Chemistry congratulates Professor Rachel O’Brien for her recent National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award. Professor O’Brien’s specialty is atmospheric chemistry. As an atmospheric chemist, she identifies and quantifies the compounds in aerosol particles which are found in the air as well as the chemicals which land on surfaces. Her group specializes in characterizing how those mixtures change chemically over time.
Many previous studies in her field have focused on initial aging reactions. “What happens next?” The O’Brien research lab asks. “Aerosol particles and deposited films can exist in the environment for 1-2 weeks, or more. The objective of this project is to measure the extent and impact of multi-generational aging reactions in complex organic mixtures. This project focuses on organic material found in atmospheric aerosol particles and deposited on outdoor surfaces.” She insures the research outcomes are transferred into real-life knowledge for students, both at W&M and the surrounding Williamsburg community. “Focusing on organic material deposited onto surfaces provides a rich platform for questions that have immediate ties to students’ experiences in every-day life.”
Professor O’Brien's research lab involves students in all phases of research, while including all phases of students: freshman, sophomores, juniors, seniors and graduate students work in her lab. Using both mass spectrometry and spectroscopy techniques, researchers start to understand how complex organic mixtures age in various environments. Their findings will extend into the surrounding community with the help of W&M’s chapter of NOBCChE.
NOBCChE is the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers, and the W&M Chapter is mentored by another Chemistry faculty member, Professor Dana Lashley with assistance by Professor O’Brien. NOBCChE student members will conduct outreach activities that promote Chemistry and scientific studies in the local community. Professor O’Brien is also excited to foster cutting edge research and STEM activities that will develop into high school curriculum. Educational guides for curriculum and outreach activities will be trailed at the local Bruton High School.
Professor O’Brien’s project links the everyday objects we use, see and touch to the atmosphere we breathe, see and feel. By conducting an analytical examination of the chemistry just under our fingertips, we can better understand our impact to the earth. Stay tuned for the papers, exciting curriculum and savvy scientists that will grow from this project. Congratulations to Rachel O’Brien for her funding!