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Improving how scientists measure air pollution with RED

News and events Research and discovery Apr 7, 2020

What can the chemical reactions of radicals tell us about the air we breathe?

Colleen Rosales, PhD Candidate in Environmental Science at Indiana University

Colleen Rosales, an Environmental Science PhD candidate at Indiana University, says radicals – tiny, short-lived, notoriously hard to measure chemical species – play a major role in the chemistry of air pollution. For example, radicals affect the production of smog. “Smog is formed when gases resulting from combustion react with either human-created (anthropogenic), or biogenic organic compounds found outdoors,” explained Rosales. The combination ultimately leads to ozone and aerosol production, and hazy skies.  

Her research aims to improve the measurement of radicals and build upon science’s understanding of both indoor and outdoor air pollution. “My research goals are to improve the current understanding of instrumental challenges of measuring these radicals in outdoor forested environments, as well as to provide a better picture in the role they play in the production of indoor air pollutants,” said Rosales.


Using Mathmatica software on RED, Rosales employs fill-in forms for data input in the field. “This allows for inputting and changing values without needing to dig into the code,” said Rosales. Dense datasets are organized using quick-plot tools and numerical tables- keeping research up to date and organized.

Studying radicals and their interactions requires a lot of data. To power her calculations run in Mathmatica software, Rosales uses Indiana University’s Research Desktop (RED). “During our field campaigns, our research group collects data for many weeks, most times 24/7, gathering about 1.5 data points per second. A month-long campaign would require about 1 billion operations,” she explained. 

As Rosales’ research on air chemistry progresses, RED is undergoing a major update behind the scenes. Once a part of Karst supercomputing cluster, RED will soon be integrated into Jetstream’s supercomputing cloud network. Rosales says RED on Jetstream provides laptop access to high powered computing. “Being able to run calculations in RED helped a lot in expediting the data analysis,” said Rosales. “What used to take 30 minutes now only takes about 30 seconds to one minute.” And, with Jetstream’s 99% uptime, her larger calculations are never interrupted. She notes, “some programs take a while to finish and would need to run overnight, or sometimes over a few days., but by running calculations in RED, Rosales can take a break without worrying that work will be lost to a server restarting.

RED’s intuitive graphical interface also improves collaboration: “Working on RED allowed me to share my work without the complication of my colleagues having to install programs on their own computers or learn UNIX terminal commands,” Rosales said. Before, air chemistry relied on sharing spreadsheets and calculations by hand. Now, her research is a digital teaching tool: “The graphical interface of RED helps me easily share and show people how to use IU’s supercomputers, from colleagues to undergraduate students,” Rosales said.

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