Summer Research Program Students Delve Into COVID’s Impact on Air Quality

Professor Joel BurleyAir quality is certainly top of mind these days, not just for the SMC community but across the West—and beyond. Two students took advantage of the School of Science’s Summer Research Program to examine COVID’s effect on the environment, to sometimes surprising results. Despite restrictions from the pandemic on in-person teaching, students delved into their enquiries using a wealth of data, honing their independent research skills.

In their two research projects, Liana Garcia ’21 and Justin Eisenmann ’21, mentored by Chemistry Professor Joel Burley, looked at the interconnections between air quality and the COVID-19 pandemic. They examined data to see whether there has been a reduction in pollution given COVID’s restrictions on traveling and whether areas known for bad air pollution have faced worsening conditions during the pandemic.

Burley acknowledged that this was no ordinary summer. “The need for social distancing dramatically changed the way I had to conduct business,” Burley said. “Normally for the students who work with me, there are multiple facets to the activities that we pursue. Since 2003, we have operated solar-powered air-pollution monitors in national forests and national parks. And the students would go with me on trips to install these monitors, then go periodically and download the data, and then to remove them in early October before the snow came back. Unfortunately, we had to cut that part out because you can’t really socially distance.”

“I give my two students this summer, a lot of credit, Justin and Liana,” Burley noted. “Basically, we accessed online databases of air pollution, and they were able to investigate their questions. In this particular summer, they had to demonstrate a higher level of independence and initiative."

Senior Chemistry major Liana Garcia focused on air pollution in her project, How Long-Term PM2.5 Exposure Affects International COVID-19 Mortality and Morbidity Rates. “I chose to study this because Harvard came out with study in April saying people who had a longer-term exposure to PM 2.5 (a toxic air pollutant) were more likely to die of COVID,” said Garcia. She gathered data from credible websites, looking at both death and total cases, and compared them across countries that had the highest number of deaths and worst air pollution in the past.

Garcia’s results were inconclusive, she said, in part because the Harvard study considered numerous factors using advanced-level coding beyond the scope of her project. In her studies, she found, for instance, that “China and India had lower cases and deaths even though they’re the worst countries with air pollution,” she said. “I came to the conclusion that this might have been due to when lockdown started because China was one of the first to lock down, so they had the number of deaths more under control. Whereas, India didn’t shut down till a little later. But I couldn’t come to a conclusion as to why their cases/deaths were lower despite bad air pollution.”

Garcia felt the Summer Research Program was worthwhile despite needing to work from a distance due to COVID. “Given the restrictions, it went a lot better than expected. I was nervous about how everything would play out; I’m used to doing labs with professors and other people. Doing everything remotely and getting used to that did make me nervous. It ended up working really well because I didn’t need to go out and do anything. It’s amazing how much you can find on the Internet. We did miss out on trips because our professor has national park monitoring stations. But he did still make it fun,” Garcia concluded.


Senior in C hemistry Justin Eisenmann’s project, Air Quality Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the United States, examined the relationship between air quality and COVID here at home. “My research was an attempt to prove the hypothesis presented by many institutions and even more numerous news sources that the COVID-19 shutdowns reduced air pollution,” he said. “I tried a few locations before finding a state-by-state breakdown of air quality in America from the University of Washington, and it claimed that Arizona had one of the biggest reductions of air pollution. So, I made Arizona my focus and combed through all of the data available.

“Unfortunately,” Eisenmann added, “I found that the difference was about the same as the standard deviation—that the data was not conclusive despite matching closely with what the University ofWashington reported. They didn’t factor in the standard deviation. Thus, I didn’t find any evidence in any place that air quality significantly improved,” Eisenmann said.

Eisenmann admitted feeling restricted by the pandemic this summer. “For this team, we were entirely remote,” he noted. “While that was serviceable for my project, I really enjoy working with instruments and being outdoors, so I was disappointed to not be doing the field work.” 

Burley remains enthusiastic about the Summer Research Program’s future. “I see the Summer Research Program as one of the best things we have in the School of Science, so valuable in terms of research experience,” he said. “It gives students a chance to say, “‘Hey, I really do enjoy research, and maybe I should consider going to graduate school,’” he added. “Hopefully, next year there will be a return of sorts to normalcy, and we’ll be able to get back to doing most of the research activities that we would like to do.”

For more information on the School of Science’s Summer Research Program, click here.