A new partnership between the state’s three universities and several state agencies aims to increase understanding of issues like Valley Fever and ozone levels in Arizona – and come up with solutions.
The Arizona Board of Regents announced new Regents’ Grants for five three-year research projects in April, allocating a total of about $12 million from its Technology and Research Initiative Fund. The funding comes from sales tax revenue generated by Proposition 301.
Regent Fred DuVal, who chairs the Board of Regents Research and Health Sciences Committee, said the grants came about after he reached out to Gov. Doug Ducey and discussed making universities the state’s “think tank.” While state agencies may occasionally tap into university research, DuVal said the board wants to make that collaboration systemic.
Beyond looking at Valley Fever and the ozone, other research groups are tackling “forever chemicals” – waste management for abandoned Arizona mines and economical recycling. The five projects were selected from a total of 17 proposals state agencies submitted for the first round of grants.
“There are things the state government needs to solve for which they do not have the intellectual capital to solve,” DuVal said.
The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in particular, DuVal said, has a variety of vexing problems for which they lack resources.
ADEQ Director Misael Cabrera said, “We started with defining the problems. There’s an old adage that says a well-defined problem is a good distance into being solved.”
Cabrera said he hopes the projects will lead to some of the researchers’ findings being implemented through technology or policy.
“I believe it’s brilliant to establish a fund that enables collaboration on some of Arizona’s most pressing needs,” Cabrera said. “And I really, really like the fact that the approach combines practical problem-solving with robust research.”
Bridget Barker, an associate professor of biology at Northern Arizona University, has focused on Valley Fever for 20 years. She was first convinced of the fungal infection’s importance when she worked as a technician under Dr. John Galgiani, who is also working on the Valley Fever project and is a professor at the University of Arizona and director of the Valley Fever Center for Excellence.
Barker said the Regents’ Grant creates the first opportunity to bring together a large group of researchers to do a more in-depth survey of the Coccidioides posadasii fungus’ hotspots and work to better understand the fungus’ source and transmission.
“Does it change from month to month? Is (the fungus) there all the time? Is it there at higher amounts at certain times of the year?” Barker asked.
The project is a collaboration among Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, University of Arizona, ADEQ and Arizona Department of Health Services.
Different researchers will work on different aspects of the issue — from examining the soil and the fungus’ DNA to looking at the air at those sites and ways to suppress the formation of the dust that carries the fungus. Barker said they want to see what connection exists between the soil component and atmospheric release.
“When we have high fungal burden in the soil, do we also see high fungal burden in our air collectors, or are they decoupled?” she said. “That’s something that we really don’t know at all.”
Being competitive for funding is often difficult for Valley Fever research because the topic is so understudied, Barker said. Much of the work is pulled together through small grants, $5,000 or $10,000 at a time. She said she hopes the boost of $4.5 million over the next three years will give researchers a chance to gather the preliminary data needed to be competitive for bigger grants.
Another group of researchers from UofA, Arizona State University and ADEQ will spend the next three years studying how Arizona’s natural environment and possible sources of ozone affect how ozone is produced in the state.
The researchers want to better predict and control pollution. High levels of pollution are linked to more asthma attacks, other respiratory issues and hospital admissions and increased daily mortality. The researchers noted that Arizona has a large population of older adults, who are particularly vulnerable to ozone’s effects on health.
UofA associate professor Avelino Arellano and professor Armin Sorooshian are part of the research team.
“It’s a statewide problem. Air pollution doesn’t really have boundaries — it comes from anywhere,” Sorooshian said. “The more people that can work on this together with all their various tools, the better off we’ll be.”
Arellano and Sorooshian said that by the end of the third year, they would like to have an improved predictive capability to pinpoint what ozone sources or precursors drive the exceedances in ozone in Arizona.
“Is it the human activities, or is it the vegetation and unique vegetation in Arizona that needs to be really understood?” Arellano asked.
In addition to collaborating with other researchers, Arellano and Sorooshian were excited to involve their students in the project, which the Board of Regents allocated $2.8 million over three years.
“We’ll be training quite a few graduate students who we hope can continue this work and even go work at places that are collecting these data and making the big decisions like at ADEQ,” Sorooshian said. “This would be a nice feeder to train people to go to these types of places and contribute even more to the state.”
Correction: A previous version of this story inadvertently left Arizona State University off the list of participants in the project.