Discovery – Winter 2009

Published: Jan 19, 2009

“Smog Blog” Tracks Air Quality

When fires blaze across the Western United States, it’s just a matter of time until the resulting haze and dirty air plumes travel downwind to neighboring states – even as far away as the East Coast.

In 2003, environmental scientists at UMBC invented a method to track significant air pollution events and to provide a daily diary of air quality across the United States. The result is an innovative Web site known as the “Smog Blog,” which now attracts some half a million users annually.

The Smog Blog offers realtime analysis and an extensive archive of satellite imagery and air quality data for scientists, allowing for instant communication about important pollution events. The site’s postings also inform regulators and forecasters.

Jill Engel-Cox ’04, Ph.D., marine estuarine environmental science, was a doctoral student in that program in 2003 when she presented the idea for the blog to her advisor, Ray Hoff, director of the Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology and the Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center.

“It made a great deal of sense,” says Hoff, a professor of physics at UMBC. “The best way to know what the air quality in Baltimore is going to be is to look at what the air quality in Ohio was yesterday.”

Smog Blog entries are the products of analysis by environmental science faculty and students from both UMBC and the Battelle Memorial Institute, who look at incoming data from satellite sensors and merge it with information from sparsely-distributed ground-based monitoring stations. Bloggers then post images, and make daily entries, providing a sort of “one-stop shopping” for information on air pollution across the nation and the globe.

“We look at all these data sources and do the analysis to mesh all the data together so we can tell the whole story,” says Nikisa Jordan, a doctoral student in environmental science at UMBC. The blog primarily focuses on events in the U.S., but it occasionally highlights air quality in other parts of the world, as it did during the Beijing Olympics.

The site also serves as an extensive archive, allowing scientists and students to refer back to pollution events from previous months and years. “Having over five years of that information and analysis put together is really exciting,” says Engel-Cox.

Hoff adds that the blog works as something of a detailed lab notebook to keep track of important data. “It’s really tough for faculty members to instill in students the importance of keeping a lab book,” says Hoff. “The blog is a wonderful way for them to keep [one].”

While scientists associated with the Smog Blog – including Hoff, Engel-Cox, and Jordan – have all published peer-reviewed papers that resulted directly from postings, the Web site has evolved over time from a daily log to a sort of instantaneous communiqué within the scientific community. And while blogging can never replace peer-reviewed literature, Hoff observes, it enables researchers to engage in the sort of back-and-forth dialogue reminiscent of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

But while those scientists had to wait for their letters to arrive by boat or post, blogging allows for much more immediate discussions. “What a blog brings to this is instant communication with your colleagues that identifies events that you can react to in real time,” says Hoff.

The Smog Blog has become an important source of information for air-quality regulators. Its postings have made it possible for local and state officials to determine the source of pollution events and to sometimes avoid penalties that might otherwise be incurred as a result of pollution from other regions. A group of astronomers in the Midwest even uses the site to determine the best nights for stargazing.

Even these unlikely users bring unexpected insights to the blog. “You get some very intriguing questions asked by people who you wouldn’t expect to be looking at the site,” says Hoff.

— Amanda Leigh Mascarelli

Shogun Stories

From the 17th century through mid-19th century, Japan’s daimyo (or “lords”) answered to a higher power – the shogun. And they did so in person, splitting time between their own domains and the imperial city of Edo.

Tour of Duty: Samurai, Military Service in Edo, and the Culture of Early Modern Japan (University of Hawai’i Press), a new book by UMBC professor of history Constantine Nomikos Vaporis, plunges the reader into the world of “alternate attendance” upon Japan’s ruler. Fulfilling the edict required the daimyo and their retinues to make expensive road trips combining elaborate ceremonies and clashing egos. And when they arrived in Edo, the traveling lords lived in elaborate compounds in which spheres of political influence were carefully calibrated.

Preserving the shogun’s rule provided much of the impetus for the practice. But Vaporis writes that the ingress and egress of daimyo from city to provinces spurred profound cultural changes.

“The city of Edo…not only exported culture,” he observes, “but acted as an entrepot where the various cultural currents from the more than two hundred domains interacted and, at times, took on new configurations.”

— Richard Byrne ’86

Celluloid Deities

Can street paintings and advertisements be studied as art? And can examining other cultures inform our answer to that question?

Preminda Jacob, an associate professor of art history and theory in UMBC’s Department of Visual Arts, replies in the affirmative to both questions. In her new book, Celluloid Deities (Lexington Books), she examines the collision of cinema, politics and religion in South Indian culture at street level. Movie posters in the city of Chennai, she found, not only advertise a film – they can also be improvised into religious shrines or impart a political message.

“The street is a great equalizer of the visual experience,” she told an attentive crowd at a November presentation of her research at UMBC. Jacob also created a Web site,, that extends her research on what she calls the “multitudinous signs that jostle for attention” into startling images and video.

— Richard Byrne ’86

Painful Fallout

Sickle cell disease does not simply afflict the bodies of the estimated 70,000 Americans who suffer from it. The condition often packs another powerful, though largely hidden, wallop.

“According to some studies, between 50 and 80 percent of people with this chronic illness are unemployed,” says Shawn Bediako, an assistant professor of psychology at UMBC. “These are extremely high rates.”

In individuals with sickle cell disease, irregularly shaped red blood cells form clumps in small blood vessels, restricting blood flow to limbs and organs and often causing pain that can last for weeks.

Those afflicted with the illness often find that their ability to work and perform other daily activities is greatly limited. And if they cannot work, their access to employer based health insurance is also diminished.

Few studies have examined the interrelation between sickle cell disease, unemployment and healthcare use. But that is now changing. Last year, Bediak received a one-year, $55,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study the problem. He plans to publish his findings sometime this year, and hopes that his research will help policymakers develop effective services and programs for adults with sickle cell disease.

— Al Staropoli

Can Concrete Help the Chesapeake?

Most of us barely give the pavement beneath us a second thought. But Stuart Schwartz, a senior research scientist at the UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education, thinks deeply about it.

Schwartz studies pervious concrete – a building material riddled with voids that allow water to trickle through it. If this material becomes standard for driveways, parking lots and low-traffic roads, it may help manage the flow of storm water and pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay and other imperiled waterways.

When storms douse roads or parking lots in Maryland, mind-boggling gallons of water careen from the pavement into storm water systems and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. That runoff also carries sediments, nitrogen and phosphates – substances linked with a range of phenomena that are unhealthy for the bay, including deadly algal blooms and decimation of the habitat for young fish and crabs.

“What we’re really talking about is restoring hydrologic function in the landscape,” says Schwartz. Pervious concrete is made with a cementious binding material that is devoid of the sand or silt sized particles used in traditional concrete. “Think of a rice crispy treat, with all the little spaces in between the kernels,” he says.

Despite its promising benefits, some contractors and engineers remain skeptical of pervious concrete. Catastrophe can strike if ice forms within the voids of pervious concrete and bursts the material’s rigid matrix — which happened on a test section using the material on a Maryland interstate in the 1980s.

Highway officials nicknamed it “popcorn pavement,” because the loose aggregate that broke into pieces that ping-ponged through traffic and damaged cars. Schwartz is working to reverse that skepticism with new test plots on UMBC’s campus. He is also taking practical steps to win converts – helping to certify contractors and organizing a workshop attended by 200 people last August.

“There was so much interest, we had to turn people away,” he says.

— T. DeLene Beeland

Aging Boomers in a Class of Their Own

When Jena Rathell ’09, management of aging services, watched YouTube videos on her laptop this past semester, there was a good chance that she was doing homework.

Rathell was a student in “Aging 100: You Say You Want a Revolution? How Baby Boomers are Revolutionizing Aging” – a new high-tech undergraduate course offered by UMBC’s Erickson School of Aging Studies. It is a class with no textbook. The mid-terms and finals are taken online. Students can blog for extra credit.

Aging 100 acquaints students with key events and experiences of the baby boom generation. It is tailored for “millennials” – 75 million strong, and all born between 1981 and 1993 – who likely have never known life without computers. They learn about the Cold War and the civil rights movement, as well as debates about the national debt and Social Security. Lectures are interwoven with videos, so students see guitarist Jimi Hendrix play at the 1969 Woodstock Festival as they learn about his cultural influence.

“They will be living with this population for the rest of their life,” says Dr. Judah Ronch, a professor at the Erickson School who devised the course with another Erickson colleague, Bill Thomas. “Boomers are different than the aging population now. On average they will live longer, be healthier and more active.”

Ronch also hopes to place the inevitable societal challenges of boomer aging in healthy perspective: “When they hear debates on the future of Social Security it will not be an abstraction that puts them to sleep – they’ll really know what it’s about.”

— Al Staropoli

Digging Through Images

Photography freezes a moment in the present, creating an artifact. Archaeology uncovers artifacts and structures to make them accessible to the present.

As two endeavors that traffic in time, photography and archaeology have much to say to each other. That dialogue was highlighted in the gallery of UMBC’s Albin O. Kuhn Library this past autumn, in “The Creative Photograph in Archaeology” – a traveling exhibition on loan from the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece.

The exhibit showed visitors how 11 photographers – whose work ranges from the mid-19th to 21st centuries – offer us new ways of seeing archaeological sites, monuments and sculpture. It also offered three UMBC students who major in ancient studies a chance to learn about the mechanics of creating and interpreting an exhibition.

Cally Brandt ’09, Lauren Nagel ’09 and Sarah Ryan ’09 completed internships connected to the exhibition under the direction of Richard Mason, a lecturer in the Department of Ancient Studies. The students closely studied the exhibit’s arrangement and content, which was comprised of photographs taken of high classical architecture on and around the Athenian Acropolis, along with other images inspired by ancient Greece. The semester-long project also gave students an active role in educating the campus community about the exhibit.

“We didn’t just look through books for our research,” said Nagel. “We walked through the gallery and really examined the photographs in a way most people would not.”

Mason credits Kuhn Library curator Tom Beck and assistant curator Emily Hauver for making the exhibit (which will travel to multiple cities) and internship a success. “This type of work really shows how a university gallery can assist in teaching,” says Mason.

— B. Rose Huber

Moving Targets

As an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering at UMBC, Hillol Kargupta logs thousands of frequent flier miles each year to do research, conduct business for a successful, global firm – and to visit his family. But it is his quest to make those flights friendlier to the environment that has won him a highly competitive IBM Innovation Award and a $20,000 grant this past fall.

Kargupta is an expert on deep data mining in distributed and mobile environments. He is also the founder and president of Agnik – a company that pioneered the use of sensor-based data mining technology to improve efficiency in ground transportation fleets.

Now he’s looking to take his research and business skyward. And when the European Union includes aviation pollution in its ambitious cap-and-trade emissions market system next year, Kargupta hopes his sensors will analyze the data that makes Europe’s skies greener.

“Every second of flight burns about a gallon of fuel.” says Kargupta. Airplanes already have sensors that monitor and adjust gasoline/air ratios to yield the best fuel economy, he observes, but analyzing that data for emissions purposes “is a chance to meet a real market need.”

The available information is staggering. Kargupta observes that one hour of flight produces a continuous stream of about 10 megabytes of data. “Multiply that times all the world’s airports,” he continues, “and it equals a huge amount of data changing rapidly over a large area.”

Kargupta is enthusiastic about the daunting task, however: “It’s just the type of challenge we like at UMBC.”

— Chip Rose


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