

"I'm really interested in the smaller scale study to (learnabout) distances of chemical transport plus non-point versus point source ofair containments," Argyilan said. "I'm concerned about the sprawl. I'mconcerned about the impacts. So I'd like to see if we can develop some of theserelationships to characterize the transport of these contaminants."

She says understanding the dynamics of weather, for example,could shed light on where the heaviest pollution actually is. For example,living in the backyard of an oil refinery might not be as bad as livingdownwind of it. She will monitor the weather conditions at the stations wherethe collection devices are placed and try to uncover trends that can be studiedfurther.

Szarleta's contribution relates to environmental law andcommunity engagement. She hopes to entice citizens to take an active role inenacting policies that protect and improve the environment.

"When we have public hearings in the community, it'sdifficult to get the public engaged and hear their views but largely becausethey don't understand the policy issues or why they are relevant," Szarletasaid. "If we bring them into the process by educating them about the science,they will become more informed and want to participate more and hopefully,eventually influence policy."

Szarleta expects public meetings to take place at least twicethroughout the process – once to gauge the public's current views and knowledgeand again to educate folks about the link between science and policy.

The project has implications for the professors' ownpersonal academic growth as well, since they are stepping outside of theircomfort zones academically. Szarleta is intrigued by being in the lab; Argyilanis excited about the public meetings; and Peller hopes learn more aboutpollution in the air versus water.

Above all, the researchers would like to see a movementdevelop.

"I would like to see our work empower citizens, help themunderstand science, and use that to make better decisions," Szarleta said.


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Emily Banas
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Erika Rose
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Additional Article Photos

IU Northwest file photo
Associate Professor Erin Argyilan, Ph.D