SPUR 2021: Associations between air quality and health outcomes at high spatiotemporal resolutions


Exposure to air pollution has been associated with multiple negative health outcomes such as pulmonary and cardiovascular events, particularly among vulnerable populations. Over 200,000 people live in Salt Lake City, capital city of Utah and county seat, with over 1.2 million residents in the Salt Lake City Metropolitan area. Salt Lake City is surrounded by mountains to the south, east and west, creating a topographical basin that traps pollution during wintertime stable layers or cold-air pools (also known as inversions) leading to high levels of pollutants, especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Interstate highways, an international airport and railroad traffic, industrial pollution sources, windblown dust and wildfires are among the complex sources that contribute these episodic pollution events that are most frequent and severe in the winter and summer. With a growing population and increasing wildfire and dust storm occurrences summertime air quality is becoming an increasing public health concern. Due to the lack of granular, reliable air quality measurements, all previous pollutant exposure and health-related studies have intrinsic resolution issues when examining scales smaller than a county or city. This reduces applicability, since a single sensor cannot portray intra-city variability, nor truly represent individual or neighborhood-scale exposure. This leads to significant mischaracterization of a population’s vulnerability and potential health outcomes. Understanding that the burden of poor air quality is not shared equally among populations is a key motivator for understanding environmental exposure at neighborhood scales.

This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PIs: Sara Grineski and Tim Collins). In addition to being part of SPUR, it is also part of the HAPPIEST program. Applicants must be University of Utah students who identify in one or more of the following ways (defined by the National Institutes of Health): Blacks or African Americans, Hispanics or Latinxs, American Indians or Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and other Pacific Islanders. Two students will be selected to work on this project together.

Student Role

The students, along with a graduate student mentor and Dr. Mendoza, will work together to develop a 10-week long research project within the confines of Mendoza’s ongoing projects. The focus of the project will include air quality and health. Students will develop skills in project management and development that will result in a complete product to share with the community at large in addition to an academic audience. The students will learn communication methods to engage with and involve stakeholders as part of the project. The students will also become familiar with the various air quality observation platforms and emissions datasets available, as well as health outcome metrics. The students will also develop quantitative and programming skills to analyze exposure and health data sets as part of the project. Given that the team will involve members from different disciplines, students will contextualize their project across disciplines.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

At the completion of this research experience, students will:

  • Understand pollutant emission modeling approaches
  • Be familiar with air quality observation methodology
  • Have hands-on experience with air quality sensors (COVID-19 restrictions may prevent this)
  • Estimate exposure metrics at different temporal scales
  • Learn how to find and retrieve applicable health data to study
  • Utilize a statistical software package (R, Matlab, etc.) to perform data analysis
  • Convey enactable applications of their findings and results
  • Develop and manage a project to be presented at the end of the summer
  • Gain experience communicating with stakeholders outside of academia

Remote Contingency Plan

The COVID-19 contingency plan will involve the elimination of in-person meetings and replace them with a fully virtual workspace. The entirety of this work can be performed remotely so the student does not need to be on-site to successfully complete the research.

Daniel Mendoza
Visiting Assistant Professor

City & Metropolitan Planning
College of Architecture + Planning
Global Change and Sustainability Center

An important lesson I learnt from my PhD adviser was to always frame my research in a way that a stakeholder can easily interpret it and develop enactable policy from it. Through my mentoring, I try to instill the same values on students – in essence be able to answer the “so what?” question. This approach can be challenging at first as it’s much easier to describe methods and results. However, in the long run, developing applicable policy tools can be one of the most fulfilling and enduring results of one’s work. The project is team-based and so the students will be in frequent contact with a graduate student mentor, and with Dr. Mendoza throughout the summer. Particularly during COVID-19 times though, the word “normal” no longer exists, I have learnt that adaptation is the best course of action. Some students thrive with regular meetings and updates, while others prefer to reach out when certain milestones or goals are achieved, and intermittently with questions. At the start of the summer, we will talk about the students’ preferred method of work and how that meshes with the SPUR/HAPPIEST program structure. I will ask students what areas they feel they want to develop during the research experience, and we will make those a focal point of our meetings. If there are several areas that require attention, we will triage to ensure the maximum benefit.