NIEHS-funded researchers and businesses exhibited cutting-edge products and models at a Sensors and Technologies Fair Dec. 6-7 during the NIEHS Environmental Health Science (EHS) FEST.
The need for measurements of time, location, and amount of exposure is driving development of ever more portable, accurate, and user-friendly sensors, as scientists continue to link health impacts to substances an individual or their forebears were exposed to — years, decades, and even generations earlier. Researchers use a variety of approaches to estimate or measure an individual’s exposure, including surveys, remote sensing data, and information gathered by personal or location-based exposure sensors.
At the sensors and technologies fair, engineers and scientists displayed nearly three dozen exhibits of posters, products, and working models over the course of the two days. Online tools included maps, analysis methodologies, and software, as well as materials for sharing data with and educating study participants. In addition to the sensor fair, two conference sessions featured approaches to validating sensors, and a workshop focused on commercializing sensor technologies.
“NIEHS has supported the development of sensor technology through several grant mechanisms,” said David Balshaw, Ph.D., head of the NIEHS Exposure, Response, and Technology Branch. “EHS FEST presented a golden opportunity to share prototypes, products, and projects still in development with environmental health researchers from across the country.”
Grants spur technology development
The grant programs Balshaw referred to support small businesses and innovation, helping spur a rapid evolution in sensor technology. Another effort, the NIEHS Sensor Development and Validation program, helps move prototype sensors into field use by supporting partnerships between sensor developers and environmental epidemiologists.
Collaboration is key in this field, and exhibits were frequently staffed by both engineers and academic researchers. Sensors featured at the fair (794KB) measure metals stored in bone, ozone and black carbon inhaled by pedestrians and cyclists, the sum of all chemicals encountered in a few hours or days, and numerous other exposures. Targeting chemicals of concern, these technologies support collection and storage of data that may prove critical in unraveling the causes of health impacts in the years to come.
Ensuring good data
The research-and-development feel of the sensor fair was complemented by data-driven conference sessions at which researchers shared validation techniques, to help ensure that new technologies deliver reliable data.
John Birks, Ph.D., from 2B Technologies, discussed his company’s personal ozone monitor and personal air monitor at one of the sessions. “I was encouraged yesterday to see Aerodyne at the sensor fest,” he said, describing the calibration methods Aerodyne incorporates into its sensors.
User-friendly design is also important. “The success of a study can be affected if a device isn’t easy to use correctly,” said Yuxia Cui, Ph.D., an NIEHS contractor who co-hosted the validation sessions with Balshaw. She noted that sensors are used in citizen science projects as well as more traditional studies.
Making sensors more accessible
Besides the EHS FEST sessions and fair, NIEHS held a workshop Dec. 8, organized by Lingamanaidu (Ravi) Ravichandran, Ph.D., and Daniel Shaughnessy, Ph.D., and other staff from the NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training (DERT). The workshop addressed commercializing sensor technologies.
Several NIEHS grantees developing and using sensor technologies for environmental health studies updated attendees on their technologies and on challenges to commercializing their devices.
A panel of invited speakers with expertise in areas such as outreach and marketing, licensing and partnering, venture funding, and technology and business development, shared their experiences and success stories.
In addition, Shaughnessy, NIEHS program officer for the Small Business Innovation Research program, moderated a panel on major challenges in commercializing sensor technologies and the potential path forward for these efforts.