Before I began my research project “Investigation of Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality in China and United States: Volatile Organic Compounds”, I had never experienced the feeling of holding a project so near and dear to my heart that I would fall asleep thinking about it and wake up in the morning having the project on my mind. So, needless to say, when I was first accepted to attend the Wanxiang Fellows Program in the winter of 2018 I really had no idea what I was in for; all I knew was that I was excited! The Wanxiang Fellows Program, as described by UIS offers “a unique opportunity for undergraduates to learn about the challenges and opportunities related to sustainability, green technology, and renewable resources in China in the unique cultural and natural environments of the urban landscapes of Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou”.
Choosing a Research Project
As much as I absolutely loved what the program offered, the really fun stuff began in late May of 2019, a few weeks before we were due to leave the country. All students who were attending the program were meeting for an orientation on the trip and getting into more specifics. At the end of this meeting, Dr. Dennis Ruez, Environmental Studies Associate Professor and program faculty mentor, asked all of the attending Environmental Studies students what aspect of air quality they would like to be testing. To be honest, I picked volatile organic compounds (VOCs) because they sounded, for lack of a better word, fun! I had some elementary knowledge on what exactly they were, but I was (and still am) certainly not an expert on VOCs. I had no idea that this seemingly random decision on my part would open up a whole new world of passionate interest and study for me.
The Journey Begins
I chose to participate in the “Extended Program” which allowed me to leave a few weeks early to spend some time in Ashikaga, Japan. While my research did not begin in Japan, I still had an absolute blast and learned more than I thought I could learn about such an amazing country with a long history and a welcoming and all-around fantastic culture in only about two weeks. While in Japan I had the opportunity to see what a Japanese university is like, to spend time with Japanese university students, to visit historic and cultural sites, and even to stay with a host family for a weekend!
Eventually, though, the time came when I had to say goodbye to Japan (and all of the incredible friends I made there) and fly across the Sea of Japan to Beijing. And this is where we all got the opportunity to start using our new air quality meters! While we were only in Beijing for about three days, we saw many historic sites (Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and even the Great Wall, just to name a few!), ate some incredible food (Peking duck actually in Beijing!), and learned so much about the city and Chinese culture in general. However, the true data collection began after a bullet train ride from Beijing to Hangzhou.
Welcome to China
We arrived in Hangzhou quite late at night and I was absolutely exhausted. We were greeted at the train station by our student ambassadors from Wanxiang Polytechnic University who promptly took us to a KFC for dinner (KFC is super popular in China!). After our train station dinner, we all loaded onto a bus and headed for the university where we were greeted by an LED sign that read “Welcome University of Illinois Students”, which made me smile even though I was ready to pass out from exhaustion. (One of the biggest takeaways from this trip was that traveling really has a way of tuckering you out even if you are napping on a train or a bus.) We got our room assignments and then I think I probably fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The Wanxiang Fellows Program has different programs depending upon what the students are there to learn about, for example, some schools may be sending students for a language/culture intensive experience. The way the program was set up for us specifically were mainly lectures during the day, with occasional field trips. For instance, we might have had lectures on solar panels and LEDs in the morning and in the afternoon, we would take a trip to visit a hydroelectric dam. Throughout all of this, though, the official data collection began. Every morning, usually right before breakfast, I would test the air quality in the bedroom and then immediately test the air quality right outside of the building. In Hangzhou, I was doing this three times daily, at morning, midday (right after lunch), and night (immediately before bed). Throughout my time in Hangzhou, I believe I collected somewhere around 50 ambient air samples.
Research Continues at Home
Then, of course, I had to come back home, but the fun did not stop there because I still had air quality data to collect. I arrived back in Springfield in the latter half of July 2019 and continued taking indoor and outdoor ambient air quality samples in the same way I had done in Hangzhou, although, due to school and other obligations I was now only collecting samples at morning and night. Indoor samples were collected in a bedroom and outdoor samples were collected in the backyard.
Grieving the Loss of a Mentor
Everything was going well, I was taking samples consistently, the semester was chugging along, and then in October, I received the news that Dr. Ruez had passed. This was quite devastating to me and many of his students because he had become a man I really looked up to, held in high regard, and, to be quite honest, considered a bit of a mentor. With the passing of Dr. Ruez, after I had processed what had happened and received quite a bit of closure at his memorial service, I was emboldened to continue the project that he had started. I had never stopped collecting data, but I still needed some form of guidance as this project was the first of what I hope to be many major research projects I had ever embarked on. As luck would have it, the role of mentor for my project fell into the lap of the incredible Dr. Tih-Fen Ting, ENS Associate Professor and Department Chair.
Dr. Ting, as busy as she was, continued guiding me through data collection and very soon started to help me push the project along. She guided me in writing my first protocol, research proposal, and eventually helped me with the actual data analysis. I continued collecting the ambient air samples through the end of December 2019. Once data collection was officially complete, we got into the really fun part of getting to play with the data. Once again, Dr. Ting played an integral role here. I had more data than I knew what to do with, and did not even know what I was really “supposed” to be doing. Dr. Ting helped me to zero in on my focus, which turned out to be examining the differences in the indoor and outdoor ambient air formaldehyde levels between the two locations as well as finding out what roles temperature and relative humidity have on the evaporative emissions of formaldehyde.
The STARS Symposium
Myself, and another Environmental Studies Student, Nicole Morris, who was working on a similar project to mine, though she focused on examining particulate matter, were all set to present at the Illinois State Academy of Science (ISAS) Annual Meeting, as well as UIS’ Student Technology, Arts and Research Symposium (STARS). Unfortunately, due to COVID, the ISAS meeting was canceled. As you may be aware, however, STARS was moved online! Once Dr. Ting and I had determined that I still wanted to present at STARS we continued our data analysis and put together a presentation. Recording the presentation was quite the task for me, but I adapted and, after the green light from Dr. Ting I uploaded the completed presentation for STARS!
The Journey Ends...or Does it?
Looking back now, I had no idea that picking VOCs as my study area of choice would bring me to where I am today. I have learned so much, I have cried so much (both sad and happy tears), but most of all I realized how lucky I am to attend a school like UIS where the professors have a genuine and vested interest in your goals and needs as a student. Without the late Dr. Dennis Ruez, Jr., who I have dedicated my study to in his memory, I would never have had this research opportunity. Without Dr. Tih-Fen Ting, who worked tirelessly to guide me despite her busy schedule, I would not have produced the quality of the work that I did, nor would I have learned some of the very basics of “formal” study design and research. I worked on this project for almost a full year. It became like a child to me, in a way. I nurtured it, cared for it, watched it grow, and put my heart and soul into making it as “perfect” as any research project could possibly be. And I could not have been happier with my results.
Lucy Perlman, ENS ‘20, won the best presentation award in the category of Natural Sciences, Undergraduate at the 2020 UIS’ Student Technology, Arts and Research Symposium. Lucy gave an oral presentation on her research project, “Investigation of Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality in China and United States: Volatile Organic Compounds” - Lucy Perlman and Tih-Fen Ting (mentor), Department of Environmental Studies, UIS.
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