The biggest benefit of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Informatics' (IGPI) interdisciplinary framework is that students whose interests don’t fit well with an existing program find the flexibility to customize a unique curriculum. In doing so, they’re free to pursue personal interests, passions and goals from a number of departments where they can learn from nationally-recognized faculty who will support their objectives. Yi Wang was one such scholar, and the first to graduate from the IGPI program with a Geoinformatics PhD!

Yi Wang (Geoinformatics PhD)

Yi Wang, IGPI Scholar

The world’s 100 most polluted cities are in seven countries, and half are in China. Industrial manufacturing processes and transportation emit trace gasses, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides; pollutants which have a tremendously adverse effect on public health. Once dispersed, the levels of concentration fluctuate with atmospheric conditions.

Geoinformatics PhD Yi Wang’s thesis involved using satellite data to measure sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides emissions, which is further applied to improve air quality forecasts.

“Each year, outdoor air pollution causes ~3 million premature deaths worldwide according to Lelieveld’s research (Nature, 2015),” said Wang. It is therefore helpful to forecast air quality accurately so that people can take precautions as early as possible. “Air quality forecasts rely on accurate emission inventories which are usually estimated through a ‘bottom-up’ approach where you gather data such as coal consumption, traffic information, and so on,” he said. “But the ‘bottom-up’ approach usually has at least a one-year time lag, which results in less timely and accurate forecasts,” he added.

Wang creates emissions inventories using satellite data, which are near real-time and can therefore contribute to more timely and accurate forecasts. “For example, a parent of an asthmatic child would need to know by Monday if the coming week’s conditions warrant different childcare provisions, or if the child should stay inside all together,” he said, and added, “Such data inform health alerts that appear on the daily news, and banners on certain apps.”

Since the amount and complexity of analyses are increased with satellite data, it was necessary for Wang to gain programming expertise and knowledge of machine learning and other AI methodologies. He honed the necessary skills by taking workshops offered by UI3. His research was supported by a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant led by his adviser, Professor Jun Wang. The IGPI program supported his interdisciplinary journey, and his PhD committee included Daven Henze (Mechanical Engineering; U-Colorado at Boulder), Charles Stanier (U-Iowa; Chemical and Biochemical Engineering), Marc Linderman (U-Iowa; Geographical and Sustainability Sciences), and Jun Wang (U-Iowa; Chemical and Biochemical Engineering). He defended his thesis in May—became U-Iowa’s first IGPI Geoinformatics PhD—and plans to continue working with Professor Jun Wang as a U-Iowa postdoc.  

Yi Wang Advisory Committee

Yi Wang (center) with his PhD Advisory Committee, from left: Professor Greg Carmichael (Chemical and Biochemical Engineering; UI3 Director); Professor Jun Wang (U-Iowa Chemical and Biochemical Engineering); IGPI Scholar Yi Wang (PhD, Geoinformatics); Professor Charles Stanier (Chemical and Biochemical Engineering), and Professor Marc Linderman (College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences). On the screen in the background is Associate Professor Daven Henze (U-Colorado at Boulder; Environmental and Mechanical Engineering).