Researchers from across the Virginia Tech campus and their collaborators came together on November 16 for a research symposium designed to showcase faculty and student research projects during the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience (GFURR.)

Resilience studies deal with infrastructure, sustainability, and how these factors influence our society’s ability to respond to major environmental shifts. How will we use this information to promote better, more sustainable habitats? The Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience promotes research on the cutting edge of this debate.

The 2016 symposium was hosted in Steger Hall, home to the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech which was recently re-named in honor of GFURR Executive Director and President Emeritus Charles Steger.

Co-presented by Professor Emeritus James Bohland, this year’s presentations explored a rich vein of inquiry regarding how communities can grapple with the large-scale infrastructural updates required to meet the needs of modern societies. Researchers addressed these challenges from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—subjects ranging from sustainability efforts in small cities to financial stability of mortgage markets were among the presentations of the day.

Dealing with the effects of climate change emerged as a major theme of the symposium as research groups shared their findings about how rising global temperatures are likely to affect the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Using sophisticated modeling techniques that estimate the impact of prolonged heat exposure on various regions of Alabama, Assistant Professor of Population Health Sciences, Julia Gohlke, and Biocomplexity Institute Research Assistant Professor Samarth Swarup demonstrated exciting new findings about modeling heat exposure.

This works builds on previous heat exposure models like the award-winning PIE VIZ app, which won an NIEHS award last year.

These findings present a compelling case against a “one-size-fits-all” approach to public health. Effective planning requires decision-makers to account for a staggering number of variables which may vary widely from region to region, including unique geographic features, variations in microclimate, and infrastructural density. It can sometimes be difficult to gather all of these data, including factoring in individual demographic and behavioral factors that affect heat exposure.

Fortunately, Swarup and Gohlke’s model includes a feature that makes it much easier to scale research to the needs of a particular region: synthetic populations. This powerful form of data integration allows scientists to see how environmental factors impact individuals within the context of a larger population.

Swarup and Gohlke used a synthetic population of Alabama in combination with data from NASA and a survey conducted in the southeastern United States about how much time people spend outdoors. Putting these together, they created a detailed model of individual heat exposure. This allowed them to have simulated data that is very hard to get directly—information about heat exposure for every hour of every day for every individual within the synthetic population.

“The use of a synthetic information platform puts everything in a person-centric coordinate system, which will make extensions easy, such as adding in health information to study the effects of heat and pollution on chronic diseases,” said Swarup.

Extensions can be added as needed; for example, varying the amount of time spent in air-conditioned spaces according to location and economic status. It also allows for integration of pollution exposure, which is often correlated with high heat in urban areas.

In modeling Alabama, it was found that the highest exposures to heat occurred in the lowest income brackets. Socio-economic drivers may be the most telling indicator of who actually suffers most from rising global temperatures.

While models alone may not be enough to prove hypotheses, they give a much better picture of how researchers can hone future studies, and provide detailed indicators. With this information, institute researchers and the other members of the Global Forum can move forward in developing research that will help evidence-based policy-making.

“We believe simulation tools such as this will be valuable for optimizing placement of limited public health resources to reach communities most at risk during heat waves,” Gohlke noted.

Published by Tiffany Trent, December 15, 2016
Tags: Biocomputing to Sociotechnical Systems  Infrastructure, Security, and Resilience