FEATURES • Summer 2001

Jay Turner, associate professor of chemical and civil engineering, is working on EPA-funded projects to discern how airborne particles contribute to air pollution and to investigate alternatives to wastewater management. His devotion to research spills over into the classroom, and many of his students help with his important research.

By Jeanne Erdmann

We may not give a second thought to clean air or clean water until we are stuck in rush-hour traffic on a sweltering St. Louis summer day and then come home to find that our sewer has backed up into the laundry room. At these moments, it becomes apparent that clean air and water are major concerns. Well, take heart. Jay Turner, associate professor of chemical and civil engineering and director of Washington University's Air Quality Laboratory, is hard at work on several projects that address these issues.

In one project, a nationwide effort funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Turner is measuring airborne particles to figure out which ones are pollutants. Although gases, such as ozone, contribute to air pollution, particles can be troublesome as well. But just how troublesome? Scientists know that airborne particles come in different shapes, sizes, and composition, and even the tiniest particles can pose problems. But scientists need to know more.

Leading the St. Louis-Midwest Supersite for the U.S. EPA Supersites Program, Turner, D.Sc. '93, is measuring particle pollutants at three sites in the St. Louis area. Several other universities and research institutes—the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, University of Maryland, Desert Research Institute of the University of Nevada, Harvard School of Public Health, and one private-sector participant: EPRI (formerly the Electric Power Research Institute)—also are participating in the St. Louis study. Scientists want to know how many particles are in the air, where they come from, how big they are, and what they are made of.

Scientists already know that as we speed along the highway, our tires kick up bits of dust and rubber. What's more, cars, trucks, and home furnaces exhale fumes. When industrial emissions are added to the mix, the result is a haze of airborne particles that hangs over many U.S. cities. Because airborne particles are increasingly being linked to health problems, including respiratory diseases, heart problems, and cancer, parallel studies—conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and the EPA—will look at health effects of particle pollution.

"The easiest way to visualize airborne particles is to exhale outside on a cold day and watch the fog come out of your mouth when water vapor forms water droplets. The same thing happens in the atmosphere due to different chemistry," explains Turner. "Under certain conditions individual molecules come together and form particles. In the summer in St. Louis, humidity and levels of different ingredients come together and form a chemical soup."

Figuring out the ingredients in the "soup" will not be easy. Turner and his colleagues will measure fine particles 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for an entire year. Similar research is being conducted at supersites in six other cities: Atlanta, New York, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles, and Fresno, California. Powerful measurement technologies make this work possible, but the equipment itself may add a few challenges. Among the key issues is that some of the instruments are either in the prototype stage or only recently commercialized. Thus, whether the equipment is durable and can respond to differing environmental conditions encountered during a full year of research is unknown.

"We don't even know what to anticipate yet, but there are all kinds of factors that will make it exciting. And there may be many late nights," says Turner.

His colleagues say Turner's enthusiasm and organizational skills are critical to the success of such a large project. "Professor Turner is building very solid science so that—based on that science—one can make very judicious decisions on which to base legislation," says Milorad P. Dudukovic, the Laura and William Jens Professor of Chemical Engineering and chair of the chemical engineering department.

Associate Professor Jay Turner checks the inlet to a particulate matter air sampler. This type of sampler is used to determine compliance with federal air-quality standards for fine particulate matter.

Like many successful people, Turner combines preparation with good timing. After spending a comfortable childhood in rural Pennsylvania, Turner moved with his family to the San Francisco area when he was in junior high school. For him, this was the perfect move at the right time. Living in a small town had taught him that anyone could participate—all it took was effort. Turner brought those sensibilities to the San Francisco suburbs, where life was more competitive. He picked a few things—music, sailing, and cycling—that interested him and excelled in them. Sailing became such a passion, Turner arranged his high-school senior-year class schedule so that afternoons left him free to sail. His interest in clean air and water budded, as well.

For college, Turner headed south to UCLA, where he received bachelor's and master's degrees, both in chemical engineering in 1987. While at UCLA, Turner met Dudukovic, who was there on sabbatical. After working as a research assistant and visiting fellow at the University of Duisburg, Germany, Turner came to Washington University in 1987 for doctoral work in Dudukovic's lab. He has remained at the University and even married within the "WU family"; seven years ago, Turner married Sandra Wilkie, M.S.W. '91. The two met while he was working on a doctoral degree and she was working toward a master's degree at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work.

Megan Yu, graduate student in environmental engineering, services a portable air sampler used in saturation studies to measure pollutants at high spatial resolution.

Since graduate school, Turner has been fascinated by the science of pollution, which keeps his interest pointing skyward and even toward the ground—groundwater, that is. Turner also has been awarded an EPA grant to investigate sewer systems. Whether we live in cities or rural areas, we need effective methods for treating wastewater. Although sewers are used in cities and septic fields in rural areas, alternative systems may be more appropriate in certain cases.

"This grant will look at innovative programs to treat wastewater, such as decentralized water systems. There are all kinds of creative ideas; the problem is, these systems are not easy to characterize. It may take a decade or more to know if they work," says Turner. "We will be looking at a group of projects, ranging from fundamental research to ways of addressing regulatory barriers that often keep an alternative decentralized system from being considered, no less implemented."

While Turner spends a great deal of time conducting research, he is also dedicated to teaching and developing curriculum. While in graduate school, Turner, along with Dudukovic and William P. Darby, then chair of the Department of Engineering and Policy, began developing an undergraduate minor in environmental engineering science. Later, Turner developed and taught several courses in the program.

Turner says part of the enjoyment of teaching comes from watching students grow and develop intellectually. He works students hard but says they rise to the challenge. "Our students might have heard about ozone depletion or global warming, but we make them get 'down and dirty' with the math and with the models, and then they get it. That's the exciting part," says Turner. "By the end of the semester, if they understand the problem solving and if they can pick up the 'Science' section of the Tuesday New York Times and understand the science behind what's written to the point they can say, 'I agree and here's the chemistry why,' then we've done our jobs."

Although graduate students are expected to spend long nights and weekends in the research lab, eager undergraduates also join Turner's research team. Recently, Turner and an undergraduate, Scott Duthie, spent several full weekend days installing air particle monitors for the EPA project. "If students want to participate in a project and give it the time it needs, they can help me," says Turner.

Doctoral candidate Garima Bhatia, M.S. '98, came to the University's chemical engineering department because it offered a wide range of fields in which to work. Once here, she chose to work with Turner in the area of environmental reaction engineering.

Bhatia says of Turner, "He is very involved with his students' work and is always available to help, whether sitting with you at the computer to figure out a problem, or working with you on your experiment in the laboratory."

This commitment to students has earned Turner four Engineering Professor of the Year awards, an honor voted by seniors in the engineering school, and two Student Union Engineering Professor of the Year awards.

Warren White, research associate in chemistry, taught Turner's air pollution class while Turner was on assignment with the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., during the first eight months of 1994. White, who will be analyzing data on the particle project, says he was impressed with the meticulous class notes Turner left behind.

"Jay pulls things together and integrates them very well," says White. "He is the epitome of the scientist-teacher because he not only is doing research that benefits the country but he also is training a very much-needed new generation of people to carry it forward. Jay is a wonderful asset to the University."

In one project, a nationwide effort funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Turner is measuring airborne particles to figure out which ones are pollutants. Although gases, such as ozone, contribute to air pollution, particles can be troublesome as well.

Jeanne Erdmann is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

For more information, visit: www.seas.wustl.edu/user/jrturner/.

 

 

 

 

Left: Students help Associate Professor Jay Turner (foreground) study airborne particles. Megan Ruegg (left), Class of ’01 (chemical engineering), and Garima Bhatia, doctoral candidate in chemical engineering, are programming a portable air sampler for particulate matter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below: A SUMMA canister is used for collecting gas samples of volatile organic compounds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


In one project, a nationwide effort funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Turner is measuring airborne particles to figure out which ones are pollutants. Although gases, such as ozone, contribute to air pollution, particles can be troublesome as well.