Carnegie Mellon University
January 15, 2014

Dale's Passions Bridge Art and Science

Dale's Passions Bridge Art and Science

Amy Dale's illustration of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.Amy Dale's illustration of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen.

This article was reprinted with permission by Pittsburgh's chapter of Advancing Science In America (ARCS) Foundation. Amy Dale is a dual degree CEE and EPP PhD student and third year ARCS Scholar. Her research focuses on studying water quality and public health and risk-based regulatory policy. Amy is co-advised by Professors Greg Lowry (CEE) and Elizabeth Casman (EPP). Article by Ann Fromm. 

Originally from a small town in northeastern PA, third year ARCS scholar Amy Dale came to CMU after an undergraduate degree at Pitt, partly because she was getting married.  Her then-fiancé, Alex, was a graduate student at Pitt and she wanted to stay nearby.  

Now married and renting a turn-of-the-century brick house between Squirrel Hill and Greenfield, they love living in Pittsburgh, and Amy could “stay here forever” pursuing her twin passions:  computational analysis in support of public policy making, and doing watercolor illustrations for books and songs.

Amy illustrates book series, myths and legends or songs she likes, especially a complicated mythical or fantastical story.  She has even sold her work.

Academically, Amy is a mathematician.  She appreciates the applicability aspect of her CMU work now, since earlier she had focused more on basic science than applied.

Specifically, Amy studies water quality and environmental health, suggesting risk-based regulatory policy for politicians.  Even more specifically, she studies nanomaterials such as nanosilver.  The Giant Eagle Market District, for example, uses the very tiny particles in grocery cart handles for anti-bacterial purposes, as do soap and cosmetic manufacturers, and sells socks embedded with nanosilver.   Heavy metals such as silver, copper and mercury are naturally anti-bacterial.  Because they’re good at killing things, Amy explains, they’re good at killing bacteria.

How much nanosilver can safely get into our environment, particularly our water?

“We want to do a mathematical risk assessment,” says Amy.  “We don’t want people running for the hills.  Yet overuse of nanosilver can lead to antibacterial resistance and be toxic, especially if it builds up in aquatic environments.

“Right now,” Amy continues, “there isn’t much cause for alarm.  But there are situations, such as high oxygen environments, where nanosilver is more toxic.  So we don’t want manufacturers to use it too much.”

At one time, regular silver was used intensively in photo processing.  The silver going into the environment then had a measurable impact, especially in coastal systems like the San Francisco Bay.  If nanosilver concentration gets higher, there’s a potential that it could also cause negative outcomes.  In aquatic environments, silver is the second most toxic metal after mercury.  

So is nanosilver safe or not?

“I’d love to give you a clear answer,” says Amy.  “We want to figure out scenarios and assess risk.  My goal is to be able to say factually that nanosilver as it is currently used is not dangerous to the environment.”

Amy also currently takes a CMU class that looks at environmental regulations of the Marcellus Shale.  “Although I can’t speak with great expertise,” Amy says, “I think PA’s response to the regulatory side of drilling has been quite good.  We Pennsylvanians are wary in general, because of our history, from Titusville on, with oil and coal.”

She does worry about radioactivity from some of the drilling.  During drilling, particles get dislodged from the soil and turn up in wastewater.  The particles accumulate in sediment and solid wastes, as with nanosilver.  Radioactivity is not a huge public or occupational health concern right now.   But is there a potential for concern?

Some day, scientists like Amy will build a mathematical model of what happens to these particles and let us know.