To boldly go where public health hasn't gone before

Rollins Magazine | June 14, 2017

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Rollins School of Public Health researchers will soon take their research into orbit, partnering with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in a new satellite mission to study air pollution.

NASA chose Rollins as a joint recipient of its $100 million award — $2.3 million of which will come to Rollins — to study the effects of air pollution on the population through a satellite mission, according to Yang Liu, associate professor of environmental health. He noted that this is the first time a NASA space mission has incorporated a public health component.

"We're the scientific guinea pig," Liu said.

The Rollins research group, led by Liu, co-created the project idea with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The mission will construct and use a Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) device to record airborne particulate matter, which will collect data on the effects of pollution on public health from at least 10 locations with major metropolitan areas.

Once constructed by JPL, the MAIA device will be mounted on a compatible Earth-orbiting satellite. "Even though it's a small mission, it's actually the first ever in which we get to work with NASA engineers to build public health into the DNA of this instrument," Liu said.

The Rollins team will analyze the data to make predictions about public health issues such as birth outcomes and cardiovascular disease. The team will also serve as the public health liaison between JPL and other institutions in the complete research group. Recruited by Liu, the complete group has teams at University of California, Los Angeles, Harvard University, University of British Columbia, and University of Dalhousie.

Because the device will orbit via satellite, it will provide a more holistic view of air pollution data than the commonly used ground monitors.

"It's very difficult to cross to a completely different scientific community and convince them that this mission is not only worthwhile but also feasible," Liu said. "Hopefully, Emory will make a mark in NASA history."