New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

New donor-powered research underway to address climate adaptation, water resources, and more

The DRI Foundation has just awarded the next round of seed grants to six teams of researchers through the Innovation Research Program (IRP). The IRP provides the start-up funding DRI scientists need to test new ideas and produce initial data, which will help them build the scientific case for future research projects.

The 2020 Innovation Research Project winners were chosen through a competitive selection process and reviewed by a committee comprised of previous IRP recipients and DRI’s Vice President for Research. The selected projects demonstrate creative, innovative research or technological development that advances DRI’s mission.


Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Dr. Mary Cablk’s cadaver dog Inca sniffing in the field.

Advancing the science behind canine odor detection evidence in criminal trials
Mary Cablk, Yeongkwon Son, Andrey Khlystov

Cadaver dogs are often called on to detect the odors of human remains at a crime scene, and the evidence they find—the odor left behind from a body on a killer’s clothing, for example—is treated as hard scientific fact in criminal trials. However, there are currently no physical or chemical forensic methods to verify this kind of evidence. In a first-of-its-kind study, Dr. Mary Cablk and her team are employing a scientific approach to compare the detection of residual odors by dogs and laboratory instrumentation. This research will bolster the scientific foundation for canine evidence used in homicide cases and position DRI to secure future funding for projects investigating a wider span of canine evidence, such as contraband.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Workers in Pajaro Valley, Watsonville, CA. Credit: Lance Cheung/USDA.

Supporting climate adaptation for specialty crop farmers
Kristin VanderMolen 

Climate change impacts like flooding and drought threaten the production of specialty crops like fruits, nuts, and vegetables in California, a state that grows more than half of these crops nationwide. DRI’s Kristin VanderMolen, PhD, and partners at the Climate Science Alliance at Scripps Institution of Oceanography are investigating how farmers are adapting to these challenges in order to identify how climate research can best support them. This research lays the groundwork for field studies to test and verify the effectiveness of farmers’ adaptation strategies and the development of climate information products to support farmers into the future. Additionally, this project builds relationships between DRI and critical partners, like the Climate Science Alliance and University of California Cooperative Extension.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

A section of Smoke Creek Road in rural Northwestern Nevada. Credit: Bob Wick/BLM.

Enhancing soil moisture data to improve hydrologic modeling
Ming Liu

Soil moisture is a critical variable when it comes to understanding processes like evapotranspiration, the transfer of water from land surfaces and plants into the atmosphere. Most hydrologic models rely on soil moisture data from satellite remote sensing, but this data lacks ground truthing, especially in remote arid places. In collaboration with Myriota, an Internet of Things (IoT) nanosatellite startup, DRI’s Ming Liu, PhD, is developing sensor stations by integrating Myriota’s nanosatellite transceiver with custom-made universal dataloggers. The sensor stations will be deployed across Nevada to collect soil moisture readings from the field. This project aims to improve the data used in hydrologic models and build the foundation for broader sensor deployment for environmental research in arid lands.

Researchers sample snow

Researchers sample snow for a previous research project. Credit: Nathan Chellman/DRI.

Tracing the history of atmospheric river events to improve water resource management in the Western U.S.
Joe McConnell, Nathan Chellman, Christine Albano

Atmospheric rivers carry significant amounts of water vapor from the tropics to the Western United States, providing 30-40% of the total precipitation during a typical winter season. However, these rivers in the sky can also result in extreme weather like flooding and wind storms, which pose risks to infrastructure and human safety. Despite the significant impacts of atmospheric rivers, little is known about how their frequency and intensity has changed over the past several centuries. Using chemical analysis in DRI’s state-of-the-art Ice Core Laboratory, Joe McConnell, PhD, and his team are working to identify isotopic signatures that differentiate snow produced by atmospheric rivers from that produced by other storms. If successful, researchers will be able to leverage this work in future projects to develop a history of atmospheric rivers over the last several hundred years. Such a record will be valuable for informing water resource management and hazard mitigation, especially as the climate continues to warm and change.

A cannabis growing facility

A cannabis growing facility, part of a previous DRI air quality study. Credit: Vera Samburova/DRI.

Evaluating health risks from cannabis smoking and vaping
David Campbell

The legalization of cannabis products for both medical and recreational use in many states, including Nevada, has resulted in widespread commercial production of non-tobacco smoking and vaping products. However, this growth hasn’t been accompanied by research into the health effects from use of those products—in fact, there has been virtually no analysis of the many chemical compounds that are inhaled by users when smoking or vaping cannabis, due in part to federal research restrictions. Dr. David Campbell is developing a portable sampling system to collect the smoke or vapor for laboratory analysis, and it will be tested with cigarettes made from legal hemp, which is identical to marijuana except for the lower THC content. This research will bolster what we know about the health risks associated with cannabis use and develop intellectual property DRI researchers can leverage in future projects.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast,

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area (SVRA) on the Central California Coast, where Gillies and colleagues have previously conducted research on dust and wind erosion.

Modeling and Analysis of Fluid Flow Interactions with Porous/Permeable 3-Dimensional Forms
Jack Gillies, Eden Furtak-Cole

Dust emissions, particularly from arid regions, directly impact air quality, human health, agricultural production, and the planet’s climate. Windy conditions drive the formation of dust through erosion, and while vegetation and structures like fencing are known to mitigate wind erosion and dust emissions, researchers have been unable to quantify their actual impact in large scale models. Dr. Jack Gillies and his team are working to incorporate the erosion mitigation impact of vegetation and engineered control structures into wind erosion models. These models will provide a cost-effective, efficient way to develop dust control strategies and improve air quality. This work will also position DRI as a leader in the ability to evaluate dust emissions and lay the foundation for future projects, particularly as problems like drought and desertification become more pronounced under a warming climate.

OAL team attends SRNT Annual Meeting, February 20-23, 2019

OAL team attends SRNT Annual Meeting, February 20-23, 2019

The Organic Analytical Lab was well represented at the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco 2019 Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Drs. Andrey Khlystov, Vera Samburova and Yeongkwon Son attended the meeting and Yeong presented three (!!!) posters. Please visit https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.srnt.org/resource/resmgr/SRNT19_Abstracts.pdf to see the abstracts (POS2-8, POS2-17 and POS4-47). The posters generated a lot of interest and created new opportunities for collaboration with governmental agencies and educational institutions.

OAL members present at the NPHA annual meeting

OAL members present at the NPHA annual meeting

OAL scientists Drs. Vera Samburova and Yeongkwon Son attended the 2018 Nevada Public Health Association annual conference in Las Vegas. They gave presentations on potential hazards of e-cigarette use to the broad audience of health care providers, clinicians, educators, and researchers. The talks generated a lot of interest among the attendees and initiated productive discussions. Well done, Yeong and Vera!

Significant amount of cancer-causing chemicals stays in lungs during e-cigarette use, Nevada-based researchers find

Significant amount of cancer-causing chemicals stays in lungs during e-cigarette use, Nevada-based researchers find

Above: Dr. Vera Samburova works in the organic analytical lab at Desert Research Institute, in Reno, Nev., on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.
Photo by Cathleen Allison/Nevada Momentum

Reno, NV (August 15, 2018) – E-cigarettes have become increasingly popular as a smoke-free alternative to conventional tobacco cigarettes, but the health effects of “vaping” on humans have been debated in the scientific and tobacco manufacturing communities. While aldehydes—chemicals like formaldehyde that are known to cause cancer in humans—have been identified in e-cigarette emissions by numerous studies, there has been little agreement about whether such toxins exist in large enough quantities to be harmful to users.

Now, a recently published pilot study by a team of researchers from the Desert Research Institute (DRI) and the University of Nevada, Reno shows that significant amounts of cancer-causing chemicals such as formaldehyde are absorbed by the respiratory tract during a typical vaping session, underscoring the potential health risks posed by vaping.

“Until now, the only research on the respiratory uptake of aldehydes during smoking has been done on conventional cigarette users,” said Vera Samburova, Ph.D., associate research professor in DRI’s Division of Atmospheric Sciences and lead author of the study. “Little is known about this process for e-cigarette use, and understanding the unique risks vaping poses to users is critical in determining toxicological significance.”

Samburova and fellow DRI research professor Andrey Khlystov, Ph.D., have been investigating the health risks associated with e-cigarettes for several years. In 2016, they published findings confirming that dangerous levels of aldehydes are formed during the chemical breakdown of flavored liquids in e-cigarettes and emitted in e-cigarette vapors.

In this study, Samburova and her team estimated e-cigarette users’ exposure to these hazardous chemicals by analyzing the breath of twelve users before and after vaping sessions using a method she and Khlystov have developed over the course of their work together. Through this process, they determined how much the concentration of aldehydes in the breath increased. Researchers then subtracted the concentration of chemicals in exhaled breath from the amount found in the vapors that come directly from the e-cigarette.

The difference, Samburova explains, is absorbed into the user’s lungs.

E-cigarettes in the Organic Analytical Lab

E-cigarettes in the Organic Analytical Lab at DRI.

“We found that the average concentration of aldehydes in the breath after vaping sessions was about ten and a half times higher than before vaping,” Samburova said. “Beyond that, we saw that the concentration of chemicals like formaldehyde in the breath after vaping was hundreds of times lower than what is found in the direct e-cigarette vapors, which suggests that a significant amount is being retained in the user’s respiratory tract.”

The research team took care to ensure that the test conditions of the study mirrored real-life vaping sessions as much as possible. Most participants used their own e-cigarette devices during the study, used e-liquid flavors that were familiar to them, and inhaled for the amount of time that they ordinarily would, which allowed the research team to understand how e-cigarettes are typically used by regular users. Because they tested “normal” vaping experiences, researchers confirmed that the high concentrations of aldehydes found in other studies aren’t limited to laboratory conditions.

“Our new pilot study underlines the potential health risk associated with the aldehydes generated by e-cigarettes,” said Samburova. “In the future, e-cigarette aldehyde exposure absolutely needs to be studied with a larger set of participants.”

The study, “Aldehydes in Exhaled Breath during E-Cigarette Vaping: Pilot Study Results,” was published on August 7th in the journal Toxics and is available here: https://www.mdpi.com/2305-6304/6/3/46/htm#app1-toxics-06-00046. DOI: 10.3390/toxics6030046

This research was independently funded by DRI and conducted in DRI’s Organic Analytical Laboratory located in Reno, Nevada. For more information about the Organic Analytical Lab, visit: https://www.dri.edu/oal-lab.

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The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is a recognized world leader in basic and applied interdisciplinary research. Committed to scientific excellence and integrity, DRI faculty, students, and staff have developed scientific knowledge and innovative technologies in research projects around the globe. Since 1959, DRI’s research has advanced scientific knowledge, supported Nevada’s diversifying economy, provided science-based educational opportunities, and informed policy makers, business leaders, and community members. With campuses in Reno and Las Vegas, DRI serves as the non-profit research arm of the Nevada System of Higher Education. For more information, please visit  www.dri.edu.

Dr. Andrey Khlystov wins Society for Research on Nicotine & Tobacco New Investigator Award

Dr. Andrey Khlystov wins Society for Research on Nicotine & Tobacco New Investigator Award

Dr. Andrey Khlystov has been named a “2018 New Investigator Award Winner for Best Abstract” by the Society for Research on Nicotine & Tobacco for his presentation “The Effect of Puff Topography and Power Settings on Aldehyde and Carbon Monoxide in E-cigarette Aerosols”. The award was presented at the Society’s annual meeting in Baltimore, MD. Dr. Khlystov is the Director of the Organic Analytical Laboratory and a Research Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry at DRI. Two other OAL members presented posters at the SRNT meeting: Dr. Vera Samburova (“Carbonyl Compounds in Exhaled E-cigarette Aerosols”) and Dr. Yeongkwon Son (“Indoor Air Quality in Electronic Cigarette Vape Shops”).