Computer Science Meets Behavioral Sciences: Interdisciplinary Research Focuses on Heat Resilience in the Age of Climate Change

Tauhidur Rahman
Tauhidur Rahman
Jamie Mullins
Jamie Mullins

As high temperatures become more frequent and intense due to climate change, UMass Amherst scientists are developing interdisciplinary research aimed at helping communities increase resilience to extreme heat by monitoring physiological, mental and behavioral health factors.

Tauhidur Rahman, assistant professor of computer and information sciences, and social scientist Jamie Mullins, assistant professor of resource economics,received a $75,000 planning grant from the National Science Foundation’s Smart and Connected Communities program to fund their project.

They will conduct pilot research in Amherst, with partners at Arizona State University and the Nara Institute of Science and Technology in theOsaka region of Japan also testing the technology and collecting data.

“Extreme heat is becoming an increasingly common event,” Rahman says. “The way it impacts the health and well-being of the individual is very different across the world.”

The researchers plan to measure physiological, subjective and behavioral responses to heat exposure, with the goal of identifying and disseminating technological and social interventions to mitigate heat risk for populations living in hot, urban and semi-urban environments. They will share their insights with community leaders so they can better develop effective strategies for building climate-smart cities and encouraging population resilience.

Rahman, who specializes in next-generation mobile health technologies, plans to capture physiological and environmental data from a community with wearable sensors, as well as off-body contactless sensing. The wearable sensor will passively sense the physiological markers for heat stress and exposure, while the off-body sensing systems will capture crowd behaviors with techniques from physics-based computational imaging and mobile health sensing. The multilevel (individuals and crowds) behavioral markers collected in the U.S. and Japan will be integrated to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the physiology of heat stress and mitigation strategies.

“We will create a model of heat stress at the individual level and then see how we can tie it into more of a population-level model,” Rahman says.

Mullins, whose research area includes the relationship between human health and environmental exposures as well as climate change adaptation, will focus on linking individuals’ behavior to physiological responses to heat exposure through their subjective experiences of heat. “My role will be to work on accurately measuring people’s self-reported well-being and experiences of various thermal conditions to statistically link objective, physiological measures coming from the scientific equipment to actions and behaviors,” Mullins says.

Rahman and Mullins are planning to hold workshops and collaborative activities to strengthen the research ties between UMass, Arizona State and Nara.

Ultimately, the goal is to use the research to create meaningful models and inform individuals and communities on ways to be more heat resilient.

“Going forward, we’ll be thinking how to map the implications of all the data into recommendations and best practices when thinking about designing and moving through environments that we all interact with every day in a world where temperatures are going to be warmer and extreme temperatures are likely to be increasingly common,” Mullins says.