The Chemistry of Nature

 

Colby alumni provide knowledge that could shape global environmental policy

By Robert Gillespie
 

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Megan Melamed '00 is studying the movement of pollution from the Midwest
Megan Melamed '00. Nate Boland '01. Jason St. Clair '00. Tim Bertram '00. Scientists all, they're working on big buzz projects.

Atmospheric chemist Megan Melamed, who's examining the movement of pollution from the Ohio Valley across the Northeast to Europe, is one of several recent alumni taking knowledge and training from Colby and making substantial contributions on the front lines of environmental research. Melamed studies emissions of ozone and aerosol precursors in plumes that rise high above Earth's surface.

Last summer a WP-3D airplane loaded with scientific instruments, Melamed's among them, flew from Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire into point source plumes from power plants and through regional plumes over Boston, New York City, and Alaskan wildfires, measuring different atmospheric pollutants"in Melamed's case, the ozone precursor nitrogen dioxide and the aerosol precursor sulphur dioxide, both precursors for acid rain. Her research, conducted for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Aeronomy Laboratory in her hometown of Boulder, Colo., looks at how local pollution shapes regional and world air quality.

Melamed's instrument collects sunlight and scans the pollutants' bar code"it's just like the bar code on grocery store products. "I figure out how many molecules of pollutants are in the plume"you can calculate how much of that was released," said Melamed, a chemistry major with an environmental science concentration and now five years into a Ph.D. in the University of Colorado's environmental engineering department. Power plants have to say how much pollutant they've released, so their calculations and hers should match up.

She's also looked at other power plant plumes. Several in Texas were going to mandate reduction of emissions, "which would require tons of money to do," Melamed said, "but we proved that Houston was overestimating their discharge and that changing their emissions wouldn't affect air quality. But I'm not the pollution police. It's EPA's job. We try to stay out of policy. We make recommendations based on science."

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Nate Boland '01 studies the potential effects of new chemicals on the environment
Remember the problems with DDT and Freon? "A lot of environmental engineering today is thinking about how chemicals interact with the environment," said Nate Boland. Even before new chemicals are released, he wants to be able to predict adverse effects they may have in the environment.

Boland's interested in the structure of chelating agents (chelating means "to bite into"), which are produced by plants (the vegetable kind) and by human synthetic organic chemistry for industrial cleaning, pesticides, herbicides, and the like. The chelating agents bite onto or bind with natural minerals in the environment such as metal oxides (rust) and with toxic metals like lead, nickel, and chromium. Some chelating agents, including synthetic organics, can re-dissolve the toxic metals. "If they're moving and end up in water supplies, that's a problem," Boland said.

Fresh out of Colby, Boland joined Teach for America and taught chemistry for three years in a Baton Rouge, La., inner-city high school. One grant he lined up went toward water chemistry equipment. His students took water samples in a coastal bay, discovering how infiltration of saltwater into fresh-water estuaries affects organisms that live there.

"That was huge. Kids got excited. They came back and taught their classmates how to do water tests," Boland said. Teaching is "still big in my heart and I miss it. I recognized I did love chemistry. It's cool," he said, though he has shifted focus slightly to do environmental chemistry in the context of environmental engineering in the department of geography and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins. "But the bigger issues are educational."

Boland's long-term plan is to teach in a selective liberal arts college and to recruit students, especially African Americans and women, and get them excited about science and engineering.

The recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship recently, Boland says his Colby professors helped him when he was looking for his career path. "The fact that I got my first job at Woods Hole really springboarded me to get to Colby," he said. "That experience made me stand out. I want to do the same things for my students."

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Jason St. Clair '00 is examining ways the atmosphere will be affected by climate change.
Jason St. Clair is interested in "the whole water transport issue""the convective transport processes that move "atmospheric species" such as water vapor and affect the warming and cooling of Earth's entire atmosphere. A warmer planet "may have stronger convection," he said, "like the water in a boiling pot of water turns over faster as the water gets hotter."

A fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in physical chemistry at Harvard, St. Clair is part of a varied group of scientists looking to understand the chemistry of the atmosphere and to predict how the atmosphere will be altered by climate change. On their most recent trip, a flight out of a former Air Force base near Houston to measure water vapor and isotopes, liquid water, and ice, they loaded their instruments into a specially equipped B-57, which can climb to 60,000 feet. "Then you cross your fingers and wait till the plane comes back," he said.

A summa cum laude chemistry major with minors in geology and math, St. Clair was interested in "doing science and doing something with a social benefit" and arrived at Harvard thinking he'd be a professor. "You can do a lot of good work," he said. But global warming involves "a lot of politics, which makes it interesting."

#cleanair#left#70%#Climate-change skeptics"the fossil fuel industry in particular"need to be convinced about the effects of the CO2 we're producing, St. Clair said. "The question is, at what point do you go proactive? What if we switched off fossil fuels? What's the cost of getting off? But we don't hear much about the cost of not getting off. Higher temperatures will affect agriculture. It's something to worry about."

The work being done by Colby scientists points to new trends in public policy. At least "that's the hope," according to St. Clair, whose group aims to launch a small satellite to accurately measure climate trends within 10 years.

Like Boland, Melamed, and other Colby alumni working in environmental science, "We're filling in the gaps," St. Clair said.