EPA Science To Achieve Results (STAR)

First Impressions: an Introduction to EPA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program

By Nick Werner

The first day of work at a new job can be a daunting, maybe even a mildly-panic-inducing-event.  And chances are, every last one of us has experienced the first-day jitters at least a couple times in our lives and the butterflies will likely still be there for our next go around as “the new kid.”  In a lot of ways, the first day of work at a new job parallels the first day of class at a new school – you must begin to memorize the names and interests of your coworkers, learn about the type and amount of work you will be undertaking, find out what your bosses will expect from you, carefully pick where you want to sit at lunch, and so on.  However, work and school are also similar in that, after about the first week or two, you have started to find your niche in your new environment.

SBIR graphicIn my case, fittingly enough, my new environment was the Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA), and my niche was the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.  The SBIR program is a competition that, for over 30 years now, has served as a source of early-stage funding for innovative small companies in the green tech field.  Internally, it is a close-knit group of dedicated people, striving towards bettering the world by ensuring that the necessary funding goes to teams that can create tangible change.  And because we are all passionate about the same topics, it has made the transition from “new kid” to “team member” a relatively seamless process.

From the moment I stepped off the elevator, I was introduced to the idea that even though EPA has a number of independent programs, they are all interconnected. Student-oriented competitions such as Science to Achieve Results fellowships and the People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) program provide research funding to individuals and teams of students. Some of the projects have gone from competing in P3 to becoming a small business with an EPA SBIR contract – including Lucid Connects, Environmental Fuel Research (EFR), and SimpleWater.  In fact, both Lucid and EFR will be in attendance at the SBIR National Conference, which will be held in conjunction with the Tech Connect World Innovation Conference and Expo this week.  The conference will comprise of a number of events, including many informative panel sessions – highlighted by the one with Lucid and EFR on bringing innovative environmental technologies to market.

My role in this program centers on improving organization and efficiency, so that more focus can be placed on the individuals and teams who are striving to solve some of the most pressing challenges facing our world today.  The experience and freedom to solve problems in creative ways will certainly aid me in the future as I endeavor to leave my mark on the world as well.


photo of authorAbout the Author:
Nick Werner is a student contractor working with the People, Prosperity, and Planet (P3) program, and assisting with the SBIR program, both of which are in the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  Nick is an avid sports fan who hopes to pursue a graduate degree in marine biology or marine conservation in the near future.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Particulate Matter in a Changing World: Grants to Combat the Impacts of Climate Change

By Christina Burchette

There are certain things that are always changing: the weather, fashion trends, and technology (which iPhone are we on again?) are a few that come to mind. I can always count on the fact that these things won’t stay the same for long. But there are other things that I typically expect to remain the same: I expect to get hungry around lunchtime, I expect the bus to come every morning, and I expect to be able to breathe clean air. I don’t even think about the possibility of these things not happening—until something changes.

I definitely don’t think about air quality often or expect it to change. As long as I’m breathing and well, why would I? But in reality, air quality changes every day, and over time it may change a lot depending on how we treat our environment—and we need to be ready for these changes. This is why EPA recently awarded research grants to 12 universities to protect air quality from current and future challenges associated with climate change impacts.

Climate change is affecting air quality by influencing the type and amount of pollutants in the air. One type of pollutant present in our air is particulate matter, or PM. Long-term exposure to PM is linked to various health effects, including heart disease and lung function, and it doesn’t take a high concentration to affect our bodies. The more PM there is in the air, the more likely we are to be affected by health conditions.

landscape of Death Valley National Park with dust storm

A dust storm in Death Valley National Park

With EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants, university researchers are approaching the future of air quality from multiple angles with a focus on learning more about the PM-climate change relationship. They will study the impacts of increased wildfire activity that generates PM, often called soot, in the Rocky Mountains. They will look at the impacts that climate change and land use change have on the development of dust storms in the West and Southwest; and they will evaluate the best means of energy production in California where air quality is among the worst in the nation to reduce health care costs and lower levels of PM and greenhouse gases.

Over the next few decades, climate change will be the catalyst for various environmental trends, so finding a way to manage the impacts of these trends is essential to protecting our health. The work these grantees do will help to inform air quality managers and others to make sustainable and cost-effective decisions that keep our air quality at healthy levels and protect public health and the environment. That way, future generations will think of good air quality as something we can expect.

To learn more about these grants and read the abstracts, visit the Particulate Matter and Related Pollutants in a Changing World results page.

About the Author: Christina Burchette is an Oak Ridge Associated Universities contractor and writer for the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Air Quality Awareness: A New Generation of Research

By Dan Costa, Sc.D.

Graphic of clouds and buildings in a silhouette cityscape. It’s Air Quality Awareness Week! This week, EPA is showing how we care about the air by announcing grants to three institutions to create air research centers. We now understand more than ever about the threats of air pollution to environmental and human health, but there is still more to learn. EPA has a history of supporting research and development that complements the work of our own staff scientists to bolster scientific knowledge about the effects of air pollution. EPA uses this knowledge to address many pressing questions and understand connections between our changing environment and human health.

Since 1999, EPA has funded three rounds of research centers through a competitive grant process. The scientific experts at these centers have contributed to a more complete understanding of the persistent air quality challenges that continue to face our nation. The first round of EPA funded air research centers focused on particulate matter and examined the link between particulate matter and cardiovascular disease. In 2005, the next round of centers focused on whether differing health effects could be linked to specific sources of air pollution. By 2010, it was clear that to get an accurate understanding of real life exposures, we needed to examine the health effects of exposure to multiple pollutants at once instead of just one or two at a time. The third round of centers took on this complex challenge. The next step is to delve into questions regarding how the health effects of air pollution may vary in different cities and regions across our country – each with its own unique characteristics and set of pollution sources.

This leads us to today and our exciting announcement–EPA is awarding $30 million through its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to fund the establishment of Air, Climate, and Energy (ACE) Research Centers at Yale University, Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon University. These Centers will consider changing energy production methods and local climate, while investigating the effects of global climate change, technology, and societal choices on local air quality and health.

I am eagerly anticipating the many new tools and ideas that will be produced by this next generation of EPA funded air research centers.

About the Author: Dan Costa is the national program director for EPA’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Schools, Children’s Health and the Environment

By Shao Lin and Christine Kielb

How do environmental hazards and policies affect children’s health and school performance?

Group photo of health schools research team

Healthy Schools Group, from L to R: Melissa Frisbee , Nazia Saiyed, Christine Kielb, Cristian Pantea, Amanda St. Louis, Michele Herdt-Losavio, Neil Muscatiello, Shao Lin.

Thanks to support from the EPA Science To Achieve Results (STAR) program, we explored those questions. Our project is the first to addresses multiple aspects of environmental health and schools, such as developing indicators related to school locations, and how to develop methodologies for assessing and improving school health.

With EPA support, we are: 1) developing and enhancing Environmental Public Health Indicators (EPHI) representing environmental hazards, children’s school performance, and health; 2) exploring new methodologies for assessing exposure sources; 3) assessing how school environments, along with location and socio-economic status affect children’s health; and 4) evaluating the effectiveness of efforts to protect children’s environmental health in New York, such as the New York State Clean air School Bus Program and school bus idling regulations.

EPA support also enabled us to extend or continue our previous activities, including: tracking how school building conditions and asthma hospitalizations change over time in New York; surveying school nurses, custodians, district facility directors, and teachers to identify environmental problems—and potential solutions—facing schools; and examining how the surrounding neighborhood, specifically a school’s proximity to facilities such as hazardous waste sites, major roads, or airports might increase childhood asthma risk. We also assessed the impacts of healthy school characteristics related to indoor air quality, ventilation, cleanliness, thermal comfort, lighting and acoustics on student attendance, academic performance, and respiratory health.

Image of a schoolWe found some important results. For example, our work showed an association between missed school days and certain poor conditions in the school: visible mold, humidity, poor ventilation, and vermin. Having six or more individual such building-related problems was also associated with student absenteeism. Further, these associations were strongest among schools in lower socioeconomic districts, and in schools attended by younger students. We also found district-level childhood asthma hospitalizations to be related to poor condition of roofing, windows, exterior wall, floor finishes, and boiler or furnace.

When looking at air quality, we found that the control policy for nitrogen oxides (NOx) may have had a positive impact on both state-wide and regional air pollution levels and respiratory health. The positive effect varied by children with different types of respiratory diseases, region, and socio-demographic characteristics.

Our EPA-supported research is providing important data and information, informing our work developing and implementing a sustainable school environmental health program for New York State. We have shared our findings with a Steering Committee consisting of approximately 50 key school environmental health stakeholders, including superintendents, facilities managers, teachers, state agencies, physicians and advocacy groups, and have been working on plans to address existing and emerging environmental problems challenging schools. With these efforts well under way, we fully expect our findings to lead to healthier students, teaches, and other school occupants throughout New York.    

About the Authors: EPA grantee Dr. Shao Lin (MD, Ph.D.), has more than 20 years of experience directing environmental studies, including climate/weather factors, air pollution, heavy traffic exposure, residential exposure to urban air pollution, health effects among New York City residents living near Ground Zero, and a series of school environmental health projects.

Christine  Kielb has worked as an epidemiologist in the area of school environmental health since 2002, and has coordinated various school environmental health projects. She has played a major role in developing, conducting and analyzing surveys of school nurses, custodians facilities managers, and teachers regarding school environments and health. 


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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