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John Volckens
Associate Professor
Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences

Research Interests

Engineering research in public and environmental health is, by definition, an interdisciplinary effort. I hold appointments in the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory (Dept. of Mechanical Engineering), the Colorado School of Public Health, the School of Biomedical Engineering, and the Cell and Molecular Biology Program. Funding for my research comes from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, and from various industries and philanthropic organizations.

Exposure Assessment and Biology

The risk of disease from environmental and occupational contaminants is closely related to exposure. However, there are often large gaps between the related fields of epidemiology, toxicology, and risk assessment. These gaps impede progress towards understanding and mitigating the adverse affects of air pollution. Consequently, one of my goals is to connect these fields though inter-disciplinary research at the forefront of exposure science, cell biology, and engineering.

Combustion, Energy, and Health

Combustion-related air pollution, a byproduct from our national and global energy-demand, is inflicting a major burden on the health of our population and planet. The current regulatory framework for air pollution control operates under the assumption that ‘less is more’ concerning particulate matter emissions from combustion sources (engines, power plants, fires, etc.). While this assumption has served us well in the past, there is a growing awareness that simple emissions reductions in particulate matter air pollution may not translate directly to improved health. Consequently, my focus is not to engineer the emissions out of combustion processes, but instead to engineer the health effects out of the emissions. Recent research in this area involves the development of an improved model of the human lung in vitro and exposure of human lung cells to aerosol emissions from external combustion sources (i.e. cookstove fires) and internal combustion engines (diesel and biodiesel).

Research Projects


Lung Deposition Sampler for Inhaled Particles

The goal of this research is to develop a more powerful exposure assessment tool that measures particle deposition to our lungs. Such a measurement is more closely related to dose and, therefore, represents a better estimate of risk from air pollution exposure. Long-term, this metric may increase our ability to associate the onset of respiratory diseases with specific exposures, which, in turn, will allow for more efficient intervention and control strategies to reduce our exposure to toxic components of inhaled air.



Human Exposure to Engineered Nanoparticles

The goal of this work is to develop an accurate, sensitive and specific method to assess personal exposures to engineered nanoparticles. Such a method is critical to the establishment of nanoparticle dose-response relationships, as current methods lack both specificity and sensitivity. The method will assess the inhalation route of exposure, and hence, the measurement of nanoparticle concentrations in air.




In Vitro Lung Model for Air Pollutant Deposition and Toxicology

The long-term goal of this research is to establish mechanistic, dose-response relationships between inhaled air pollutants and lung disease. The immediate objective is to develop a realistic, physiological model for air pollutant deposition to the lungs in vitro. We have developed a system to expose lung cells cultured at the air-liquid interface directly to aerosols and gases within a heated, humidified exposure chamber.


Spatiotemporal Exposure Assessment

The concentration and intensity of environmental and occupational hazards tends to vary greatly across both space and time. Quantifying our exposure to such hazards is further complicated because humans are constantly moving around and interacting with their environment. The goal of this research is to develop novel measurement methods and models to better understand how human exposure to environmental agents varies across both space and time.



Portable sensor for oxidative capacity of particulate air pollution

Dr. Volckens in his lab

An emerging hypothesis states that aerosols cause a majority of their harmful effects by eliciting oxidative stress within our bodies. Consequently, there is a need for advancement in the field of oxidative stress measurement related to environmental agents. This project aims to develop a novel on-line monitoring tool that provides a more physiologically relevant measure of air pollution: particulate oxidative capacity. This tool will support benchside, sub-clinical, and population-level studies that seek to associate oxidative air pollution with human disease. Thus, this instrumentation will help researchers and policymakers better understand the sources and mechanisms by which air pollution induces adverse health outcomes in both healthy and at-risk populations.






Microfluidic Sensor for Aerosol Oxidative Load


Microfluidic Paper Analytic Devices (µPADS) for Metal Aerosol

The primary objective of this research is to develop new technology to characterize personal exposure to airborne metals in the workplace. The secondary objective is to improve upon the state-of-the-art in both sensitivity and time-resolution of airborne metals exposure assessment. Key to this effort is an innovative technology called microfluidic paper analytical devices (µPADs) that integrate sampling with analysis in a low cost, high sensitivity format. Our central hypothesis is that µPAD technology can be integrated into personal aerosol samplers for quantification of exposure to airborne metals with sampling and analysis times of less than one hour.

  • Detailed Project Description
  • Funding Source: NIOSH, MAP-ERC
    • Collaborators: Chuck Henry, Mike VanDyke