Pathfinder Innovation Projects

Applying EPA Research to the Underworlds

By Dustin Renwick

stack white sewer pipes

Sewer pipes

Flushing a toilet eliminates waste, but when we flush information about our health circles down the pipes too. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientists have launched the Underworlds project to study community health by monitoring sewage. The project builds on the work of EPA scientist Christian Daughton.

“If we could actually gauge the collective health of an entire community, that has profound implications,” Daughton says. “You’re achieving something that’s never been seriously considered before – examining communities as integral patients.”

Daughton published conceptual research in 2012 as part of EPA’s Pathfinder Innovation Projects program that explained his idea of Sewage Chemical Information Mining (SCIM). Now MIT associate professor Eric Alm will explore the data that travels beneath Massachusetts neighborhoods.

MIT team members found Daughton’s research when they were writing the proposal for Underworlds. The large project encompasses biological components, looking for viruses and bacteria, as well as Daughton’s ideas that Alm says “explained in exquisite detail how to mine sewage as an information platform.”

SCIM relies on biomarkers, scientific shorthand for certain biological compounds our bodies produce when something happens in our cells.

Think of the loading screen that pops up when your computer opens an application. That’s a visible sign that gives clues to an underlying process. In our bodies, stress and disease produce these same sorts of clues via biomarkers that include a group of chemicals called isoprostanes.

If the sewage mining concept is correct, the levels of isoprostanes will rise with increased stress in the community.

However, Alm and the MIT team first need to answer fundamental questions about data collection: where to take sewage samples, how frequently, and how do samples change depending on the source, the season, or the time of day?

Once researchers can show that monitoring sewage systems is feasible, they can then develop parameters for a community’s “normal” biomarker range.

“If you have a community in the normal range and another far beyond it, you have some important questions to pursue at that point,” Daughton says.

Key factors could include healthcare availability and exposures to toxic substances or to physical stressors such as noise and heat. For a future best-case scenario, sewage streams would become reliable data streams that translate to change at ground level.

“In addition to cool basic science that I’m sure will come out of the program,” Alm says, “can we glean information that really helps make informed policies about what’s going on in their city?”

Kuwait City, Kuwait, will serve as the full-scale Underworlds testing site after MIT concludes work in Massachusetts in 2017.

“If Alm’s work proves successful,” Daughton says, “it will represent a significant advancement in the prospects for quickly and inexpensively monitoring public health in real time.”

 

About the Author: Dustin Renwick works in conjunction with the Innovation 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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This Week in EPA Science

By Kacey Fitzpatrick

Research recap graphic identifier, a microscope with the words "research recap" around it in a circleWith more than 300,000 people turning out for the People’s Climate March in New York City and leaders from around the world meeting for the United Nations Climate Summit, climate change has been big news this week. It was also Climate Action Week at EPA, starting with Administrator Gina McCarthy’s message: Climate Week – It’s Time For Action.

As with so many other environmental challenges, the first steps toward taking meaningful action all start with science. Research lays the foundation for understanding our impact on the environment, and finding sustainable solutions for adapting to, and reducing the impact from, a changing climate.

This week’s Research Recap highlights some of the work that EPA researchers have done to support climate action.

  • Preparing to “Move:” EPA Research Supports Taking Action on Climate Change
    EPA researcher Dr. Andy Miller is among the many people studying how climate change is affecting our environment. EPA scientists work behind the scenes to provide the knowledge people need to prepare for climate change and its impacts, so communities will have the best information possible to take action as they prepare their move into the future. Read more.
  • EPA Science Matters – Climate Change Research Edition
    EPA’s Science Matters newsletter features a collection of stories on how EPA researchers and their partners are supporting both the Agency and President Obama to take action on climate change. Our scientists and engineers are providing the science that decision makers, communities, and individuals need for developing strategies and taking action to protect public health and the environment. Read more.

 

And here’s some more EPA research that has been highlighted this week.

 

  • THE PATH(FINDER) FORWARD
    EPA’s innovation team is tapping the creativity of agency employees through Pathfinder Innovation Projects which provide space for bold ideas that have the potential for transformational scientific change. The program is an internal competition that provides seed funding and time for EPA Office of Research and Development scientists to pursue high-risk, high-reward research. Read more.
  • Reigning in the Rain with Satellite and Radar
    Accurate rain totals are the basis of watershed modeling for evaluating the water cycle. EPA scientists were involved in a study aimed at providing options for watershed modelers. With options of using land-based or radar data, scientists will be able to conduct more accurate watershed assessments, providing important information for keeping our watersheds healthy. Read more.
  • LIVE! from the Lake Guardian: Bringing science to the classroom
    A group of sixth graders from Charleston, IL took a virtual tour of the U.S. EPA vessel that was collecting samples in Lake Erie. Students and teachers watched as EPA researcher Beth Hinchey Malloy talked about living and working on a boat and showed them around. Eight classes across the Great Lakes region got a first-hand look at the research vessel this week and video chats with EPA scientists will continue throughout the school year. Read more.


If you have any comments or questions about what I share or about the week’s events, please submit them below in the comments section!

About the Author: Student contractor and writer Kacey Fitzpatrick is a frequent contributor to “It All Starts with Science.”

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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THE PATH(FINDER) FORWARD

Crossposted from “GovLoop”

Student contractor and frequent “It All Starts with Science” contributor Dustin Renwick was selected as a featured blogger on GovLoop, an online community of government workers and those interested in public service. Below is his post about EPA’s “Pathfinder Innovation Projects” that was originally posted as part of that series.

By Dustin Renwick

 

Graphic of satellite and text, "Wouldn't it be amazing if we could measure water quality without getting in a boat?

 

 

What makes you yell with excitement?

Roger Hanlon, a marine biologist, captured video of an octopus in camouflage mode. Hanlon hit the surface screaming. “They thought I was having a dive accident,” he says in the video. “It was a eureka moment.”

We like eureka moments on the innovation team, and we look for ways to increase the chances those moments happen more often. Consider it engineered serendipity.

Pathfinder Innovation Projects (we call them PIPs) provide space for bold ideas that have the potential for transformational scientific change. PIPs tap the creativity of agency employees.

The PIPs program is an internal competition that provides seed funding and time for EPA Office of Research and Development scientists to pursue high-risk, high-reward research. Any scientist or post-doc can submit an innovative idea, and external panels of experts help us spot the proposals that have the most potential.

We challenge our researchers to consider the question: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if EPA could … ?”

EPA has answered with almost 300 proposals in four years.

In the program’s first three years, we’ve had scientists measure coastal water quality from space, test glowing tadpoles that indicate endocrine disruptors in water, and build systems to better mimic human lungs for airborne chemical toxicity screens.

And we just announced the awardees for the fourth year.

PIPs allow us to examine and nurture the pitches that challenge current thinking or could leapfrog the current science in that field if successful. At a more general level, the program demonstrates the power of acknowledging that good ideas with broad impact can come from anyone in an organization.

  • Has your office tried a program to spark innovation internally?
  • What insights have you gained from these kinds of programs?

About the Author: Student contractor Dustin Renwick is a member of EPA’s Innovation Team in the Office of Research and Development. He is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program featuring posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!).

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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Around the Water Cooler: HICO and H20

By Dustin Renwick

Even without a call from President Kennedy, outer space has enthralled America again. With the Mars rover, the inauguration of the commercial space industry, and a human diving from space unencumbered by vehicles, space is back in the public discussion.

EPA’s link to space exploration comes from the other final frontier: our oceans.

Blake Schaeffer, an EPA research ecologist, led a group that explored the use of space-based technology to monitor coastal waters as part of the EPA’s Pathfinder Innovation Projects.

The team used the Naval Research Laboratory’s Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean (HICO), mounted on the International Space Station.

Satellite sensors are typically designed for darker depths in the open ocean; light reflected from land prevents accurate measurements in waters close to shore. HICO was calibrated for coastal waters, but the EPA has never used remote satellite monitoring to measure water quality.

“We wanted to show something like this was possible,” Schaeffer said.

Images from HICO reveal a spectrum that EPA scientists analyze to determine water quality factors such as concentrations of chlorophyll and organic matter.

The difference of effort between current boat-based surveys and remote sensing via outer space is akin to creating fabric. A factory of people armed with knitting needles could weave cloth, but operating a loom could produce better results in less time and with fewer people.

Today’s monitoring strategies involve field observations that pinpoint tiny areas out of the thousands of beaches, inlets, and estuaries carving the U.S. coastline. Similar to the efficiency of a loom, HICO operations allow scientists to monitor larger swaths of water and conduct research previously limited by time, personnel or geographic constraints.

“We’re seeing right up into where freshwater streams and rivers meet the headwaters of estuaries, and that’s great,” said team member Darryl Keith, an EPA research oceanographer.

Keith said scientists have models to estimate water quality in freshwater and saltwater environments, but “few models cross the interface between these environments.”  HICO helps integrate the two.

Team researchers are also developing a smartphone application that will make their data accessible to the general public.

The project was based in Florida, but an ideal future could bring national water quality forecasts similar to today’s weather reports. If an algal bloom closes your favorite swim spot, you’ll have the information before you leave for the beach.

About the author:  Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Around the Water Cooler: Perpetual Plastics

By Dustin Renwick

Image courtesy State of Hawaii

Hawaii has become synonymous with tropical sunsets and legendary surfing. And trash. Ocean currents annually deliver 20 tons of refuse, much of it plastics, to the Big Island from the swirling mess called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Now, scientists expect added debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami.

I wish I could have learned about this firsthand, maybe when surfing, but instead, I watched a video as I ate dinner 5,000 miles from the 5oth state.

We rely on plastics for diverse products such as packaging, pipes and car parts. These strong, all-purpose materials are designed as stable substances – you don’t want your water bottle to disintegrate.

Because they’re so durable, plastics can outlive their creators.

EPA scientist Richard Zepp is working on this problem as part of the Pathfinder Innovation Projects that I’ve blogged about previously. He’s researching ways to shorten the material lifecycle of common plastic items.

Water, sunlight, and microbes dissolve a newspaper or a discarded banana peel, but plastics, such as polyethylene, have tightly packed molecule chains that are nearly impervious to forces that might return them to the natural ecosystem.

“We don’t know how long polyethylene will last in the environment,” Zepp said. “They use polyethylene as liners in landfills” because it’s so tough.

In his research, Zepp incorporates an additive, something called a pro-oxidant, that helps natural forces disrupt the molecule chains so a plastic will break down more quickly. Parts of the UV spectrum of sunlight interact with the pro-oxidants and “put a chink in the armor of the plastic,” he said, “even with polyethylene.”

This plastic then becomes brittle and more susceptible to natural abrasion.

“If you’re out in the environment, that’s a key to the breakdown of plastic – it becomes more readily attacked by bacteria, which will degrade it completely.”

Researching the whole lifecycle for plastics means we’re thinking about the reality that all garbage isn’t created (or destroyed) equally.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Fostering the Science and the “Art” of Innovation

By Dustin Renwick

From Microsoft to Intuit to Ferrari, companies around the world have learned that innovation lives throughout a healthy organization.

Two years ago, EPA wanted to begin a change that would inspire more innovation in its research labs by pushing scientists to think about transformational projects.

In other words, EPA leaders wanted to ignite the passion and wonder that accompanies great science and replace ordinary thinking with “Wouldn’t it be amazing if EPA could . . . ?”

Pathfinder Innovation Projects (PIPs) were created as an internal competition to empower EPA scientists and researchers to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects.

This model dates back to at least 1948, when 3M encouraged its employees to spend 15 percent of their time on projects they found rewarding. A cultural icon, the Post-It, was among the results from that radical notion of giving employees like Art Fry the freedom to explore and tinker.

Through our first two years, 22 PIP proposals were selected from nearly 200 applications. These teams received seed funding and time to carry out pilot projects ranging from satellite-based coastal monitoring to novel methods for breaking down plastics.

Submissions are judged each year by an external panel, which takes into account a proposal’s:

  • Relevance to the Agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment.
  • Potential to dramatically change how EPA solves environmental problems.
  • Potential for significant progress toward sustainability and advancing EPA’s strategies.

Teams from the first year of PIP have submitted their final reports, and second year projects continue. The submission period for our third year closed at Thanksgiving, and those proposals are currently being judged.

I’ll periodically highlight some of the innovative ideas here on It All Starts with Science, so be sure to check back later. You can even use a Post-it to remind yourself.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA 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.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.