Science

NASA appoints UW professor to lead new initiative

For the general population, satellites are simply there to help watch T.V., text, for the conspiracy theorists, spying or for a Skynet-esque takeover.

But for UW-Madison professor Tracey Holloway, satellites are a tool for improving peoples’ lives.

Holloway, a professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, was recently selected by NASA as team lead for their Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team. HAQAST is a new project starting this fall made up of 13 members from institutes and organizations across the U.S., with Holloway as the team lead based in UW-Madison. It is a three-year initiative to make satellite data and other NASA tools and data more relevant to decision-making around health and air pollution.

“Nearly half of the U.S. population lives in places deemed unhealthy for air pollution by the EPA,” Holloway said. “America uses a lot of energy per person, much of which comes from coal, natural gas and petroleum. But why don’t we have bad air pollution like India and China? We spend a lot to have technology to make exhaust cleaner for reactive chemicals that lead to asthma, heart disease and premature death. There is an increased focus on public health.”

HAQAST is a follow-up to NASA’s Air Quality Applied Sciences Team, which ran from 2011 to 2016. The new team is smaller than the original, which was comprised of 19 members, and focuses specifically on the public health aspects of air pollutants.

“This new team is making public health a much greater focus. It’s not just about getting data about air pollution, it is getting it directly to public health organizations,” Holloway said. “Our goal is to get the best science into the hands of people working on these issues.”

Most are using ground instruments, and those are the “gold standard,” according to Holloway. The main problem with ground instruments is most of the U.S. doesn’t have ground monitors outside of cities, and they don’t record all air pollutants.

“There are no monitors over the great lakes or over oceans or over much of the U.S. outside of cities. Satellites can see everywhere, and most pass over every day. We have snapshots of the whole earth every single day with an unprecedented amount of data,” Holloway said.

Satellites play a role in our day-to-day activities but are also a key component in advancing our knowledge of air pollutants and how they affect public health.

“A lot of people don’t know about satellite data. We use it every day, from Google Maps to the cool images of earth from space. Satellites can see particles in air invisible to human eyes. The air we breathe and chemicals we breathe can be seen from space, and that is exciting,” Holloway said.

The team’s overall message is there is this huge investment in satellite technology and keeping air clean in the U.S., but satellite data and other aspects of NASA science are not yet connected to decision making for air pollution and public health.

“There are some pioneers making that connection, but it is not yet [the] norm. We are trying to make that the norm,” Holloway said. “We are looking at what are the questions users have that satellites can and can’t answer. Where do we need to be advancing our technology to be able to answer new questions?”

One of the main objectives of HAQAST is getting this information and advanced data to decision makers.

“People don’t realize how many organizations are involved in air quality and public health issues,” Holloway said. “There is the EPA at the national level, and every state has an agency working on air issues, plus many huge industries, consulting companies, and non-profits. Air issues, also, [are] part of the work at the Department of Energy, the National Park Service, the Department of Transportation and other organizations.”

Holloway’s job as team lead is to coordinate with all 13 members from institutions across the U.S. In Madison, she works with professor Steve Ackerman, professor Jonathan Patz and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Brad Pierce. She also works with collaborators from the EPA and a regional air quality organization the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium.

“[HAQAST] will meet twice a year, and part of my responsibility is to organize these meeting[s] and establish a social media presence to connect with the public,” Holloway said. “My job is to coordinate research to make sure person A, B and C can maximize their benefits by coordinating their strength. It’s finding the connection and making the most of the collaboration.”

HAQAST’s first meeting is this November in Atlanta, Georgia, the home base for the Center for Disease Control.

“The CDC is a big organization that is a potential connection. They already use NASA data for air pollution, and we want to see how we can build on these activities and support their work,” Holloway explained.

NASA regularly gives grant money to researchers at universities and labs to do research; it is not new for them to fund research. What is new is supporting researchers as a team.

“For something like this where you’re trying to make a change in the way data is used, you’re working with these bigger organizations like the CDC. Having a team makes for a more visible presence,” Holloway said.

“It’s more about coordinating the sum of the whole and not just parts. A team means more research and work available. This is something that is really growing and it is a fun industry to be working in.”

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