Dr. Alex Ponette-González Interview, August 2022 Newsletter: Special Edition Part II

“Trees in urban areas may work as urban air filters. Tree canopies are more effective than other vegetation types, and building materials such as glass, in scrubbing pollutants from the air. Many urban planners think about the benefits of planting trees in cities, but more research is needed on how the trees improve air quality.” – Dr. Alex Ponette-González

“Trees ARE Urban Air Filters” – Dr. Ponette-González at a speaking engagement at the Denia Neighborhood Meeting about the urban air filters project on February 26, 2018.

Background on Dr. Ponette-González

For our August newsletter and two-part series on urban heat, we extended our focus to other issues in urban areas that affect human health, like air quality. We were excited to have the opportunity to interview Alexandra Ponette-González, Ph.D., professor at the University of North Texas (UNT), in the Department of Geography and the Environment about her recent National Science Foundation (NSF) grants. Dr. Ponette-González is also working with Dr. Lu Liang, whom we interviewed for part one of the August newsletter, on the possible link between air pollution and heat in urban areas.

Dr. Alex Ponette-González has received multiple NSF grants. She and her team were awarded an NSF grant to study the effect of Texas’ dust storms on the atmosphere and ecosystems, and how Dust Bowl-like conditions would affect raining dust events. A collaboration between Dr. Ponette-González and professors from the University of Texas at El Paso, they published an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research, which detailed for the first time, how dust and its compounds are disseminated throughout the state in rainwater.

In 2016, Dr. Ponette-González received an NSF CAREER award. She and her research team illuminated that post oak trees in Denton filter three times more black carbon from the atmosphere than konara oak trees in Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world. Further, they estimated that post oak and live oak trees potentially accumulate 3.5 tons of black carbon per year, equivalent to ∼32% of annual vehicular black carbon emissions from the city.  Most recently, Dr. Ponette-González was awarded two NSF grants totaling over two-million dollars for multi-year research projects which we discussed in the interview.

Award Abstract # 2213624 Collaborative Research: MRA: Particulates in canopy flowpaths: A missing mass flux at the macrosystem scale? DEB, Division of Environmental Biology, Awardee: $651,159

  • This award concerns deposition of particulate matter from the atmosphere in rainfall through forest canopies in throughfall and stemflow. She joins a team of researchers from Cleveland State University, Utah State University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research on this project.

Award Abstract # 2206358 DISES: Integrating environmental justice into urban forest assessment and valuation tools: blueprint for the future, NSF Org: DEB, Division of Environmental Biology, $1,549,219

  • This project is led by Dr. Ponette-González and is in collaboration with colleagues from Cleveland State University, University of Oregon, Texas Christian University (TCU), and Texas State University. It is one of 15 new NSF Dynamics of Integrated Socioenvironmental Systems (DISES) awards.

Breathe Easy Dallas

Installation of monitors by City of Dallas near Harry Withers Elementary and A.W. Blair Elementary. Photo courtesy of City of Dallas.

Dr. Ponette-González’ has some prior involvement with the Texas Trees Foundation’s (TTF), ‘Breathe Easy Dallas’ is a collaboration between TTF, City of Dallas, the Nature Conservancy, Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), and the Center for Advancing Transportation Emissions, Energy, and Health (CARTEEH) with the ultimate goal of improving public health among high-risk populations, especially children and elderly persons. They are working together to monitor air quality by installing air monitors in specific locations to collect particulate matter, relative humidity, air temperature, and other data to analyze in hopes of making informed design decisions to mitigate air pollutants. Breathe Easy Dallas started in 2017 with installation of air quality monitors in nine different Dallas neighborhoods. Dr. Ponette-González’ is working with Jennifer Ellis, Savannah Thomas, and Cody Kimpton measuring particulate matter accumulation on tree leveas at Charles Rice Learning Center as part of this initiative.

Interview Questions

  1. The NSF grant focused on human-technology partnerships in urban forest planning and management has quite a lot of methods for a mixed-methods approach, mixing qualitative and quantitative methods. Can you talk about this multifaceted approach.

Dr. Alex Ponette-González: For the main goals over the next five years, we are interested in understanding how different programs like i-Tree [delivers current, peer-reviewed tree benefits estimation science from the USDA Forest Service to all types of users with free tools and support] or PlanIt Geo [urban forestry software that maps and plots urban trees and tree canopy] are being used to plan urban forests. The three goals are who and how and how well: who is participating, that is who are the actors; next who is sitting at the table and when are communities or residents’ part of the process; and the how well are the tools doing at estimating and ensuring tree equity.

As she said, using an environmental justice framework by definition requires a mixed-methods approach. Dr. Ponette-González and team include Dr. Matthew Fry from UNT, Dr. Ashley Coles from TCU, Dr. John Van Stan of Cleveland State, Dr. Yekang Ko and Dr. Jun-Hak Lee from University of Oregon, and Dr. MiHyun Kim from Texas State University is. The transdisciplinary team includes two natural scientists, geospatial/remote scientists, and three social scientists including an urban planner and one visual artist as well as participation by i-Tree, PlanIt Geo, Texas Trees and others. The team will conduct interviews, focus groups, and content analyses, We will also make measurements on the ground of particulate matter accumulation on tree leaves and compare those with model values. We’ll be focusing on the states of Texas, Oregon, and Ohio.

In terms of broader impacts, the visual artist will work specifically on interactive exhibitions. The “cool part”, she said, is the student involvement, which includes both masters’ students and undergraduate students. So, there are teams of students doing qualitative and quantitative research.  Students can learn hands-on what type of research they may prefer for their career.

  • I noticed that your UNT profile mentions your interest in promoting STEM fields, so I was excited to see that your outreach efforts for the NSF grant open-access articles written for (and reviewed by) primary and secondary school children with ‘Frontiers for Young Minds’.

She said Dr. Van Stan of Cleveland State introduced her to the publication. Frontiers for Young Minds has scientists write the articles which are designed for ‘young scientists’. The young scientists themselves review the articles and provide feedback. She mentioned that they’re also illustrated with beautiful pictures, and that they are designed to communicate effectively with and attract children to science.

  • It mentions that the project will provide research experiences to members of underrepresented groups to broaden participation in science.

Dr. Ponette-González expressed how important it is to her to have diverse groups of researchers. For the new DISES project, student researchers will be recruited from Cleveland State, TCU, Texas State, and UNT, where there is a high population of minority, low-income, first-generation students, and undergraduate students. She also articulated that it was important to have “Diverse with a capital D”, adding that we want this representation in urban forest management.

It makes sense, after students graduate and move into their careers, they could be making decisions about which communities will have access to the types of ecological benefits previously discussed. She also stated that there is a public health component, “A big question remains answered but unanswered, how removal of particulates by vegetation influences air concentrations and human health”. We need to put the pieces together. Are trees beneficial? We need research at different scales, we need a more concerted and larger effort. It’s all geography. And of course, trees have so many health benefits.”

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