ChemE Phd Student finds breath of fresh air in Netherlands

Since early October, ChemE PhD student Kerolyn Shairsingh has been on exchange at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. The exchange is part of a three-way research collaboration between the University of Toronto, Utrecht University and The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and represents U of T’s first ever tripartite research collaboration.

Shairsingh is working on the Exposome project that is trying to explain the relationship between disease and exposure to pollution.

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

In order to answer this question, the project tries to predict the amount and type of pollution people are exposed to based on where they live. The problem, however, is that people don’t always stay in one spot, 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 Jeff Brook and Greg Evans 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 it easier to transfer them to other areas.

For example, current models measure levels of pollutants like nitrogen oxide, which can come from local sources (like car exhaust) and background sources (like air mass from North America). 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 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.