Researching AUM: The many GIS projects of Hoehun Ha

Dr. Hoehun Ha, AUM assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Environmental Science

An assistant professor in the Auburn University at Montgomery Department of Biology and Environmental Science, Dr. Hoehun Ha is a specialist in GIS – the Geographic Information System used to gather and analyze geographical data.

He applies GIS to issues such as public safety and the environment resulting in state, national, and international applications.

One project involves building computer models to study lead and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) soil contaminating in Anniston to help reduce potential health risks in the community.

“The research results are expected to inform scientists, health policy makers, and local governments to provide geographical assessment of chemical pollution risk for making healthy living choices among individuals and community,” explained Ha.

Another project focuses on conservation easements – agreements that allow government agencies to protect private land for conservation purposes.

“It’s an important tool for land stewardship by managing existing private land use while allowing for continued private ownership and traditional management,” said Ha. “Our results indicate that the conservation easement placement is influenced by environmental factors, such as land cover types, socioeconomic factors such as median income, and population density.”

Ha has also demonstrated a connection between mental health, air pollution, and altitude.

“We have found a significant association between mentally unhealthy days (MUDs) and altitude and air pollution, indicating that MUDs increase with increasing air pollution concentrations at decreasing altitudes.”

Ha has extended the project to study the influence of altitude on suicide rates which apparently increase slightly for Americans living in higher-altitude regions. Ha’s research suggests “for every increase of 100 meters in altitude, suicide rates increase by 0.4 per 100,000.”

A possible explanation for this is the decrease in oxygen at higher elevations which in turn could affect chemicals such as neurotransmitters in the body, leading to increased emotional instability.

“These findings suggest a need for further investigation to explain multiple mechanisms that are influenced by air pollution and altitude for individuals with mental health issues,” advised Ha.

Yet another project has examined wildlife-vehicle collisions in central California.

“Our results indicated potential areas where wildlife populations are at increased risk of coming into contact with traffic,” said Ha.

Originally from South Korea, Ha studied or worked at Utah State University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Central Michigan University before coming to AUM.

He says he looks forward to continuing with research on the linkages between socio-physical environment and human interactions using GIS and statistical methodologies.

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 700 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.com).