Carnegie Mellon University

Megan Henriksen

March 06, 2019

Undergrad Research Projects Impacts Pittsburgh

For CEE sophomore Megan Henriksen, being part of a research project studying air quality in Pittsburgh is deeply personal.

“I grew up in Pittsburgh. I know where most of the sensors are. I know those neighborhoods,” she says.

Henriksen is part of a group working with Associate Research Professor Albert Presto, in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Presto, a member of CMU’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, and his team are collecting data on pollutants from more than thirty sensors placed throughout Pittsburgh. The CMU Real-Time Multi-Pollutant Sensors (RAMP) are measuring: carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and particulate matter.

The sensors read the data about every 15 minutes all day every day. Henriksen has been working to average into 24-hour segments (diurnals) all the data points collected from the sensors in 2017, while others in the project are studying data collected in other time frames. She will then run statistical hypothesis tests to see if there are statistically significant variations in the data for any of the pollutants measured. The objective is to determine if any of the pollutants are present at levels that might have a negative impact on human health at any of the locations where sensors are placed.

Others working on the project are organizing and translating the data Henriksen and other researchers are developing into easily understood information, which can then be shared with community members, civic leaders and industry, she says. In doing so, her research can have real-world impact on the people of Pittsburgh.

“The human health impact is in these places that are personal to me,” she says. “It’s my community.”

The city of Pittsburgh updated its Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2018, after the United States withdrew from the Paris Agreement, an international plan to reduce emissions and work to mitigate the effects of climate change. While the primary goals of Pittsburgh’s CAP relate to climate change, the plan will also have a positive impact on the city’s air quality. Pittsburgh’s CAP, in combination with CMU’s RAMP program, should help move the city forward environmentally, she says, and help improve air quality for its citizens.

For Henriksen, who is pursuing a double major in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Engineering and Public Policy, being able to participate in this research feels like a perfect fit. With an eye toward developing expertise in air quality and issues of the environment, she hopes to someday advocate for the environment, which also means advocating for people.

“The emissions that we put in the air have an enormous impact on our health,” she says, noting, among other things, the link between pollutants and respiratory issues, such as asthma. “People don’t realize, sometimes, how much the environment affects us. They talk about it like it’s separate from us, but it is part of us.”

Having the chance to participate in research as an undergraduate not only helps refine academic goals, it gives a sense of purpose and the potential to establish important credentials early in an academic career, Henriksen says.

“Research is just such an enriching experience that takes you to a level that just classroom experience alone won’t get you. It allows you to develop some set of expertise as an undergraduate,” she says. “It’s something I didn’t expect to be so fully immersed in so early in my college career.”