UM Student Wrangles Wi-Fi to Study Air Quality in Popular Resort Town

SEELEY LAKE– University of Montana graduate student Kristen Cram spent several weeks this spring semester diligently hunting for strong internet connections in Seeley Lake, Montana.

Her search for a robust link had nothing to do with taking an online class or watching a favored social media channel, but was needed for a capstone project she is conducting, which will help the Missoula City-County Health Department study air quality in the resort community 52 miles northeast of Missoula.

The Wi-Fi she explains is needed to transmit data from small air quality monitors, called PurpleAirs, from Seeley Lake homes and businesses to Missoula. After several attempts she, and her supervisor, Ben Schmidt, air quality specialist for the Missoula City-County Health Department, finally found success.

"Last week we were able to get a sensor up and running at a location we tried several times before," Cram reported. "We can't figure out why it worked this time, but we are happy it did! This gave us a green light to reach out to the other volunteers who are letting us install the sensors on their property."

Such trial-and-error is one of many valuable lessons learned by UM students through capstone research projects.

Cram, who is earning a joint Masters in Public health and Public Administration at UM, had two deliverables as part of this project: Find five to 15 homeowners or businesses willing to have the innocuous PurpleAirs, which are actually white, installed on their property. Then create a study protocol, or design framework, that can be passed along for others involved in this two-year study.

"She is learning the team building aspects of projects like this and how to communicate concepts to the community," said Schmidt. "And, if there are still problems, where is it and how do we fix it?"

Seeley Lake sits in a narrow valley, making it prone to air inversions made worse from particulate matter in the smoke from older wood-burning stoves. To reduce particulate matter, the county embarked on an ambitious stove replacement program in 2012, changing out 164, or nearly 90%, of existing stoves in the community with cleaner burning devices.

A permanent monitoring station, located at the Seeley Lake Elementary School, continues to show a 50% improvement in particulate matter at that location. The new study aims to see if this improvement is communitywide.

"We think most neighborhoods will meet particulate standards now," Schmidt said. "But we want to find out if its distributed more evenly or if one neighborhood is having trouble. This is important because particulate pollution does impact people's health."

After earning an undergraduate degree in microbiology, Cram worked for a time in Washington, D.C., as a dental assistant with hopes of becoming a physician's assistant. While she enjoyed working one-on-one with patients, Cram soon learned she was more interested in working on health issues on a broader scale, and the hunt for a graduate program began.

"My dad discovered UM's joint master's program in public health and public administration. I looked into it and it was exactly what I wanted," said Cram, who grew up on the island of St. Thomas before her family moved to Missoula, where she graduated from Hellgate High School.

"Public health and public administration are very much complementary," said Tony Ward the chair of the UM's Public and Cumminty Health Science department. "Our graduates go into a variety of fields, including working for health departments and nonprofits. Most have jobs lined up when they graduate, and many stay in Montana."

Capstone projects like Cram's, he adds, help to solve real-world issues while offering valuable practical experience in resolving the occasional hiccup that comes with every research project.

A good Wi-Fi connection, Cram said, is valuable for data collection in real time. But, she added, the sensors do have SD cards, so they are still collecting data even if the internet connection goes down.

"I'll just have to go up to Seeley and manually download the data if they stop working," she said. "We have a lot of possibilities to make this work."


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