Texas Tech University

Atmospheric Science Researcher Studies Health Effects of Dust Storms

Glenys Young

February 14, 2020

Karin Ardon-Dryer’s unique interdisciplinary approach examines how atmospheric particles affect individual cells.

In February, Texas Tech is once again highlighting the outstanding research being conducted by our talented and dedicated Red Raiders through our "TTU ❤️ Research" series. This year, we are pairing this effort with Black History Month in order to feature our influential black faculty and students who have had a tremendous impact through their research. This is the fifth in this series.

Karin Ardon-Dryer has always loved dust storms.

Yes, you read that right. Those enormous, brown-out-the-sky, grind-the-city-to-a-halt storms fascinate her.

"One event that really influenced my life and pushed me toward the atmospheric science field was the Israeli scientific experiment done on board NASA's space shuttle Columbia on its last flight," Ardon-Dryer said. "I was fascinated by the fact that they tracked dust storms from space."

Born and raised in Israel, she felt an additional connection to the scientists involved. Several years later, she reached out to Professor Zev Levin, one of the designers of the Columbia dust storm project, and wound up working with him for her doctorate. She came full circle, she says, when she moved 7,000 miles away to Lubbock, which has both frequent dust storms and a strong connection to the Columbia.

For Ardon-Dryer, now an assistant professor of atmospheric science at Texas Tech University, one aspect of her research focuses on the health aspects of atmospheric particles, which are always in the air but are so small they can't be seen most of the time. They only become apparent when numerous particles are in the same place at the same time, like during a dust storm.

Using a special measurement station on campus, Ardon-Dryer's team samples and monitors the air constantly, but every so often, they're able to get data and samples from a big event, like last June's haboob.

"We want to understand how these particles impact our health when we breathe them, how they interact with our environment and how they affect the climate," she explained. "Dust storms are common in many places around the world, and they pose danger in many ways."

Examples of those dangers abound, she says. Many people have died in vehicle accidents during dust storms because of the limited visibility. From the Dust Bowl era in the U.S. to current day Australia and China, dust storms have caused billions of dollars in damage to agriculture, thus influencing the world economy. Asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses are just a few of the health issues tied to dust storms.

"While we can't solve everything, knowledge is key; if we learn more about them, what they contain, how one dust storm is different from another, we might be able to find answers to some of the questions we have," Ardon-Dryer said. "We aim to find out how and why exposure to dust storms affects our health, what makes one type of breathable particles more dangerous than another."

While dust storms certainly aren't unique to Lubbock, Ardon-Dryer's approach to studying them is.

"There are other places in the academic world that try to find answers to similar questions, but some of the tools and the techniques we use are unique to my group," she said. "We bring a new interdisciplinary approach that, to my knowledge, is not being used anywhere else. We study the health effects of exposure to particles at the single-cell level, looking at the interaction between human cells and particles as we try to identify the mechanisms behind it."

As a first-generation student, Ardon-Dryer wasn't certain she wanted to go into academia, but with time and the thrill of discovery, her path became clear. Today, she seeks to pass along the impact others had on her.

Without the support of her parents, especially her stepfather, Avihu Izbornizki, she says she might not have gone to college at all. Levin and her postdoctoral adviser at Harvard University, Galit Lahav, helped to steer her in the right direction at pivotal times. And her husband has encouraged her to believe in herself and pursue her dreams.

Ardon-Dryer also credits one of her undergraduate advisers, Professor Pua Bar, as her first female role model.

"It was the first time I saw someone who 'looked' like me in the academic setting," she said, "and her presence opened a doorway of possibilities."

Ardon-Dryer continues to hold that door open.

"I enjoy interacting with students," she said, "inspiring them to ask questions and opening their eyes to the possibilities."