School of Public Health researchers awarded grant for purchase of real-time air quality measurement device

The proton transfer reaction time-of-flight mass spectrometer will establish the mRAPiD Core Lab, making Texas A&M a leader in disaster research response
August 28, 2020

Texas A&M University School of Public Health professors Natalie Johnson, PhD, and Thomas J. McDonald, PhD, are part of a team that was recently awarded an internal research development grant from the Texas A&M Research Development Fund (RDF). The team was awarded nearly $500,000 for a proton transfer reaction time-of-flight mass spectrometer which can be used in both a laboratory and field setting.

The instrument, which will fulfill the need for a direct, real-time air quality measurement, will be used to establish the Mobile Responding to Air Pollution in Disasters (mRAPiD) Core Lab, which will coordinate both lab-based and field-based rapid response to disasters across Texas. The device will make Texas A&M a leader in disaster research response.

“Additionally, the device can be coupled with a breathing tube which can be used for breath analysis,” Johnson said. “This may possess high potential to identify chemical fingerprints associated with disease risk. Other researchers are applying this technology to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

According to Johnson, who served as the lead on the proposal, the establishment of the mRAPiD Core Lab would significantly broaden the ability of School of Public Health researchers to investigate the health impacts associated with exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can negatively impact air quality.

“Following environmental or man-made disasters, it is difficult to determine the concentrations and distributions of chemicals reaching neighborhoods,” Johnson said. “This instrument will allow our team to better characterize exposures with known effects, as well as identify potential new chemicals that may pose a hazard.”

Johnson, who is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and vice chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Toxicology, has initiated community-engaged programs along the Texas-Mexico border to investigate the impact of air pollution on childhood asthma, and has found that VOCs may play a role in exacerbating the disease in children in South Texas.

She also leads a National Institutes of Health-funded project that explores the mechanisms of increased infant respiratory tract infections following prenatal exposure to particulate matter air pollution.

While the device will be used to establish the Core Lab, it will also be mobile, allowing researchers to deploy the unit for field research and move it to different sites throughout the state of Texas. The device’s mobility will give researchers the ability to collect unique data they may not otherwise be able to replicate.

“With the mRAPiD core, we will be able to provide Texas A&M researchers access to measuring environmental exposures in real-time, which will be used to inform multiple stakeholders, including community members,” Johnson said.

McDonald, Regents Professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, has extensive experience in applying mass spectrometry methods to quantify environmental exposure in air and water.

He serves as the director of research translation core for the NIH-funded Texas A&M Superfund Research Center, which focuses on rapid response to environmental disasters, with a current focus on soil and water contamination.

Recent events in the Houston area, such as Hurricane Harvey, have made the ability to rapidly characterize air pollution following natural and man-made disasters paramount, and mRAPiD would aid in this endeavor, significantly promoting public health in Texas.

The device will be used by researchers in seven colleges (public health, geosciences, veterinary medicine, medicine, architecture and urban planning, engineering, and agriculture and life sciences) and eight departments across the Texas A&M Bryan-College Station campus. When not in use in the field, it will be stored at the School of Public Health.

The Research Development Fund (RDF) was developed by Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University Health Science Center (Texas A&M Health), Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station and Texas A&M AgriLife Research to be utilized for strategic investments that support the total Texas A&M research enterprise and catalyze new ventures.

The investments are likely to be in the areas of core research facilities and equipment and their initial operation; strategic investments in the creation of core facilities and significant renovations of existing core facilities; and investment in faculty development and support for competing for exceptionally large projects. The fund will support faculty research across those administrative units participating in the fund.

— Tim Schnettler

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