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William & Mary researcher wins federal grant to study emissions in coastal cities

Rachel O'Brien.jpg
Posted at 1:33 PM, Oct 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-14 23:07:25-04

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. - A local researcher just won a federal grant to study how manmade and natural emissions impact health and the environment.

Rachel O'Brien is an assistant professor of chemistry at William & Mary, with much of her research focusing on aerosols — solid and liquid particles suspended in the air.

She's been eager to learn more about how emissions from cities and natural emissions from the ocean mix and how that mixture connects to the climate and human health.

This week, the federal government announced O'Brien and her research partners at the University of Michigan would get $600,000 to find out the answer. The grant comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

O'Brien and her team, which will include undergraduate and graduate students, aim to collect air samples from New York City and study the aerosols they contain.

A megacity in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean, she says, offers the perfect testing site - not only because of the high vehicle traffic, but the number of beauty products, sprays and scents used by millions of people.

"The information that we get is going to tell us about how these chemicals combine together to increase the concentration or the size of these particles which can have impacts for how they're going to influence both the local climate as well as human health," O'Brien told News 3.

It's research she believes will have reverberating effects up and down the coast, including in Hampton Roads.

"Even though we don't have the same level of emissions down here as we do in New York, the chemistry is still gonna be very similar," O'Brien said.

As are the health impacts. O'Brien says research shows air quality has a direct impact on illnesses like asthma and even heart disease.

Her team aims to conduct a preliminary study in New York next summer, with the full study beginning in 2023.

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