Environment, Public Health

Saving Houston air: Help from Chapel Hill scientists

June 3, 2013

Good science from bad air

I was delighted by Richard Harris’s coverage of our air quality research last week on National Public Radio (NPR). It was the kind of in-depth, interesting and accurate reporting that makes NPR such a great resource for informing citizens. The animation that accompanied it is just fabulous—and only could be done in the Internet era. (You’ve got to see this!)


Smog chamber


Harvey Jeffries, PhD

The animation starts with Professor Harvey Jeffries scientific quest to measure the chemicals in air and then to understand their effect on human lung tissue under different conditions. We’re learning that sunlight can make certain chemicals more dangerous, but to understand how dangerous it was necessary for Dr. Jeffries to move from a research question to experiments to test his hypotheses and then to refine his questions and methods. The journey led Jeffries and colleagues to build the first smog chamber on top of one of our School’s buildings and then to connect the smog chamber to a laboratory below. In the lab, the scientists expose real lung tissue, obtained from consenting patients’ samples through colleagues from the School of Medicine, to different concentrations of air particles. It’s an incredibly clever way to study real conditions in the lab.

Eventually, Will Vizuete, now an associate professor, came to UNC from Texas where he’d worked on air quality studies. Dr. Vizuete had the brilliant idea to shrink the laboratory  to a box that could be carried around to different locations to sample air quality. It was a brilliant idea, but it could be realized only because we have an amazing design center that can fabricate devices, tools and other equipment. They make real things from faculty members’ ideas. Not only can the design center scientists save us money, but they make it possible to develop products that can be taken to scale and actually make a difference in the world. Financing the “lung in a box”, as we refer to the portable smog lab, was enabled because of the gift we received from Dennis Gillings and Joan Gillings.lungbox

We may have a view from on the ivory tower of academia but our feet are planted on solid ground. One of the real benefits of being dean is that I get to learn new things every day from the work being done at this School. What a thrill! Happy Monday. Barbara

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.