Skip to main content

Clearing the air: NSF grant to help UW-Eau Claire researchers contribute to ozone solutions

| Julie Poquette

For years, Dr. Patricia Cleary has been among the many scientists working to inform the regulation of urban emissions in southeastern Wisconsin along Lake Michigan, where elevated spring and summer ozone levels are often a problem.

Now, a new three-year, $207,477 grant from the National Science Foundation will make it possible for Cleary, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of chemistry, and her student research collaborators to gather new data that could lead to improved strategies for regulating air quality in areas along the lake.

Measuring ozone: A new piece of the puzzle

“High ozone is a problem — it’s bad for human health — and so it’s regulated,” Cleary says. “But ozone isn’t directly emitted. There are volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that are emitted into the atmosphere, and those are the things that make the ozone and that you can regulate. But to regulate them you have to model how the ozone ends up where it ends up. And so when I do measurements of ozone in these places where it’s not measured very often, it helps test those models and assists regulators in being more efficient in the emission controls.”

In the new NSF-funded study, titled “Lake Breeze Influences on Ozone Transport as Captured by an Unmanned Aircraft System,” Cleary, UW-Eau Claire student researchers and collaborator Dr. Joe Hupy (a former UW-Eau Claire faculty member who is now at Purdue University) will measure ozone and meteorological variables (like air temperature and wind direction) near Lake Michigan using an unmanned aerial system, or drone plane. The project will take place in an area approximately one square kilometer in size and located in Chiwaukee Prairie, a state natural area along Lake Michigan in southeast Wisconsin.

The air sampling using the UAS will “close a gap in understanding the air quality measurement domain,” the researchers stated in their NSF grant application. Traditionally, air samples have been gathered close to the ground using fixed monitoring stations and at higher altitudes using manned aircraft. In this new study, the UAS will be able to capture measurements at the in-between altitudes that have not been accessible using traditional gathering methods.

Real-life experiences for Blugold students

Over the next three years, the NSF grant will fund salaries for students who will work on the Chiwaukee Prairie air-sampling project, assisting with a range of tasks — from helping determine how to best mount instrumentation on the drone plane, to conducting test flights for determining the drone’s battery life, to collecting air samples and using powerful software to compile, parse and interpret large amounts of data. The grant also will fund a summer salary for Cleary, travel, equipment and supplies.

Cleary has been a university faculty member since 2007 and has taught at UW-Eau Claire since 2012. In her 12 years of teaching, she has mentored 37 undergraduate students from a variety of academic majors who’ve collaborated with her on air-quality-related research projects. She says the skills students develop while participating in undergraduate research are readily transferable.

Cleary recalls one example, a math major who worked with her analyzing atmospheric measurements using Matlab data analytics software. After graduation, that student landed a job as a business analyst.

“It was important to the employer to find out that she could work with large data sets, that she could do complex analysis tasks creatively,” Cleary says. “Doing research with students at this level is asking them to start to carve their own path through a problem, and then I mentor them through that problem, but they’re really taking ownership of how to solve the problem. That’s definitely a transferable skill, and I’ve seen my students be very successful elsewhere because I can say that they can do that.”

Josie Radtke, a UW-Eau Claire junior from Boyd majoring in chemistry with a minor in public health, says her problem-solving skills — including her abilities to think critically, analyze, communicate, prioritize and work as part of a team — have improved as a result of working on atmospheric research with Cleary.

“It’s amazing being a part of this research group,” Radtke says. “I wanted to be a part of it because I wanted to get hands-on experience. I found Dr. Cleary’s research interesting because ozone is a big topic in atmospheric studies, and I wanted to participate in research that pertained to a current issue in our environment.”

Radtke, who plans to pursue a career in public health, is responsible for calibrating equipment used by the research team, analyzing and interpreting data, and creating documents to summarize results.

“Dr. Cleary’s research is giving me experience looking at environmental components,” Radtke says. “I believe that I can use the information and knowledge I’m gaining from my research experience to be better prepared for my future.”

Like Radtke, Whitney Mottishaw, a UW-Eau Claire senior from Pocatello, Idaho, was drawn to working on atmospheric research with Cleary because of its focus on a real-world problem. Mottishaw, who is enrolled in UW-Eau Claire’s physics and engineering dual-degree program, says the research also is teaching her skills that are relevant to her chosen field — including conducting data analysis and mastering new programming languages used to run and maintain the sensors in the lab.

“I’m planning on becoming an aerospace engineer, hopefully to work for NASA on space projects,” Mottishaw says. “Because Dr. Cleary's research has a UAS (unmanned aircraft system) focus, I am learning skills highly applicable to my field, which can help me get my foot in the door. Furthermore, the campaigns that have been part of this project have had partners such as NOAA and NASA, so I am able to start networking for future internship and job opportunities.”

Contributing to the collective knowledge

In addition to providing real-life experience in the field for her undergraduate students, Cleary says the new study will contribute to the collective knowledge among the many scientists studying air quality. Some of her previous collaborators are interested in her new NSF-funded study and may install extra instrumentation on the ground at the test site to take measurements that could augment Cleary’s findings.

“This is the thing that happens in atmospheric field campaigns,” Cleary says. “A lot of people come together with their expertise and instrumentation so that you can start to understand this very complex system. It’s rare that it’s just one person measuring one thing and then we know everything about the atmosphere.”

Top photo caption: Dr. Patricia Cleary (center) and student researchers Josie Radtke (left) and Whitney Mottishaw fly a drone they are using this summer to work on air-quality research. Cleary, a UW-Eau Claire associate professor of chemistry, and student collaborators have begun preliminary work on a new phase of the research that will be funded by a three-year $207,477 grant from the National Science Foundation.