Date August 17, 2022
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Olivia McClain: Exploring hyperlocal air pollution in Providence

As a summer research assistant in Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, McClain is supporting research and building community connections.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The majority of Rhode Island residents are breathing unhealthy air, including elevated levels of ozone and particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association.

This summer, Brown senior Olivia McClain is helping to develop a hyperlocal understanding of the air pollution and its impact on individuals and community environmental health.

Since June, McClain has been a research assistant for a project led by Meredith Hastings, a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown and the deputy director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. Called Breathe Providence, the year-long project is siting 25 air pollution monitors across the city to test for seven pollutants, including carbon monoxide and dioxide, ozone, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, such as dust, soot or smoke. The pilot project is part of a global initiative funded by the Clean Air Fund in partnership with organizations such as the City of Providence, the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, the American Lung Association, and the Conservation Law Foundation, among others.

“We’re creating a neighborhood-scale air quality monitoring network,” McClain said. “We’ve been calibrating and siting the BEACO2N sensors, driving out to different parts of neighborhoods, taking pictures, and communicating with different building managers to identify locations to set them up safely.”

As a member of the six-person research team, McClain has been poring over reports and information — such as Providence’s Climate Justice Plan, co-developed by the City of Providence’s Office of Sustainability and the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee of Providence — and establishing community partnerships.

McClain has met with grassroots organizations, neighborhood groups, the Rhode Island Department of Health and other agencies. The team is also developing a related educational curriculum and designing modules that will incorporate environmental justice and air quality education into local high school science curriculum.

“We don’t want to create data that are hard for people to use and not connected to the people most affected by air pollution,” McClain said. “We want it to have real impact in the community.”

McClain’s experience with the air quality research project is a fitting culmination of her environmental science concentration at Brown.

“It’s a very cool marriage of data, hard science and chemistry,” McClain said, “with direct policy impacts, community engagement, community empowerment and environmental justice.”

During her studies at Brown, McClain has served as co-president of the Brown Outing Club and taught Earth science to Providence third graders as a volunteer with the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences Science-Teaching and Education Program (DEEPS STEPS), among other activities.

McClain said her experience with Breathe Providence has expanded her perspective, particularly the interviews with community members and organizations.

“As students, we spend so much time on College Hill, and it’s been really empowering to be involved with the Providence community and connecting what I’m learning in the classroom to the people,” McClain said. “As an environmental science concentrator, it helps ground you and ask the important questions: Who do you feel accountable to? Who are you doing the research for? And who do you want to be the ultimate benefactor of your work?”

McClain will complete her bachelor of science degree requirements in December as one of Brown’s “.5ers.” She paused her studies in Fall 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to work as a Democratic field organizer during the 2020 presidential election in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, which was “a huge learning opportunity,” she recalled.

For her final semester, she’ll study abroad in Monteverde, Costa Rica, before returning home to West Bend, Wisconsin. She’ll carry this summer’s research experience as she eyes a future career in her field, such as community resilience or educational outreach.

“It’s been impactful getting this sideview into the chemistry and the data,” McClain reflected. “It emphasizes how important those connections are — and the importance of building a powerful team of people.”