Two graduate students are the recipients of the 2012 Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy’s research prize fellowship.

Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies students Vanessa Lamers FES ’13 SPH ’13 and doctoral candidate Xin Zhang FES ’13, will each receive $7,500 to fund their research proposals. Zhang’s prize money will help support her research on improving the reliability of national greenhouse gas inventories, whereas Lamers’ funding will cover the costs of her study of water quality near shale gas development sites in southwestern Pennsylvania.

“I am very excited about winning this research fellowship because it will provide me funding support for extending my current doctoral research, which mostly focuses on the basic science, to the policy end,” Zhang said.

Zhang said she has spent the past four years measuring and quantifying greenhouse gas emissions in the “agriculture-dominated” regions of the northern Midwest, where she and her research team found that current guidelines for developing greenhouse gas inventories may lead to uncertainty and bias.

She is collaborating with University of Minnesota professor Timothy Griffis for the experimental portion of her project after having spent the summer of 2009 collecting data at the university’s Tall Tower Trace Gas Observatory. The observatory, Griffis said, allows researchers to measure greenhouse gases in the atmospheric boundary layer with high precision.

The grant, Zhang said, will allow her to examine how uncertainties in measuring carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions affect policy. In her future research, she added, she will explore the “top-down approach,” which involves using Tall Tower, aircraft and remote sensing approaches to improve current national greenhouse gas inventory estimates.

Lamers said she first became interested in her research topic during a talk last year given by billionaire oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens at the Yale Law School auditorium last March. During the talk, she said, Julie Botnick ’14 asked Pickens about his opinion regarding water quality complaints from people living near hydraulic structures used for shale gas development. Pickens responded that he “didn’t know” of any environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. The talk, Lamers said, inspired her to conduct research on natural gas collection.

As part of her research project, Lamers said she will work to develop new methodologies for assessing isotopic analysis in water in close proximity to drilling sites. She and her team will collect samples of well water from private homes and farms in southwestern Pennsylvania and examine water quality and other related factors including well depth.

Lamers said the research team is discussing the possibility of investigating water samples for the presence of toluene, benzene and arsenic — three contaminants that in high doses are particularly hazardous to human health — in addition to acids, heavy metals and general suspended solids. Although Lamers said she has not officially decided which particles she will be measuring, she added that she will likely focus on contaminants affecting human health due to her interest in public health.

The Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy was created in 1994 as a joint initiative between the environment school and the law school.