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ASU students help get a handle on Valley air pollutants

Phoenix metro area especially at risk for air pollutants.
Maricopa County has one of most advanced air-pollutant monitoring systems.
September 19, 2016

Team works with NASA to paint a fuller picture of Maricopa County's air quality

Rainstorms are a welcome visitor in the Phoenix metro area. Not only do they offer a respite from the brutal summer heat, they also help to quell the dust kicked up by another of the Sonoran Desert’s unique charms: the haboobTerm for a type of intense dust storm carried on an atmospheric gravity current, also known as a weather front. Haboobs occur regularly in arid regions throughout the world..

Though the term may elicit giggles, the beast it refers to is no laughing matter. Air pollutants associated with the gargantuan dust storms have been known to exacerbate preexisting respiratory conditions like asthma, cause episodic coughing, intensify cardiovascular ailments and even contribute to the contraction of Valley fever.

And even though Maricopa County has more air-pollutant monitors than are required by the Environmental Protection Agency, there are still vast swaths of land where they are lacking. To get a more comprehensive view of air quality in the Valley of the Sun, a team of Arizona State University students worked with NASA’s DEVELOP program and Maricopa County Department of Public Health over the course of 10 weeks to design a model that can predict air quality in places where there are fewer monitors.

A more comprehensive view means a better idea of which areas need improvement, which could lead to better air quality overall, explained David Hondula, assistant professor of climatology and atmospheric science at ASU. Hondula served as a faculty adviser to the team of three undergraduates.

As one of the country’s most arid regions, Maricopa County is at a specific risk for higher concentrations of particulate matter — that annoying combination of dirt, sand and other nefarious fine particles that sting your eyes on windy days.

Debris from things like wood burning, construction sites, farming and mining all contribute to levels of particulate matter. 

“We all know from our experience here that when a dust storm comes in, it’s going to do a lot to elevate particulate matter,” said Lance Watkins, a graduate student at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. Watkins, who has participated in past NASA DEVELOP projects, served as a mentor of sorts to the team.

The topography of the area only makes matters worse.

man explaining air pollutant monitor to students

Maricopa County Air Quality Department atmospheric scientist Ronald Pope explains how particulate matter monitors work. The monitor in his hand is part of a PM10 (particulate matter 10 microns or less in size) device. DEVELOP adviser and ASU assistant professor David Hondula and DEVELOP team member Leslie Araujo look on.

Surrounded by mountains, the Phoenix metro area is “like a bowl” in which air pollutants become trapped, explained Ronald Pope, atmospheric scientist for the Maricopa County Air Quality Department who served as an adviser to the DEVELOP team. With nowhere to go, those pollutants end up in the lungs of Valley residents who live and breathe in that “bowl.”

To get a handle on it, the team compared particulate matter measurements from NASA’s MODIS level 2 aerial optical depth satellite to particulate matter measurements from Maricopa County Air Quality Department’s ground-based monitors. Once they were able to discern a relationship between the two, they were able to predict particulate matter measurements for the areas in which they had satellite data but no ground-based monitor data.

“Being able to correlate [satellite data] to data from ground-based monitors is a huge accomplishment,” said team member Tamara Dunbarr, a senior geography major.

It’s a logistical feat that will also allow for more targeted mitigation strategies, such as watering down construction sites and vacant lots, and alerting the public of high-risk areas.

The team performed so well that the project has been approved to continue during the fall semester with a second 10-week term, during which they plan to further refine and enhance their model.

The DEVELOP program does more than just enrich students academically, though. According to Watkins, “The thing that’s most beneficial to student in this program is that they’re getting experience working with a variety of partners and end users on real-world issues.”

This past August, Dunbarr presented the project at NASA’s annual Earth Science Applications Showcase in Washington, D.C.

Hondula says he is grateful to NASA and the Maricopa County departments that contributed to the project, and he looks forward to future collaborations:

“We’re hopeful that NASA DEVELOP is going to be part of the ASU portfolio for the foreseeable future.”

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From researcher to entrepreneur

Virtual lab accommodates growing interest in computer networking, cybersecurity.
September 19, 2016

ASU professor launches virtual lab platform for computing research and education

What started as a way for an Arizona State University professor to help enhance lab access for his students has launched into an entrepreneurial venture to improve hands-on computer science education and research capabilities worldwide.

When associate professor Dijiang Huang (pictured above) first joined the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering in 2005, a physical laboratory with 20 computers was a workable solution for hands-on computer networking and cybersecurity coursework for around 20 students. As enrollment rapidly increased over the next few years and cybersecurity interest grew among computer science and engineering students, a physical lab was no longer feasible. There was no way for an instructor to schedule lab time for more than 100 students in one class each working on five lab projects per semester, nor was there a way to keep a large enough lab equipped and maintained.

This got Huang thinking about creating a cloud-based virtual lab, where the physical computers and network connections could be emulated on a server to form any computer network configuration needed. Students would be able to explore real-world cybersecurity problems and solutions on networks that mirrored real-world implementations in a hands-on platform — the most effective way to train students for today’s job market — and it’d relieve a lot of logistical headaches of building a physical lab for computer science educators.

The effort began in 2010, and over the next several years, Huang attracted funding from the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense that allowed him to grow his virtual lab infrastructure from a small set of servers in his office to clusters of high-performance cloud servers at the ASU Data Center that run a versatile cloud-based virtual lab.

Huang’s success with his own students encouraged him to think about commercializing his platform to benefit a wider range of instructors and students, so he began working with Arizona Technology Enterprises to overhaul the lab’s software and infrastructure in preparation for commercialization. Out of these efforts came the startup Athena Network Solutions LLC and its product, ThoTh Lab.

Huang's ThoTh Lab is entirely browser-based. Instructors can create any configuration of computer network and monitor student progress and performance.

Huang’s ThoTh Lab is entirely browser-based. Instructors can create any configuration of computer network and monitor student progress and performance. Image courtesy of Dijiang Huang

While originally conceived as V-Lab, or Virtual Lab, Huang saw that it was hard to differentiate his product with such a generally descriptive name, and got the idea from a student to name it after the ancient Egyptian god of knowledge and wisdom, Thoth — you look to Thoth for knowledge, and ThoTh Lab is the platform for computer networking and cybersecurity knowledge.

ThoTh Lab is a browser-based virtual lab environment where instructors can create customized lab configurations in the cloud for personalized and collaborative learning, while saving the cost and time associated with setup and maintenance of physical labs. Students get hands-on experience with computing resources that closely resemble real-world systems, which translates to better problem-solving skill development that will make them competitive in today’s job market. ThoTh’s hands-on lab service tools allow instructors to more easily manage courses and track student progress and performance. (Watch a video about ThoTh Lab)

As part of the commercialization process, Huang leveraged the NSF Innovation Corps, a program that teaches NSF grantees to think of the business opportunities of their research through rigorous entrepreneurship training.

Through I-Corps, Huang and Chun-Jen Chung — cofounder, CTO and Huang’s former doctoral student — talked with more than 100 potential users, mostly instructors from other universities, and received positive feedback about how the platform could enhance the implementation of their curriculums.

The startup company had recently successfully secured $225,000 funding from NSF Small Business Innovation Research Program to incorporate personalized learning capacity into the hands-on learning environment.

Huang’s entrepreneurial efforts earned him an appointment in 2015 as a Fulton Entrepreneurial Professor. This Fulton Schools program recognizes outstanding faculty who translate their innovations to positive community impact through product commercialization and the formation of new companies based on their research. They are selected through an annual competitive proposal process for one- to two-year terms. Halfway through his appointment, Huang has achieved much and isn’t slowing down. He’s working on expanding the reach and scope of ThoTh Lab.

Since launching Athena Network Solutions LLC, the use of ThoTh Lab has expanded well beyond ASU’s campus, with users in California State University at Fullerton, Penn State Altoona and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to universities in China, India and the United Arab Emirates.

Through ThoTh Lab's interface, students get experience with real-world systems and can receive real-time assistance from their instructors.

Through ThoTh Lab’s interface, students get experience with real-world systems and can receive real-time assistance from their instructors. This makes learning more effective for the student, and makes it easier for instructors to evaluate their students. Image courtesy of Dijiang Huang

The platform has the potential to be useful beyond lab coursework. Huang and professor Gail-Joon Ahn, the director of the Center for Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics, have used the platform as a training environment for their students participating in cybersecurity competitions, such as the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition. Huang and Ahn create vulnerable systems for students to explore, try out cybersecurity tools and develop and deploy a countermeasure. Last year ASU’s team placed eighth in the Southwest region. They plan to continuously train ASU students and participate in subsequent CCDC competitions.

Huang’s own cybersecurity research on server networking, cloud, Internet of Things and data-center systems could benefit from a quick, customizable and versatile virtual lab platform, and he thinks other disciplines could benefit from ThoTh Lab as a Research as a Service platform.

“Environmental, transportation, anthropology and biomedical research all require high-performance computing, and ThoTh Lab’s cloud-based platform provides the computational support to test and demonstrate research results,” said Jay Etchings, ASU director of research computing. “With an RaaS platform, researchers could choose a lab template and get started right away or customize their own lab in minutes rather than days or weeks — this functionally reduces the time to valuable research.”

Next, by working with ASU high-performance computing, Huang would like to create a distributed cloud that will enhance the capabilities of the centralized ASU-based cloud. This would allow ASU to replicate the RaaS model for other universities.

ASU is a foundational member in the Tri-University partnership with Sun Corridor for 100-40-10 Gigabit-per-second connections to Arizona’s research and education institutions. Huang also collaborates with Internet2, a next-generation 100 Gigabit network that provides high-speed data transfers among U.S. universities, and Science DMZ from the Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network, a secure network optimized for high-performance scientific applications.

Together with these partners, Huang is looking to push a solution that uses these existing network initiatives for local, regional and national research.

Top photo: Fulton Entrepreneurial Professor Dijiang Huang created a cloud-computing-based virtual lab to help the growing student population of Arizona State University's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering get better access to a hands-on lab that mirrors real-world computer networking systems. Photo by Pete Zrioka/ASU

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering