Students Gain Research Experience in Air Monitoring Program

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

By Kathy Chaffin
Two research fellows who helped analyze the samples and  data for the summer air monitoring program conducted by the Center for the Environment in partnership with Davidson College say they’re grateful for the experience.
The program measured ozone and nitrogen oxide (NOx) in residential areas of Rowan, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Iredell, Gaston and Davidson counties in North Carolina and York County in South Carolina. Dr. Cindy Hauser, associate professor of chemistry at Davidson College and project director, notes that her team targeted residential areas for the program so people would know what the air is like “outside their front doors.”
One of the reasons the Center’s Campaign for Clean Air staff and Hauser decided to collaborate on the project was to compare ozone and nitrogen oxide levels in counties not currently monitored.
Rowan and Mecklenburg are the only counties in the program that are monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. The American Lung Association’s 2011 State of the Air Report ranked Rowan as the 17th worst county in the nation for ozone pollution of counties with monitor-collecting data. Mecklenburg tied with two other counties for the 21st place ranking.
The Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury metropolitan area ranked 10th in the nation for having the worst ozone levels and was the only region in the East to make the top 10.
“The whole thing sounded really interesting,” says Juliana Porter, a senior biology major at Davidson who served as one of the student researchers. “I’m a pre-med student, so I take classes in biology and chemistry. Air quality really related to me with my interest in medicine, so it just kind of all worked out.”
Alexandra Buckley, a junior biology major at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte who worked with Hauser as a Davidson Research Initiative Fellow, says she read about the air monitoring program in an e-mail listing summer internship and research opportunities. “I thought I might like to go into environmental science,” she says, “and I thought this would be a good experience to see if it was really what I wanted to do.”
Buckley says she didn’t think the program would hold her interest as much as it did. “It was overall just a great experience,” she says. “It was good experience for grad school and just research in general.”
Porter says the program made her realize the impact of air quality. Having helped compile a lot of the data, she says it will be interesting to see how the results will be used to educate the public. “I’m anxious to see how that will turn out,” she says.
Porter says she thinks the general public realizes that high ozone and NOx levels can have a negative impact on their health, “but I don’t think that everybody necessarily understands the specific effects that the compounds we’re studying can have on them.”
Though Buckley did not know the final results when interviewed, she says she hopes they will show whether wind patterns cause the air quality in Charlotte to affect the other counties in the program.
Calling her a great mentor, both students say they enjoyed working with Hauser on analyzing, compiling and cross-comparing the data. “She’s a very smart lady,” Buckley says. “I definitely will keep in contact with her.”
Buckley and Porter also enjoyed working with staff from the Center for the Environment.  They worked closest with June McDowell, an air quality intern with the Campaign for Clean Air, who delivered and collected the monitoring filters weekly from the end of May through the end of July.
Both students say the summer air monitoring program has impacted their career plans. Porter, who was already planning to go into medicine, says she learned more about the impact of ozone and nitrogen oxide on people’s health.
Buckley, who was considering going into the environmental field, says she decided that’s definitely what she wants to do. “Learning about ozone really piqued my interest in the field of environmental science,” she says. “I decided that is the field I want to pursue in graduate school.”
Though she’s not 100 percent sure what her focus will be, Buckley says she hopes to eventually work with companies “and help them go green by using alternative sources of energy like wind power and solar power.”
“That’s what I’d like to do on a bigger scale.”