NASA Health and Air Quality Team Brings Research ‘Down to Earth’

May 30, 2018

When we think about the health impacts of air pollution, it’s important to know which pollutants are in the air we breathe. Fortunately, the U.S. has a large network of air monitoring instruments designed to measure this “nose-level” pollution, from ozone to particulates. In fact, the U.S. has made excellent progress toward clean air in the past four decades thanks to these instruments. Using historic data only goes so far, since many land areas do not have monitors and there aren’t any over lakes, oceans or beyond the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere.

That’s why Tracey Holloway, Gaylord Nelson Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, looks beyond the skies by using NASA satellites to see the global picture of air quality issues from space.

Holloway leads the NASA Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (HAQAST, “hay-kast”), a program dedicated to solving real-world public health and air quality problems using NASA data. The team conducts cutting-edge research with the goal of demonstrating the utility of these NASA satellite data for health and air quality organizations. Holloway has led the team since 2016, building on her previous role as deputy director of NASA Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (AQAST, “ay-kast”).

“My whole career has been trying to connect advanced data and models with real-world problem solving on air quality,” Holloway said. “Here was a situation where NASA was looking for scientists to be that translator, to help take those state of the art tools and get them in the hands of real users for real applications.”

The HAQAST project runs for a three-year cycle from 2016 through to 2019, and builds on the success of AQAST, but with a greater emphasis on public health. “When it came up for the recompete, the focus was larger. We wanted to keep the strength in air quality management, but also bring in health professionals—people who were concerned about forest fire smoke inhalation or childhood asthma,” Holloway said.

For Holloway the connection between health and air quality is personal. Growing up near Chicago, she developed asthma as a child, so she knows what it feels like to have trouble breathing. But it wasn’t until later, when she really made the connection with air quality, that she understood how the science of atmospheric chemistry could  play a crucial role in health research on asthma, life expectancy and even how far we can see on the horizon.

Those personal experiences, as well as more than 20 years of experience as a scientist, have helped Holloway guide HAQAST in building connections between scientists, health and air quality professionals and the public. The projects range in scope from introducing satellite data to state policy makers working on air quality management laws to developing health-monitoring data for communities. The projects take shape both in the work of HAQAST’s team members as individual scientists, as well as collaborative efforts among members known as “Tiger Teams.” These teams leverage the collaborative nature of HAQAST, bringing together researchers to solve a single problem. All of the 13 HAQAST members are involved with at least one of the four Tiger Team collaborations, which address short-term, high-impact projects and build a two-way dialogue between the researchers and stakeholders.

“Communication is a huge part of our activities profile. That’s one of the things that makes us different from a traditional science grant,” Holloway said. “There’s the collaboration across the multiple team members, but also our efforts in engagement and communication with the public.”

HAQAST is also unique in the sense that it is a NASA applied sciences team. NASA science teams are typically centered around a specific instrument, with the goal of advancing science using that instrument’s data, but being an applied sciences team, HAQAST is focused on the potential data users and the problems where satellite data and other NASA resources can have the biggest impact. This mission allows the team to draw from a wider suite of NASA data and tools to best serve air quality and public health applications.

Holloway said this unique approach to research and knowledge transfer has made a big difference. “We are conducting research that really pushes the envelope in terms of how NASA data can help society,” Holloway said. “Many of our research ideas emerged from public partners who had never before used satellite data, but through back and forth conversations, we come up with a new question that might be answerable—that’s research, with the potential to really make a difference for public health and the environment.” 

Already the satellite data use in air quality management is becoming more frequent, due to HAQAST research and communication efforts. Holloway hopes these trends will continue and that satellite data can used to its full potential.

“Satellite data is one of the most exciting tools and it’s the backbone of what we do at HAQAST,” Holloway said. “I think we need to be on the frontier of this kind of change as we tackle air quality management to make sure the maximum practical benefit is being realized. Bringing the public in on the conversation fosters that goal.”

The next HAQAST meeting will take place on July 16-17, 2018, hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-sponsored by CIMSS, SSEC, LADCO, and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Register here.