Burn notice: math students mitigate health risks
Students improve air quality model, mitigating health hazards for communities
Story and photos by Laura Hancock | University Advancement
LA GRANDE, Ore. May 9, 2016 – A small team of students and faculty from Eastern Oregon University is helping residents of Harney County breathe easier.
Math majors Travis Lowe and Sydney Nelson took on the challenge last summer of improving an air quality forecasting model for communities in rural southeastern Oregon. Their efforts have the potential to pay off in a big way now that the city of Burns is using the tool to initiate a signal flag warning system guiding home heating and open burning practices.
The pilot began last winter and will continue during the peak time wood burning stoves are in use, which spans November through February. Monitoring levels of small particulate matter measuring 2.5 micrometers or less is the primary concern. Referred to as PM2.5 among meteorologists, these particles are believed to pose the greatest health risks, including lung cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency website.
“Due to the unique geographic and atmospheric conditions within and around Burns, they were experiencing absurdly high levels of PM2.5,” said Amy Yielding, associate professor of math and faculty research advisor. “It can be easily inhaled, but is rarely exhaled.”
Yielding and two of her upper division statistics students – Lowe and Nelson – partnered on the project with the
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Northeast Oregon and Greater Eastern Oregon Regional Solutions Center.
“Seeing how excited these agencies were, we thought this was really cool and could make a difference,” Lowe recalled.
And their work is making an impact by ensuring that advisories are accurate and beneficial.
“Weather plays many roles in our everyday lives,” said Valerie Mills, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boise. “I’ve been thrilled to help Professor Yielding and her students discover a relationship between weather patterns and air quality to aid some weather-based decisions for these communities.”
“The research is being applied by the Oregon DEQ and residents in the communities to keep particulate levels at acceptable levels,” Mills explained. “Signal flags are used by the communities of Hines and Burns to affect what is burned and when to manage particulate levels.”
To get started, the students had three years worth of meteorological data to dig into.
“As soon as we figured out what we wanted, it became much easier,” Nelson said.
“Yeah, then the research got epic,” Lowe chimed in. “We call the process productive struggling,” he said, laughing.
Yielding’s professional background as a combinatorial matrix theorist doesn’t revolve around statistics, but she never hesitated to take on the project because she knew what her students were capable of.
“Travis and Sydney need very little nudging to get stuff done,” she said. “They are a such a great example of the type of students we have here, and EOU is an attractive place to teach because of the quality interaction I have with them.”
The feeling is mutual as evidenced by Lowe’s view on his experience completing not one, but two degrees from EOU, the first in multidisciplinary studies.
“Eastern has a really good math department and Amy has done so much for us,” he said. “Opportunity is the biggest difference between EOU and larger schools where you just don’t have the ability to work one-on-one with faculty like Amy who have their Ph.D. It’s what makes EOU special.”
When Lowe graduates in June he will begin a job conducting research for Naval Air Systems (NAVAIR) Command. The offer came after meeting with a representative from NAVAIR at the Fall Quarterly Speaker Series sponsored by EOU’s Math Club. The next thing he knew, Lowe was flying to Maryland and making a positive impression on the interviewers with his knowledge of applied mathematics.
The efforts of EOU’s research team culminated when they were invited to present their model improvements to representatives from Oregon and Idaho DEQ, National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency convening at the NOAA offices in Boise.
Their project also gained the attention of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM), which recognized Lowe and Nelson with an award for best presentation at the Northwest Undergraduate Mathematics Symposium at Oregon State University in April.
The symposium was held in conjunction with the Pacific Northwest Section Meeting of the Mathematical Association of America, which brought graduate students and professional mathematicians to the event.
“The room was packed, and there were many enthusiastic mathematicians and statisticians discussing their research,” Yielding said. “EOU should be proud. Travis and Sydney represented our school so well!”
Impacts of the project are far-reaching with the possibility of employing the model in other towns with winter air stagnation issues, including La Grande and Klamath Falls.
Larry Calkins, air quality specialist with Oregon DEQ in Pendleton, confirmed plans to modify the model for meteorological conditions in other areas.
“We think it is transferrable to other communities and will benefit them like it is in Burns,” Calkins said. “This was a unique effort where the students used statistics and higher math skills to improve the model’s effectiveness, and did so by a significant margin. Sydney and Travis are remarkable students and it was a joy to work with them and Professor Yielding.”
Learn more about the project at EOU’s Spring Symposium May 18 when the students are giving a presentation on “Applying a Multilinear Regression Model to Predict Air Quality in Burns, Oregon.”