CGRER Looks Forward: Electrical and computer engineer Ananya Sen Gupta

Julia Poska | February 22, 2019

Ananya Sen Gupta, 2019. Photo by Julia Poska. 

Ananya Sen Gupta’s entire career may have looked very different had she not serendipitously stopped to pet a colleague’s dog one day as a postdoctoral researcher in Massachusetts. The dog’s owner connected Sen Gupta with a marine chemist who was seeking a data scientist like her to make sense of unknown compounds in the 2010 BP oil spill.

“In his signature way of awesome honesty, he said, ’You are perfect for the job because you don’t understand chemistry at all!’” she recalled.

Sen Gupta successfully “fingerprinted” that spill, and has been looking at the environment as a data problem ever since. Today, as anassistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Iowa, she still lends her computational skills to environmental efforts.

Hear Sen Gupta describe her work in kid-friendly terms. 

Sen Gupta helps a colleague in environmental engineering analyze harmful pollutants in the air and studies the spread of disease-causing pathogens with an environmental health professor. With two physicists, she’s developing algorithms to find high energy events in the Earth’s radiation belts and identifying patterns of particles in the Martian ionosphere.

“I think of myself more as an applied mathematician, honestly,” she said.

While her collaborators see the data through the specific knowledge of their fields, Sen Gupta only learns what she must to develop useful tools. To identify the problem and understand the data, she listens to the experts and takes detailed notes, which she later translates into her own language: mathematics.

She is then able to build algorithms that identify patterns in the datasets, which are far too large for manual processing. Because she does not know what her algorithms should find, they are essentially free from the confirmation bias field experts might carry. Thus, Sen Gupta’s objectivity can add great credibility to a researcher’s findings;  recall the marine chemist’s excitement at finding a chemistry novice all those years ago.

“Sometimes not knowing is a good thing, because it leads to discovery,” she said.

Listen to Sen Gupta’s metaphor comparing mathematics to a verbal language. 

Environmental pollutants and pathogens tend to have complex boundaries that are difficult to define mathematically. Sen Gupta said applying existing models and equations correctly is a skill in itself, but the nature of environmental research lets her work from scratch, too.

“What inevitably happens is when apply something existing to a new problem, it starts well, and then it hits a ceiling,” she said. “To crack that ceiling I have to invent something.”

She makes the majority of her code for those inventions open source, encouraging further discovery from others who can directly use her algorithms.

Though today she is busy teaching and conducting defense-related research on underwater sonar, Sen Gupta said if she could clone herself, she would devote more time to environmental issues, perhaps those related to climate change.

Since she cannot solve every problem on her own, though, she calls for more interaction between other data scientists and environmental researchers.

Learn how a seemingly aimless conversation about coffee and tea came to inform Sen Gupta’s environmental research.

As she sees it, there is unlimited potential for what problems computer engineering can help solve. But such collaborations cannot occur unless experts in vastly different fields come together.

“I would hope that, not just me, but all the data scientists on campus and all the environmental scientists on campus would basically get together in a local coffeeshop, in some happy hour, just sit down and chat about their pet peeves and hopes and dreams,” Sen Gupta said. “Because that would just lead to so much new science.”

***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

On The Radio – PCB sources located in schools

Researchers found concentrations of PCBs to be higher indoors regardless of the school’s location. (Gordon Lew/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 31, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a recent University of Iowa study which revealed that dated building materials in schools release PCBs into the air.

Transcript: In the largest study of its kind, UI Researchers recently made important discoveries related to the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in schools.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Led by the Iowa Superfund Research Program, the study tested indoor and outdoor air samples from six schools for PCBs. PCBs are a class of manmade organic chemicals known to cause cancer as well as immune, endocrine and reproductive system problems in humans.

The study found that regardless of the school’s location, from Columbus Junction in rural Iowa to heavy industrial areas of East Chicago, concentrations of PCBs were higher indoors. PCBs were commonly used in construction and manufacturing through 1979. The research article, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, points to old window caulking and light ballasts as likely sources of PCBs in schools.

Research has shown that exposure to PCBs during childhood can cause significant neurological deficits, visual impairment and learning difficulties. Schools in the U.S. are not currently required to measure PCB concentrations.

For more information or to read the full study, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

UI researchers discover way to remove PCB’s from soil

Panicum virgatum - commonly known as switchgrass - is native to Iowa and other parks of the Midwest. (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center/Flickr)
Panicum virgatum – commonly known as switchgrass – is native to Iowa and other parts of the Midwest. (Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 17, 2015

A team of researchers from the University of Iowa’s civil and environmental engineering department have discovered a way to remove harmful PCB’s from the soil using a native prairie grass.

The findings were published in a report in the journal Ecological Engineering, authored by professor Jerry Schnoor and associate professor Tim Mattes. Yi Liang, Richard Meggo, and Dingfei Hufrom from the civil and environmental engineering department also worked on the project.

During lab experiments, the researchers found that switchgrass (panicum virgatum) was successful in removing up to 40 percent PCB’s from contaminated soil. When coupled with a PCB-oxidizing organism, the PCB removal rate was as high as 47 percent.

“The possibility of synergistic interactions between the switchgrass and the bioaugmented PCB-degrading bacteria suggests that employing both plants and bacteria in PCB remediation strategies holds promise for enhanced removal of these recalcitrant compounds from contaminated sites,” Mattes said in an interview with the UI’s news service, Iowa Now.

PCB’s – or polychlorinated biphenyls – are toxic chemical compounds once found in coolant fluids and other industrial products. PCB’s were banned by U.S. Congress in 1979 but remain in soil, water, and other parts of the atmosphere at varying levels.

Switchgrass has also been used as a biomass fuel source. The Chariton Valley Biomass Project is an Iowa-based project consisting private entities as well as the U.S. Department of Energy “seeking to demonstrate the technical and commercial feasibility of producing power from locally-grown and harvested renewable fuel resources.”

Funding for the UI research was provided by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program. The UI’s Comment Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing provided the funding for Yiang’s fellowship.

Study: Vitamin B12 may be key to removing PCBs, other toxins released into environment

Researchers at the University of Manchester may have found a way to remove PCBs and other toxins from the environment (Flickr/Seth Anderson)
Researchers at the University of Manchester may have found a way to remove PCBs and other toxins from the environment (Flickr/Seth Anderson)

Nick Fetty | October 21, 2014

A 15-year study by researchers at the University of Manchester finds that vitimin B12 could be the key to removing PCBs and other harmful pollutants already released into the environment.

“We already know that some of the most toxic pollutants contain halogen atoms and that most biological systems simply don’t know how to deal with these molecules,” University of Manchester professor David Leys said in a press release. “However, there are some organisms that can remove these halogen atoms using vitamin B12. Our research has identified that they use vitamin B12 in a very different way to how we currently understand it.”

The team from the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology used x-ray crystallography to study 3D models of how halogen atoms are removed from organisms. These particular organisms are “microscopic deep sea creatures” which are also found in rivers and ponds.

While humans use vitamin B12 to maintain a functioning brain and nervous system, certain micro-organisms and bacterium are able to use it as a detoxifying agent. The rapid reproduction rate of these bacterium means they can remove “a huge quantity of chemical in a few weeks.”

Often times these toxins pollute the air and the water through direct disposal onto land and waterways as well as through burning household waste.

The study was published this month in the journal Nature. The project was made possible with funding from the European Research Council.

PCBs and Human Health

hans-joachim-lehmlerA University of Iowa faculty member is studying how contaminants move through the food chain, causing diseases in humans.

Hans-Joachim Lehmler, from the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, is studying legacy pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and halogenated pesticides in the environment and how they impact human health.

PCB’s have been linked to cancer, autism, and hormone irregularities. Although their use was banned in the 1970’s, the pollutants are present in many bodies of water and can spread to humans in many ways, including consumption of fish.

By better understanding how organisms, like fish and humans, process PCBs, his team can determine how PCBs function in nature, ultimately protecting humans from their harmful effects.

To read more about Lehmler’s PCB research, click here.

CGRER Research Focus – Nicholas Petrich

Nicholas Petrich, a graduate student in the University of Iowa’s Environmental Engineering department, discusses his research on determining concentrations of PCBs in the air.

For more CGRER Research Focus videos, check out our Youtube Channel.

UI engineers check Mississippi River for PCBs

Mississippi River. Photo by bdearth, Flickr.

University of Iowa engineers spent a day collecting core samples from the Mississippi River.

The group of engineers was part of Keri Hornbuckle’s team. Hornbuckle is both a professor in UI’s Civil and Environmental Engineering department and a member of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research.

The team will study the core samples to determine PCB levels. This data will then be compared to previous data taken from the Iowa River.

Click here to see a photo gallery of the researchers’ day on the Mississippi River.

Click here, here and here to find out more about Hornbuckle’s research.

Some of Iowa’s hazardous waste is being dumped in Illinois to avoid Iowa’s regulations

The I-74 Bridge connecting Iowa and Illinois. Photo by sailorwind, Flickr.

A report from WQAD indicates that some organizations and people in Iowa are taking their hazardous materials to Iowa in order to avoid Iowa’s stricter regulations.

The demanufacturers in Iowa are carefully monitored, and apply fees for the removal of toxic waste such as PCB’s, mercury and Freon. The Illinois demanufacturers are given more freedom.

WQAD sent a reporter to one Illinois demanufacturer with hazardous waste material, and the company disposed of the waste without first removing the toxic chemicals.

See the video of WQAD’s trip to the Illinois demanufacturer here.

UI students test Cedar Rapids’ soil for pollutants

Downtown Cedar Rapids Photo by Chepner, Flickr

University of Iowa engineer students, led by professor Keri Hornbuckle, published the finding of their study on Cedar Rapids’ residential soil samples. The students tested samples to determine their levels of PCBs and chlordane pollutants.

The study found that the pollutants’ levels were comparable to similar areas around the world, and were near the level where the EPA recommends remediation.

PCBs are a family of chemicals that were used for manufacturing many products up till its use was banned in 1979. PCBs are carcinogens, and have also been linked to other health issues involving the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system.

Cholordane is a compound that was used in the U.S. as a pesticide up until 1988. Chlordane has been linked to a similar set of health effects as PCBs, including cancer.

For more information of the study, view the UI press release here.