The natural beauty of the Salt Lake Valley is a major factor in bringing faculty, staff, and students to the University of Utah. Its unique geography, however, comes with its own set of environmental challenges; a shrinking Great Salt Lake means more windblown dust from its exposed lakebed, and the mountains ringing the valley can trap those and other pollutants, reducing the overall air quality.

Fortunately, chemical engineering associate professor Kerry Kelly is applying her expertise in capturing particulate matter from the air along multiple fronts of these problems. The recipient of more than $3 Million in national and private funding for her work in the past year, this support has now opened up a new line of research in a critical area: determining how infectious airborne influenza and coronavirus remain after a variety of common hospital procedures. 

Kelly’s recent string of successes began with the nonprofit media organization The Story Exchange awarding her its Women in Science Incentive Prize, which provides recognition — and a $5,000 grant — to women researchers, educators, and innovators working on public health issues. The Story Exchange also produced a  short documentary highlighting Kelly’s work monitoring and combatting Utah’s unique air quality challenges: “As Great Salt Lake Dries, Dust Is New Danger.”

More than just raising awareness of this growing issue, Kelly has been working with colleagues from around the U and partners in local education and government to take action to protect vulnerable Utah students. As part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Civic Innovation Challenge, Kelly’s team, “Community Resilience through Engaging, Actionable, Timely, high-rEsolution Air Quality Information” (CREATE-AQI), was one of 50 groups to receive a $50,000 planning grant as part of the Challenge’s first stage. They are now among the 20 groups to receive a million-dollar award to implement their idea: a network of sensors deployed at athletic fields and schools, that will integrate existing meteorological, dust, wildfire smoke, and air-quality forecasting models to automatically generate high spatial resolution air quality forecasts. Their work will give decision makers, such as preK-12 administrators and the Utah High School Activities Association, real time, local data that could prevent children’s exposure to hazardous levels of particle pollution.

Most recently, Kelly has leveraged her expertise in collecting airborne particulate matter to tackle a different health-related challenge: determining how risky a variety of common hospital practices are when it comes to viral infection. Working with or around infected patients means that coming into contact with virus-laden aerosols is unavoidable, but for any given interaction, it’s difficult to assess the degree to which those viruses are still capable of infecting others. Now supported by a 3-year $2.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Kelly and her colleagues will collect aerosol samples from real hospital interactions with both influenza and COVID patients. The potential aerosol-generating procedures studied will include medical procedures with obvious risks of encountering aerosols, such as intubating a patient or measuring their pulmonary strength, as well as everyday interactions, such as changing bed linens.