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Young Google Science Fair winner, Naomi Shah, continues her research at Maseeh College
Author: Linda Wasson
Posted: March 12, 2012

Naomi Shah, a Sunset High School junior, is a young woman on a mission. While other young people her age devote their time to extracurricular activities such as athletics, Naomi is using her time to conduct research. Some of it is being done in the lab of Prof. James F. Pankow, a nationally acclaimed Portland State University scholar with joint appointments in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Chemistry.

As a young girl, Naomi watched her father and older brother suffer from chronic allergies. With her naturally inquisitive mind, she wondered how indoor air quality — not just outside pollution — affects the symptoms of people suffering from asthma and other respiratory illnesses. After all, Naomi reasoned, most people spend the majority of their time indoors.

In 6th grade Naomi decided she wanted to find out. She spoke to her school science teacher, who put her in touch with Linda George, PSU Professor of Environmental Sciences. These early contacts helped her to begin research on the effects of indoor air quality on asthma sufferers.

Naomi’s research over the past few years has been truly groundbreaking. Part of her work has been in measuring the correlation between chemical pollutants and the peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) of human test subjects. She has also created a mathematical model that helps quantify how environmental pollutants affect lung health. In 2011, Naomi was a Google Science Fair winner in the age 15-16 category.

Since winning the Google Science Fair, Naomi presented her research at environmental conferences across the country. She also accepted two invitations to the White House to see President Obama, and met with other high-level government policymakers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health.

This year Naomi decided to take her research further by refining her mathematical model and looking at the impact separate compounds have on lung health. She contacted Prof. George again, who put her in touch this time with Prof. Pankow, who works with the University’s only gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GC/MS), an instrument used in studying air pollutants.  The equipment is in the Stephen D. Senturia Laboratory for Environmental and Chemical Analysis in the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.

With help from Professor Pankow and his lab team, Naomi is now using the GC/MS to measure volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from common paints and cleaners, and how those impact PEFR.

“Naomi is a remarkable young woman,” said Pankow. “It’s easy to see how she’s gotten to where she is now. She’s very bright, and very motivated. That’s a powerful combination. Lots of young people have the ‘bright’ part covered; if you add the ‘motivation,’ then it’s amazing what can happen. Naomi’s work here in this new building is just one more wonderful example of how the investments in PSU by Dr. (Fariborz) Maseeh are paying many dividends for Portland and indeed the world.”

Naomi’s true passion is to work in an area where environmental research and policymaking overlap. She considers doing science “cool,” and that data are “cool” too. But cool is not enough; she wants her research to have a big impact. She wants to decrease the burden of asthma on people’s lives.

She’ll probably have her pick of universities, but she’s thinking hard about sticking with her local school: Portland State. She says that having an excellent university in the middle of the Portland area is great. She is also grateful for how willing PSU professors and staff have been to help her.

When asked what advice she would give to other young students interested in science and research, she says, “Go for it!” In Naomi’s experience, parents, teachers, and other adult professionals are keen to help and even mentor interested young people. Young students have nothing to lose and possibly many things to gain by simply picking up the phone and reaching out, as Naomi did.