Posted November 11th, 2016 by Andrew Connolly

ChemE PhD student finds breath of fresh air in the Netherlands

  • “The convergence of a healthy biking culture and few cars in the heart of the city is truly a breath of fresh air,

    “The convergence of a healthy biking culture and few cars in the heart of the city is truly a breath of fresh air," says Kerolyn Shairsingh (ChemE PhD candidate) about Utrecht, where she has been on research exchange since October 2016. (Courtesy: Kerolyn Shairsingh)

To learn more about air pollution in Canada, Kerolyn Shairsingh (ChemE PhD candidate) travelled to the Netherlands. Since early October she has been on exchange at Utrecht University, part of a three-way international research collaboration between the University of Toronto, Utrecht University and The Chinese University of Hong Kong that represents U of T’s first-ever tripartite research collaboration.

Shairsingh’s PhD research is part of The Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium (CANUE), which is trying to explain the complex relationships between disease and exposure to pollution.

“What if your lifestyle habits and your exposure to certain pollutants, whether from air or water, have more influence on you than you imagined?” asks Shairsingh.

In order to answer this question, her project tries to quantify the amount and type of pollution people are exposed to based on where they live. The problem, however, is that people move around, and predictive models are often based on specific locations. It isn’t easy to predict the pollution exposure for someone born in downtown Toronto who then moves to Richmond Hill, for example.

That’s where Shairsingh’s research comes in.

Shairsingh develops air pollution concentration maps with Professors Jeffrey Brook and Greg Evans (ChemE) in U of T’s Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research (SOCAAR). She takes models designed to help predict pollutant exposure in specific urban areas and makes them transferrable to other areas.

For example, current models measure levels of pollutants such as nitrogen oxide, which can come from local sources, such as car exhaust on your street, and background sources, such as emissions from industrial agriculture in the American Midwest. Shairsingh says that these two sources are quite different.

“Think of it like a mousse cake,” she explains. “The car exhaust is like the jiggly mousse on top of the dense cake layer, which is like an air mass from North America.”

Shairsingh’s work separates predictive models into two parts that reflect the distinct sources of pollutants, and then works to understand how pollutants from each source behave differently. The results of her work will be better, more transferable predictive models.

While the research opportunity was the central motivation for the exchange, Shairshingh says she is enjoying her time in the Netherlands.

“Utrecht has a charm that brings together old traditional townscapes with modern living,” she explains. “The convergence of a healthy biking culture and few cars in the heart of the city is truly a breath of fresh air.”

Joining Shairsingh in Utrecht is Joseph Okeme, a PhD student with Professor Miriam Diamond at the University of Toronto Scarborough’s Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences.