SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  13 September 2012
Volume 13 Issue 9

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SETAC Successful in Delivering International Air Quality Short Course

Bruce Vigon, SETAC Scientific Affairs Manager

PASI course
George Cobb leads course at SETAC/PASI short course.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1125030.

What happens when a group of 30 eager graduate students from universities across North and Latin America mixes with a dozen internationally recognized instructors to explore and discuss the state of understanding regarding a critical aspect of urban growth? That was the dynamic in play recently, for nine days in La Plata, Argentina. A mix of lectures, large and small group discussions, posters and student presentations was designed to inform, stimulate and create ideas on how to better understand the nature of physical, chemical and biological processes at the boundaries of mega-cities (those greater than 10 million in metro population) and adjacent and increasingly encroached-upon agricultural areas.

The course was funded principally by the United States National Science Foundation and organized by SETAC through a committee consisting of experts from a number of institutions across the Americas under the able leadership of George Cobb. Organizing committee members included:

  • Laura McConnell, USDA, USA
  • George Cobb, Baylor University, SETAC immediate past-president, USA
  • Eduardo "Jay" Olaguer, Houston Advanced Research Center, USA
  • Luisa Molina, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA
  • Karina Miglioranza, National University of Mar del Plata, Argentina
  • Gilberto Fillmann, Federal University of Rio Grande, Brazil
  • Ricardo Barra, University of Concepcion, Chile
  • Luisa Eugenia Castillo, National University of Heredia, Costa Rica

Hosted by the Argentine National Science Agency (CONICET) and located in the mega-city region of Buenos Aires, the course was designed to both broaden and deepen the students’ understanding of what happens in and between these very different environmental systems. Students were selected on the basis of submitted qualifications information and career research interests. Of the 30 students chosen, 15 were from the U.S. and 15 from Latin America, including Mexico, with eight countries in total sending participants. Likewise, the instructors represented academic, government and private-sector research organizations across the region.

Lecture and discussion session topics included:

  • Agricultural air quality and emissions
  • Agricultural issues that may impact urban areas
  • Distribution and movement of agricultural emissions
  • Technical advances in air monitoring instruments
  • Technical advances in sampling procedures
  • Urban air chemistry
  • Urban air quality measurements and monitoring
  • Atmospheric chemistry measurements at different scales, atmospheric transformations at the urban/regional scale
  • Modeling atmospheric processes across the urban/agricultural Interface

PASI course
Participants gathered at the recent International Air Quality Short Course.

What the group discovered is that the real potential of a gathering like this is the opportunity to uncover new areas of research in a mixed cultural setting and recognizing the variety of approaches for designing research programs given differences in budgets, instrumentation, and sampling systems. Focusing on the challenges of understanding and ultimately managing what happens when chemicals normally found in an urban environment are increasingly transported and transformed across the interface to an agricultural area and vice versa proved to be highly intellectually stimulating to the students. In fact, the responses to the post-course questionnaire, provided by over 90% of the participants, had a majority clamoring for more small group discussions and work exercises. Perhaps this reflected the true international desire for interdisciplinary approaches to address environmental issues (or given they are, after all, students—just wanted fewer lectures!). Other feedback confirmed the wisdom of choosing this topic area. The students were given the opportunity on the last day of the course to report what they learned and how they planned to incorporate their newly acquired knowledge in their research and future endeavors. Following are excerpts of their impressions (some of the statements were echoed by more than one student):

  • Urban-agriculture interconnections (contaminants, transport, integrated chemical and biological processes) awareness was significantly increased and many new insights about possible interactions were realized
  • Increased understanding of relationships between pollution sources and receptors on both the agricultural and urban sides of the interface
  • Several students were not air quality specialists but had backgrounds in water quality and resource assessment, such as sources and contaminant profiling for impact assessment; coupling air and water models (including integrated data collection and uncertainty analysis) is much more important than previously recognized and more feasible given the knowledge gained
  • Will be able to create more robust experimental designs (incorporating more multifaceted concepts)
  • Correlation of the state-of-the-art in measurement and modeling with current research approaches and instrumentation—enabling cross-comparison of techniques and reduction of uncertainty or capturing of more relevant data
  • Insights were gained into potential future research topics—through understanding of new and intersecting issues and processes and making connections to current research
  • The complexity of performing air quality assessment is higher than previously thought due to newly gained appreciation of difficulties in measurement, complexity of the various chemical reactions and modeling challenges
  • Can now see how the source characterization, transport and transformation aspects support human health impact assessment, including genomic markers
  • Connections between photoactive materials (one of the lecture topics) and chemical budgets are better appreciated
  • Improve data collection, modeling and emission factors in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), also incorporating removal processes (as opposed to focus only on emissions) into LCA better
  • Environmental strategy, cultural norms and policy development all play a role in defining and prioritizing research
  • Share knowledge of different projects (after they are completed) through establishment of a new community around the student body and instructor group; students appreciated the mentoring provided. Note: a group has been established on the SETAC website to support this set of activities
  • Future professional career connections—besides the suggestions from the instructors, the students will be able to stay in touch with each other to network after graduation
  • Curriculum development—using the information and knowledge gained to incorporate into introductory pre-engineering coursework at another school

From SETAC’s perspective, not only was this a very ambitious undertaking in terms of course structure, duration, location and logistics, it has the potential to elevate air quality and urban-rural-associated risk and hazard assessments, particularly at the micro- and meso-scales, as science areas within SETAC. Based on feedback from students and instructors, this could provide a catalyst to better integrate these aspects of SETAC science with those of water, sediment, and land pollution and consequential impacts to ecosystems and humans.

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