SWPS Scientist: Alexis Shusterman

alexisI study in the UC Berkeley Department of Chemistry under Prof. Ron Cohen, who is also on the faculty in the Earth & Planetary Sciences department. Our research group looks at just about anything and everything under the interdisciplinary umbrella term of “atmospheric chemistry,” and for the last four and half years I’ve been working on the BErkeley Atmospheric CO2 Observation Network–or the “BEACO2N” project.

BEACO2N is a web of about 50 little air quality monitoring stations spread around the East Bay (although two of my coworkers are installing another 20 sensors in Houston, Texas as I type!). BEACO2N measures greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, but also pollutants that can be directly harmful to human health, like carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. I like to think of BEACO2N as an HD-TV for urban air pollution. Conventional monitoring techniques use one to five sites to try to get an average idea of the air quality across an entire city or region; that’s like trying to watch your favorite movie on a screen that only has a handful of blurry pixels. With BEACO2N, we’ve bumped up the number of pixels by an order of magnitude, giving us a much higher definition picture of pollution levels across the Bay Area. No one breathes “average” air and no one pollutes uniformly across a large area, so having neighborhood-level resolution allows us to study air quality on the spatial scales at which urban life actually occurs.

Of course, this is easier said than done–otherwise, everyone would be doing it! In order to assemble ten times as many sensor stations, we need to purchase parts that are (at least) ten times cheaper, and as with many things in life, you get what you pay for. Most of my work has focused on a comprehensive characterization of these lower cost technologies using a combination of controlled laboratory experiments and in field comparisons to more expensive systems. I’ve found that even modest sensors are able to provide useful information, so long as you possess a good understanding of their capabilities and are careful to ask appropriate scientific questions. Right now I’m developing mathematical models that can separate the slow, regional variations in pollution levels from the short-term, local pollution spikes specific to individual BEACO2N sites, or “hotspots.” While the regional changes can be influenced by outside factors like weather or pollution wafting in from the Pacific Ocean, the local changes are more likely to be the result of a single highway, building, or power plant. Isolating the “local signal” will allow us to give community members and policy makers information on where pollution is likely coming from and how to more effectively reduce pollution in their neighborhood in the future.

My favorite part about BEACO2N is the immediate potential to make a positive difference. We make all of our data publicly available online because we believe that everyone has the right to know what’s in the air they breathe. I’ve had the opportunity to talk about my work in cafes, classrooms, museums, even the capitol building in Sacramento, and it’s clear from the audience’s reactions that air quality and climate change are issues that people care deeply about. I feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of such an important project–it makes all of the sweltering rooftops and bird poop-covered instruments totally worth it!