By Peggy Mullin (B.S. Environment and Ecology ’19)
Air pollution poses major human health concerns around the globe, ranging from respiratory and cardiovascular disease to premature death. Modeling and predicting air quality scenarios can be complicated and messy because they require countless environmental variables, such as meteorology, geography, emissions sources and more, factored into the equation. But, this messy problem—and finding new ways to address it—is the focal point of research for UNC Institute for the Environment’s (IE) newly appointed deputy director Sarav Arunachalam. Through his position at IE, along with his recent appointment as chair of the American Meteorological Society’s Committee on Meteorological Aspects of Air Pollution (CMAAP), Arunachalam is leading the charge toward inter-institutional collaboration and more accurate modeling of ambient air, to understand the sources of air pollution, and how to reduce them.
“Sarav’s excellent research program has long been a huge contributor to IE’s productivity,” says Michael Piehler, director of the UNC Institute for the Environment. “His appointment as deputy director will provide additional benefits to the Institute through his leadership and keen insights into research strategy.”
Arunachalam is a chemical engineer by trade. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Anna University in Chennai, India, in 1989, then later moved to the United States to pursue his Master’s and Ph.D. in the subject at Rutgers University in central New Jersey.
“I worked with a professor who had a joint appointment at Rutgers and the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to study air pollution modeling as part of my dissertation, and that really set the stage for my career,” Arunachalam says. “I learned an incredible amount, gained valuable knowledge on how to apply mathematical models to approach real-world environmental problems focused on air quality in the U.S., and I even got my two degrees as a bonus,” Arunachalam recalls of his time and long evenings at Rutgers as a graduate student, which provided the foundation of his career to date.
Around the time he graduated from his doctoral program at Rutgers in 1998, Arunachalam was invited by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to come on board as a researcher and policy advisor in the realm of air pollution research and modeling. There, he gained even more on-the-ground experience on various issues faced by local air pollution agencies that are at the intersection of science and policy.
In 1999, Arunachalam was offered a position in Research Triangle Park with MCNC, a technology non-profit that, at the time, was developing cutting-edge air quality modeling systems and predictive software to model the environment. These models were the prototypes for a suite of systems used globally for air quality management. One of the key contributions that Arunachalam made at MCNC was using these models to provide the scientific basis for North Carolina’s historic Clean Smokestacks Act in 2002, which led to drastic reductions in emissions of nitrogen and sulfur oxides from some of the largest coal-burning power plants in the state.
After a few years with MCNC, Arunachalam was presented with an even more unique opportunity—to join UNC’s Institute for the Environment as an assistant professor and researcher. Since accepting that position more than 15 years ago, Arunachalam has sved as a keystone member of Carolina’s environmental program.
Though initially brought on as a research scientist, Arunachalam has worn many hats during his time at UNC.
“My primary appointment was research, but I had an opportunity to teach a class (ENST 202), which I really found interesting and challenging. There’s one set of skills to teach people who are science-y, but there’s a whole different set of skills to teach environmental science to people who come from philosophy or even music backgrounds.”
This intersectionality, and the promotion of information sharing across disciplines, is a common theme with Arunachalam. Through the Community Modeling and Analysis System (CMAS) Center, he develops courses and teaches individuals from all over the world who are interested in learning how to use the latest air quality models for scientific research and informed policy making. The classes consist of a few hours of lecture, followed by delving into learning through practice, problem-solving and in-class activities.
“I’ve taught CMAS classes for about the past 10 years, 3 or 4 times a year, hosted initially on-site at UNC,” Arunachalam says. “They’ve been very successful, and we’ve also expanded the teaching of these classes to outside the U.S. We teach them these state-of-the-art air quality models that they can then take and use to study air pollution in their own respective areas, under very different conditions. It has been a great way to reach a wide audience throughout the world, and this has also led to some interesting collaborative initiatives, with groups that you may not have interacted with otherwise.”
In recent years, Arunachalam has taken on even more leadership roles within the UNC community, going from assistant, to associate, to full research professor in 2017, as well as taking on the role of deputy director for the UNC Institute for the Environment. He hopes to guide the Institute in the direction of collaborative science.
In addition to serving as deputy director of the Institute, Arunachalam also was recently appointed by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), one of the oldest professional societies in the country, as chair of their Committee for Meteorological Aspects of Air Pollution. As AMS approaches its centennial anniversary this year, he hopes to utilize his position to steer the committee, which has members all across the world, toward effective interpretation and collaboration of environmental research on a global scale. A key activity for this committee next year is to organize a conference as part of the upcoming AMS Centennial celebrations in 2020, and as co-chair of this conference, Arunachalam looks forward to the challenges and opportunities this may present for even more collaborations.
“UNC is a great institution. The amount of skills we have on campus across countless disciplines is hard to match, especially with the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) right upstairs in the Europa Center and the Gillings School of Global Public Health and School of Medicine on campus,” says Arunachalam.
Arunachalam is a collaborator on the National Institutes of Health-funded Biomedical Data Translator project with colleagues from across UNC. The goal of the multi-year project is to develop a data set that integrates vast amounts of currently available medical data to accelerate the development of new medical treatments.
“Having environmental exposure data fused with patient data enables us to potentially reduce readmission rates of high-risk patients,” says Dr. David B. Peden, Harry S. Andrews Professor of Pediatrics, director of the UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology and a collaborator on the data translator initiative.
“Sarav and his colleagues at the Institute for the Environment have been instrumental in providing critical environmental data that will help practitioners better treat patients, especially those with conditions that are aggravated by environmental factors,” adds Stanley Ahalt, director of RENCI and professor of computer science at UNC. Ahalt is a co-principal investigator of the data translator initiative.
Recently, his research has shifted to focus on studying air pollution from transportation sources, like planes, cars, ships and trains. The interdisciplinary nature of his research lends itself well to collaboration throughout the Triangle and beyond, as some of his recent initiatives with Google on developing web-based modeling systems to study traffic-related air pollution demonstrate.
“With rapid increase in urbanization everywhere and the associated increase in traffic activity, there is a concerted need to assist cities and states manage urban air pollution, and developing such tools will go a long way to help make informed decisions for sustainable growth,” he says.
Arunachalam’s research has been recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration with the inaugural Department of Transportation’s Center of Excellence ‘Faculty of the Year’ award in 2008 for his work on characterizing impacts of aircraft emissions on air quality, and by the EPA on multiple instances for his work on characterizing near-road air quality.
He also enjoys mentoring graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill and training the next generation of air quality scientists as they develop their dissertations.
“Overall, the challenge that I really enjoy is to put together multidisciplinary teams from diverse backgrounds, and to see how to solve these big problems related to air pollution and health,” says Arunachalam. “I think by bringing in people from multiple disciplines both within UNC and throughout the triangle and beyond, we can solve bigger and complex problems, more than we could ever do by ourselves.”