Member Spotlight: Sarah Haines
A smiling woman with a grey sweater and a smiling man wearing a toque and blue coat

This month, we had an opportunity to chat with Sarah Haines, an assistant professor in the department of civil and mineral engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science and Engineering at the University of Toronto. Sarah joined U of T in July 2021 after completing her PhD in environmental science at The Ohio State University.

Can you describe your research?

My research is focused on building science and indoor environmental quality. I’m mainly interested in how different aspects of our built environment – such as human interactions, moisture, temperature, humidity – come together to impact human health. That also includes infectious diseases caused by different viruses, bacteria and fungi. A lot of my work dives into indoor air quality and the indoor microbiome as a whole. For example, what are the different interactions between the fungi, bacteria and viruses that thrive in different indoor environments? I currently have a student who’s been working to quantify airborne concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 in classrooms as well as in home environments using portable air cleaners. We’re actually able to collect dust onto air cleaners, extract the RNA from the dust and determine whether it’s positive for SARS-CoV-2. From that, we can back calculate to determine how much SARS-CoV-2 was in the air. In the future, we’re planning to scale up this work examining concentrations of other common viruses, bacteria and fungi.

Related to this, other aspects of my work focus on making sure that we have proper ventilation indoors. How are we designing our spaces so that there is proper ventilation? With climate change, we want our buildings to be energy efficient but not at the risk of decreasing indoor air quality. Often, when making our buildings energy efficient, we close them up, decreasing ventilation. My work examines new pathways to design and construct our buildings to be energy efficient, healthy and sustainable.  

How did you become interested in this area?

My undergraduate degree was in environmental engineering. At that time, I was really interested in outdoor air quality and how large emissions from factories and other sources are polluting our environment. I ended up in contact with Karen Dannemiller, an associate professor at Ohio State University who was studying indoor environments. Prior to this I hadn’t thought of indoor air quality as something that needed attention, but we spend 90% of our time indoors. From a health perspective, this is where we should be looking and diving a little more deeply. It was through this undergraduate research with Prof. Dannemiller that I started diving into these interdisciplinary questions combining my interests in microbiology and engineering. I love that it is so interdisciplinary and has a direct connection to human health.

What excites you the most about EPIC?

I’m really interested in working in interdisciplinary spaces. What excites me about EPIC is having the ability to connect with all the different people working in infectious diseases, understanding what research they’re working on and all the potential collaborations that could come out of it. There’s just so many amazing faculty doing research that you don’t know about. I’m hoping that through EPIC, we can work together towards a common goal.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your work?

Pre-pandemic, my biggest challenge was just getting people to care. I felt like it was such an important area of work but it was hard to find people of a similar mindset to collaborate. Now it’s easier to talk to people about indoor environments. It’s become more mainstream and more people are thinking about indoor ventilation, whether they should have a portable air cleaner, should they use a gas stove or turn on their range hood. The challenge now is how do we make sure that we keep this momentum going so that people continue to think about these questions and make changes towards more positive indoor environments. We don’t want to fall back into the old trap.

What do you hope to achieve through your research?

The take home message I’m really hoping people get is just how important our indoor environments are and how critical it is to create healthy, equitable and sustainable spaces. Another thing that I strive for is working with communities and getting that knowledge translation back out to communities and the general public. So often, the research that we do stays in these academic circles. I want to get to a point where everyone knows about the simple things that we can do to keep our spaces, and lives, healthier and eventually, we can develop simple technologies and tools that that people can use in their indoor environments to achieve that. For example, we’ve been looking into whether we can detect mould using simple devices like a smartphone and a badge that changes colour in response to volatile compounds in the air.

Are you involved in any other initiatives or projects right now that you’re really excited about?

I have two ongoing projects with Indigenous communities that I’m really excited about. One is a collaboration with the Prince Albert Grand Council in Saskatchewan where we’re looking at mould growth and moisture in homes. We’re having conversations with communities and trying to develop community-driven solutions that make sense for them and where they are in their housing journey. The other project focuses on water quality. I’m collaborating with Nicholas Spence, an assistant professor in departments of sociology and health and society at U of T, to examine microbial profiles of drinking water from a Northern Manitoba First Nations community. Using DNA techniques, we are working to explore sources of contamination – both bacterial and fungal – at different points in the pipeline, from the drinking water treatment plant to homes to cisterns. From a policy perspective, we’ve been examining current regulations within Canada as well as drinking water advisories. By collaborating with the communities, we ideally can work to improve the quality of not only their water, but perhaps that of other communities in Canada and across the globe.  

What are you reading/watching/listening to?­­

I’m a big Jane Austen fan. I recently read Sense and Sensibility and I’ve been listening to a podcast called Pod and Prejudice where they talk about her books. I’ve been slowly rewatching all of the Marvel movies in order, which is interesting and fun too.

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