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  April 16, 2001

Introductory Course Sets Undergraduate
on Path to Research

WWhat a difference one college course can make. Like so many other freshmen, Jared Yellen arrived at UConn with no clue what he wanted to do with his life.

His indecision would not last long. In his second semester, he took an introductory geography course that brought his future into focus for the first time.

"I loved the class!" he says. "The professors made it fun and it was the first class in college I could really get into. I could see myself doing environmental research for a living and really enjoying it."

Chalk it up to the team teaching of Peter Halvorson and John Allen, professors of geography. Their enthusiasm inspired Yellen to try out several physical geography courses, and it was not long after that he declared it as his major.

When he started looking for a part-time job to pay some of his college expenses, he knew it would be to his benefit to find something related to his major. He found it - at UConn's Environmental Research Institute.

"I've always known it helps tremendously to have hands-on experience when you're looking for a job after college," he says. "When it comes to getting hired, what you have done should be as important as what you know."

And what he has done is learn solid research practice from the ground floor up. Yellen now works closely with Michael Trahiotis, the Institute's ambient programs manager.

"This has been a wonderful experience for Jared," Trahiotis says. "He has seen how a research question is developed, how the program is designed around the initial question, and how adjustments and evaluation are critical to the project's success."

Yellen and Trahiotis are members of a research team assessing the amount of diesel exhaust children are exposed to during the school day. It is a pilot study that promises to catch the attention of every parent in Connecticut.

Recent research in California identified diesel exhaust from school buses as a possible cause or trigger of asthma in children. The finding has generated enormous interest, because the number of children afflicted with asthma is growing by leaps and bounds yet no one knows exactly why. The most recent figure from the American Lung Association puts the number of children in the U.S. diagnosed with the condition at 8.6 million.

A non-profit organization is sponsoring research on diesel fumes in Connecticut. The scientists are interested in obtaining information from as many school districts as possible in urban, suburban and rural locations.

UConn's role is to conduct air quality tests and Yellen's responsibilit y is to gather that data and maintain the equipment.

"In the beginning, the project seemed straightforward. I figured, it was easy - just hook the child to the equipment and collect the data at the end of the day. I did not understand the scope of what we were doing," Yellen admits.

There have been unexpected hurdles. Finding participants, including bus companies and schools, has been no easy task for the group. So far four schools have been tested.

Yellen's job is to go to the participant's home and attach monitoring equipment to the child, who then boards a school bus. Members of the public are not allowed on the bus, so Yellen meets the child at school, retrieves the equipment, sets up an air quality monitor outside the building, and then follows the child around school all day sampling the air inside. By staying with the child, Yellen is able to log the child's activities and correlate them with the air sampling.

At dismissal time, Yellen reattaches the monitor to the child for the bus ride home and then waits at the other end to reclaim the equipment.

The researchers are measuring for levels of benzene, formaldehyde, and 1,3-Butadene in the air which are combustion products of diesel. Because buses tend to idle for long periods outside schools, there is some concern that children may be exposed to the fumes in the buildings as well as while riding the bus.

Yellen has already made some important discoveries about the nature of research. "I found that nothing runs as planned," he says. "After several trial runs in the field, I'd come back, we would hash out the problems I encountered and then make readjustment s. The scientists looked at the data and then analyzed how to improve our method to get better data that showed something meaningful."

While this has been an invaluable experience for Yellen's future career, his boss explains why the student's involvement benefits UConn's research initiative as well.

"Working with Jared, and other students like him, enables us to take on pilot projects like this one, without a lot of seed money. Otherwise, we'd never be able to accomplish the time-consuming fieldwork we need."

Yellen says the payoff for him is not necessarily in his paycheck. "This experience will look good on my resume and I'm making a lot of connections in my field."

Yellen expects to be putting all that to good use after commencement in May 2002.

Janice Palmer

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