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SURF Students Wave Hello to Top Award

Geography undergraduates’ winning research finds that more than 400 schools totaling 250,000 students are exposed daily to an air pollution volume 3.5 times the already elevated Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority emissions standard.

Kevin Kelly (left) and Ryan Drap, both seniors majoring in geography in USC College, stand next to their poster mapping out the air pollution levels near all roads in Los Angeles County. The poster and research won a top award by the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers. Students Austen Lee and Juan Morales were also on the winning team. The students had participated in the College's Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF). Photo credit Taylor Foust.
Kevin Kelly (left) and Ryan Drap, both seniors majoring in geography in USC College, stand next to their poster mapping out the air pollution levels near all roads in Los Angeles County. The poster and research won a top award by the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers. Students Austen Lee and Juan Morales were also on the winning team. The students had participated in the College's Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF). Photo credit Taylor Foust.

USC College's Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) has made a splashy entrance.

After the program's second official year, research produced by SURF students has won a top honor from the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers. Competing against more than a dozen universities, the students took home the association’s President’s Award for Outstanding Student Poster Presentation.

The geography students’ research project examined the exposure of children attending schools in Los Angeles County to vehicle-emitted gases — which have been linked to increased respiratory illnesses, decreased lung function and aggravated asthma.

While previous Southern California studies have limited such research to the volume of pollution near major freeways, the students’ research mapped out the exposure level of all countywide roads, regardless of type or size.

Their analysis revealed that the volume of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) at the intersections of major side streets can reach emission numbers similar to highways. More than 400 schools totaling 250,000 students are exposed daily to an air pollution volume 3.5 times the already elevated Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority emissions standard, the study concluded.

Children attending these schools should be monitored closely for health problems related to this elevated exposure, the study said.

“There were schools that weren’t necessarily right next to the highway that were also at risk,” said senior Kevin Kelly, the student team leader.

“Finding out how much NO2 we are actually breathing in at any given time in Los Angeles was pretty interesting,” added Ryan Drap, a research student who also won the award along with Austen Lee and Juan Morales, who serves in the Army and was recently deployed to Afghanistan.

The study noted that in 2004, California passed a law prohibiting the construction of new schools within 500 feet of a freeway or busy corridor. But research demonstrates that children’s health can be adversely affected when attending schools as far away as 1,000 feet from freeways. Currently, there are more than 400 schools countywide within 1,000 feet of major highways, the study said.

Students also looked at the layout of campuses. At times, they found that open playgrounds were built closer to freeways than were closed offices and classrooms on school grounds.

“They had to go out and map each campus and see how big a NO2 footprint each one had,” said Steve Koletty, a lecturer of geography in the College, referring to the geocoding conducted by students. Koletty supervised the winning team’s research along with Jennifer Swift, assistant professor of geography.

The undergrads collected their award during the association’s annual meeting in San Diego early October. During the ceremony, students presented their research before an audience of scholars.

“You hardly ever hear of an opportunity for undergraduates to do this kind of presentation,” Koletty said. “By having them present, we wanted to say to them, ‘Your work has value and is respected. This program wasn’t just something to keep you off the streets during the summer.’

“The prize was just the icing on the cake.”  

The SURF program is meant to expose undergrads to research methodology early on. The idea is to create a four-year path where students pursue their research projects throughout their academic careers — thereby challenging the semester-at-a-time model of undergraduate learning.