In its first year of existence, the University of Utah's Center of Excellence for Exposure Health Informatics (CEEHI), housed in the College of Nursing, is giving researchers a better understanding of the complex interactions between the world around us and the world within us.
Medical researchers have long known that environmental factors can affect a person's health. But for most of medical history, it's been nearly impossible to study exactly how long-term exposures to environmental factors play a role.
CEEHI was established in late 2019 as a multi-disciplinary center to investigate those links, says Kathy Sward, PhD. Sward co-directs CEEHI with Julio Facelli, PhD, vice chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics. The center uses exposure health informatics to study long and short-term environmental effects on human health by taking advantage of new technology that allows higher spatial and temporal resolution in making those measurements.
CEEHI uses cutting-edge technology to find much-needed precise data to solve problems. It also provides students with first-hand experience in this emerging field of informatics research.
Using new technology to solve old problems
Difficulty getting higher-resolution data about things like air quality have long dogged researchers, Facelli says. Historically, for example, a single expensive air quality sensor would have been used to gather data about air quality for an entire city. However, researchers at CEEHI have taken advantage of the “Internet of things.” They now use low-cost, durable, and widely available sensors to build more targeted, higher-resolution information.
"Costs per sensor have gone down by orders of magnitude," says Kerry Kelly, an assistant professor of chemical engineering. Whereas sensors used to cost thousands of dollars, newer smaller, cheaper sensors can be had for $10 to $100, she says.
Students get hands-on experience
Kelly notes how electrical engineering students helped develop a robust manufacturing process that has allowed for deployment of hundreds of sensors across the valley. Other students developed and built a low-cost sensor using Legos and won an invitation to the National Science Fair.
"There are plenty of opportunities for students to be involved," Kelly says. "I have undergraduate through postgraduate students working on this."
"We get some opportunities for really interesting collaborations across students who may not have had an opportunity to work together, like nursing and engineering," Sward adds. "That's been one of the really beautiful aspects of CEEHI."
Kelly says one goal of the air quality research is to convince people to change their behavior in ways that reduce air pollution. Her team is working with engineers and behavioral economists to develop and display real-time air quality information to motorists and encourage them not to idle their vehicles. The effect would be similar to speed limit signs that flash at drivers who are speeding.
"It turns out those are quite effective at not only reducing your speeding, but at reducing accidents in the area," Kelly says. "It's not because it tells you you're doing the wrong thing, it's because it tells you and everyone around you that you're not doing the right thing."
CEEHI’s directors believe its research should also help researchers tackle worldwide problems by giving them a better understanding of the interplay between external and internal factors that affect a person's health, such as infection with COVID-19 combined with pre-existing health problems and exposure to air pollution, Facelli says. Now, researchers can have accurate spatial and time-based information to gauge how harmful long or short-term exposure to environmental pollutants is. Still, it will require a lot of research, data, and sorting through the information.
"It's hard work, but all the easy problems in science have been solved, so what are you going to do?" says Facelli.