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IU Northwest professors awarded grant for innovative collaborative research

Researchers hope to engage citizens in air quality research and policy

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

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

With these topics and consumer concerns in mind, a collaborative and interdisciplinary research study was born between three Indiana University Northwest professors. The team consists of Associate Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs Ellen Szarleta, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Julie Peller and Associate Professor of Geosciences Erin Argyilan. The team answered a recent call for proposals by the Indiana University Collaborative Research Grants Fund (IUCRG).


Photo by Kenn W. Wiser

Their proposal, "Citizen Participation in Environmental Science Studies: Addressing Air Quality Issues in Northwest Indiana," was lauded in February by the IUCRG as having high intellectual merit and a good probability 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 contaminants with a method simple enough to be performed by average citizens and in a way that focuses on understudied contaminants and often neglected factors such as weather direction. The grant will be used to hire student research assistants and for the monitoring equipment.

Peller, who typically studies water chemistry, introduced the group to an apparatus about the size of a pencil that holds a set of protruding fibers coated with a material to attract certain air contaminants. The researchers hope to set out the device at four locations throughout Northwest Indiana for a period of time before bringing it to campus for analysis.

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

While one might assume that air pollution is heavily monitored in the industrial Northwest Indiana lakefront, the researchers say it's not necessarily monitored in ways that are meaningful to all citizens. Due to limited resources, agencies must focus first on what is driven by legislation. Hence, not all contaminants are measured, evaluated or reported. In this way, Peller said, the project could serve to assist such agencies.

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

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 living downwind of it. She will monitor the weather conditions at stations where collection devices are placed and try to uncover trends that can be studied further.

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

"When we have public hearings in the community, it's difficult to get the public engaged and hear their views but largely because they don't understand the policy issues or why they are relevant," Szarleta said. "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 twice throughout the process -- once to gauge the public's current views and knowledge and again to educate folks about the link between science and policy.

The project has implications for the professors' own personal academic growth as well, since they are stepping outside of their academic comfort zones. Szarleta is intrigued by being in the lab; Argyilan is excited about the public meetings; and Peller hopes learn more about pollution in the air versus water.

Above all, the researchers would like to see a movement develop.

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