Kay Strain King
Dip. Ed.; Mathematics, Biology, and Music
Makere University College
Texas A&M University
Senior Environmental Mathematician
Theta Engineering, Inc.
What on earth does an environmental mathematician DO? As a member of the Environmental Engineering Division at Theta, a small business which specializes in providing support services to government agencies such as the US Department of Energy and private industries such as Westinghouse Environmental Management Company of Ohio, I usually work as a member of an interdisciplinary team tackling a specific problem on a particular Superfund site. The composition of Theta's team depends on the assignment. The team members must communicate effectively across many academic disciplines and must be able to adequately summarize their work in writing. The work is never boring, occasionally involves travel to interesting places, and has, thus far, used not only every bit of my mathematical and statistical background, but has drawn on all of my other life experiences. After spending approximately 25 years teaching mathematics, I find it fun, exciting, and, I hope, a contribution to our Mother Earth to work with others on environmental assignments.
For example, when Theta did an Environmental Assessment pursuant to the National Environmental Protection Act, our team consisted of an ecologist, an environmental engineer, an electrical engineer, and a hydrogeologist, with me, a mathematician, as team coordinator. In organizing this project, I used the same logical and quantitative thought processes I used in numerous mathematics courses I have taken or taught.
During another assignment, a Theta team was requested to devise a method for predicting measurements of a gas escaping from bermed storage tanks based on weather conditions. We were provided with weather data with readings every hour and gas readings from certain locations also taken every hour -but not necessarily at the same time as the weather data. Because pressure measurements were not available from inside the tanks or on the berms surrounding them, we used dropping atmospheric pressure at the meteorological station to simulate that "the pressure outside the tank is less than the pressure inside the tank." Stepwise regression and time series analyses produced low coefficients of determinations when the independent variables were linear combinations of the meteorological variables. Consequently, we used products of independent variables. We reasoned that, if a temperature inversion did not occur, then, even if the gas were released, it dispersed before reaching the monitors, i.e., it never got measured. Thus the meteorological variables could be split into two categories-those influencing the release of the gas, and those facilitating the measurement of the gas. We ran the final regressions on a contrived (censored) data set and obtained acceptable results.
So, next time you hear a news broadcaster talk about what is happening at your nearest Superfund site, remember that mathematics is an important part of the solution to the pollution!