Pollution trackers hit the road to pinpoint airborne culprits

Pinpointing sources of unhealthy air pollutants is the goal of Virginia Tech College of Engineering researcher Linsey Marr, who has received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award to support her investigation.

Marr, an assistant professor in the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, recently secured the five-year CAREER grant, which is worth $400,000 and is the National Science Foundation's most prestigious award for creative junior faculty who are considered likely to become academic leaders of the future.

"Air pollution is a serious health problem that causes heart attacks, asthma, and premature deaths," Marr said. "It also degrades visibility and drives global climate change. My CAREER project takes a novel approach to measuring air pollutant emissions."

Marr and her graduate students will mount instruments that measure pollutant concentrations and wind velocity on the top of a van with an extendable mast -- "like a TV news van," she said. The research team will travel to Roanoke, Va., the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and Baltimore, Md., parking the van in various locations.

The pollutant trackers will measure carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas; nitrogen oxides and organic compounds, which are key ingredients in smog formation; and airborne particles -- the chief culprits for health effects.

"Current estimates of air pollutant emissions are highly uncertain," said Marr, who developed a fuel-based motor vehicle emission inventory for central California while a doctoral student at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley. "We anticipate that our measurements will add considerable new insight to the quantification of different types of emissions. Scientists can use this information to improve their understanding of air pollution, and policy makers can devise more effective plans to improve air quality."

Every CAREER project includes an educational component, and Marr will take the research van to K-12 schools near the field sites and offer tours for students. She also plans to test the effectiveness of new technology in her Introduction to Environmental Engineering class. Each student will have a remote control keypad to enter answers to questions Marr poses during class. She hopes this method of instant feedback and active participation will prove to increase "students' retention of material and the environmental engineering field's retention of students."


Marr came to Virginia Tech in 2003 after a year of post-doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She completed her Ph.D. in environmental engineering at UC-Berkeley, where she was a NSF Graduate Research Fellow and a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency STAR Graduate Research Fellow. She earned her bachelor's degree in engineering science at Harvard University in 1996.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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