RVAir Improves Air Quality Research Through Community Scientists

February 15, 2022
UR students participate in ongoing project with the Science Museum of Virginia
By Madyson Fitzgerald, '23, Communications Assistant for Equity & Community

Anyone can become a community scientist through RVAir and measure air quality by simply taking a walk.

RVAir is the Science Museum of Virginia's latest community science project. The purpose of the project is to create a comprehensive air quality map for Richmond neighborhoods with the help of community members.

Community science, as defined by the Science Museum, is a collaboration between scientists and public volunteers to gather information about real-world problems. Through individuals and community partners, the Museum has been able to collect valuable information about particulate matter, a mixture of microscopic particles in the air that has been linked with cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Todd Lookingbill, the chair of the geography and the environment department and associate professor of biology, said that the University of Richmond has been working with the Science Museum for about five years. The partnership, he said, started with a heat mapping campaign in the summer of 2016.

The Science Museum then transitioned its focus from temperature to air quality, Lookingbill said. Citizen science had been a critical part of the whole campaign. One day over the summer, they were able to collect hundreds of thousands of measurements with just 40 to 50 volunteers, he said.

"We calculated the 'person hours' associated with that, and it would have taken me — if I were doing that all by myself — over three months of constant sampling," Lookingbill said. "We were able to accomplish that in one day with the citizens, so that's one huge advantage, to allow a whole bunch of more data to be collected."

Volunteers with RVAir are encouraged to place air quality sensors on their homes, businesses, schools, and organizations. Volunteers can also participate in guided walks with members of the Science Museum to measure air quality throughout Richmond's neighborhoods using mobile sensors.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranks Richmond as the third most challenging place to live with asthma. According to the Science Museum, air quality ratings are based on regional "airsheds." Air quality, however, can be understood more locally by assessing street width, traffic volume, tree coverage, and so much more.

RVAir aims to study local air quality data to create solutions for the city as a result.

RVAir volunteers also get the chance to learn more about policy-making decisions regarding air quality, Lookingbill said.

"By having folks think consciously about air quality or temperature, it raises the profile of those issues in the city," Lookingbill said. "We've seen those issues become more important in city planning and, as a result, as we've engaged more and more kinds of people in the city in these efforts, then it's become easier to get support behind actions that will improve air quality."

Kelly Saverino, a biology major and WGSS minor, began her journey with the Science Museum her freshman year. After completing the Integrative Quantitative Science program her first year at UR, Saverino was given a grant to do summer research. That summer, she joined Lookingbill in their project to collect heat data through the Science Museum.

"I've always been really passionate about the environment," Saverino said, "and just being involved by trying to actually make a difference."

Both the air quality measurements and heat data that they collected in the city was related to the history of Richmond itself, Saverino said. Historically, Richmond has experienced a lot of redlining.

"This is still prominent today," Saverino said. "You can see the effects of these historical zoning policies. Now, the poor air quality that is more prominent downtown in the more industrial areas disproportionately affects certain populations of Richmond's people and communities."

Saverino continued doing research, and published a paper in January: "Thermal Inequity in Richmond, VA: The Effect of an Unjust Evolution of the Urban Landscape on Urban Heat Islands."

Sarah Page Steffens, a senior majoring in biology and minoring in environmental studies, discovered the significance of air quality last year in one of Dr. Lookingbill's geography classes. This past spring, Steffens asked Lookingbill about doing heat mapping research through the Science Museum. It was there that she met Devin Jefferson, a community science catalyst at the Science Museum, and the rest of the RVAir team. She received a Burhans Civic Fellowship from the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement to pursue research last summer.

"It was really interesting to see the actual data unfold in Richmond," Steffens said. "It's really rewarding to be able to see the fruits of your labor in real time."

"I think we're able to grapple with the challenge of air, which is kind of a hard thing to touch and feel," Lookingbill said. "But we're realizing its importance a little bit more."

Photo: Hector Gomez and Sarah Page Steffens