Climate of Collaboration: PAMS statistician leads two new partnerships to better understand questions related to climate and environment

Armed with two new grants, totaling more than $6 million, Montserrat “Montse” Fuentes is ensuring that NC State continues to be a leader in the quantitative study of climate change and environmental health.

The first project is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. It aims to predict how a changing climate may impact the effect of airborne pollutants on human health.

Fuentes, who recently was appointed head of NC State’s Department of Statistics, will lead the three-year project, which includes research partners from Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

“What we are interested in discovering is how weather variables affect air pollution, specifically the small particulate matter in our air that has the largest impact on human health,” Fuentes says. “And further, how that health impact varies in differently populated environments, such as cities versus rural areas.”

The collaborators will be tasked with creating statistical models that factor in different mixtures of pollutants, weather patterns, and health outcomes within various neighborhoods, and developing frameworks that will characterize the impact of climate change on these factors and on human health. “The relationship between weather patterns and pollution is important, particularly when it comes to protecting the health of our most vulnerable citizens,” Fuentes adds. “We hope that the predictive capabilities of these models will help us do just that.”

Training the atmospheric scientists of tomorrow

The second project will create a national network of statisticians with interdisciplinary expertise in atmospheric and oceanic science, in order to better quantify and interpret climactic and environmental data. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the five-year, $5 million project will provide interdisciplinary training for mathematicians and statisticians who are interested in atmospheric and oceanic science. Students will have the opportunity to receive specialized training at one of 12 participating institutions across the U.S.

The three lead institutions, or hubs, of the project are NC State, the University of Chicago and the University of Washington. The other nine participants, or nodes, are: Duke University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the National Climatic Data Center, Ohio State University, Purdue University, San Diego State University, UNC-Wilmington, the Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences, and the Statistical and Mathematical Sciences Institute.

“Students will be able to train at NC State or at any one of the other nodes,” says Fuentes. “While there, they can work on research with a local mentor, but no matter where they train they will all end up with the same interdisciplinary expertise at the end.”

The topics covered by the students will include spatio-temporal modeling, which are statistical models that allow scientists to include all of the variables necessary to describe a changing world and to accurately assess climate projections.

“Statisticians specialize in quantifying uncertainty,” says Fuentes, “and as the complexity of the models we are being asked to create increases, it is becoming necessary for statisticians to have some background in those scientific fields. Interdisciplinary training is the future of statistics.”