Atmospheric chemist develops new tools to study climate and air quality
Rebecca Washenfelder, Ph.D., is an atmospheric chemist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado Boulder. CIRES is a joint partnership between NOAA and the University of Colorado. In July 2012, the White House named Washenfelder a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineeering for research that has provided new insights on how tiny particles in the atmosphere affect climate and air quality. The award also noted her work on developing a new instrument that uses light to study the sources, composition, and longevity of tiny airborne particles which affect both climate and air quality.
Why does your research matter?
At NOAA, I work to develop new instruments to measure trace atmospheric pollutants. Over the past decades, better scientific understanding of atmospheric chemistry has led to better regulations for air quality. This improves the quality of people's lives.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
I enjoy the variety at work. Every day is different and interesting. My job includes a mixture of lab work, field work, and data analysis. Recently I served on a scholarship committee where we read applications for 10 hours a day, two days solid. I realized that I never sit still for 10 hours at work!
Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?
My work starts in the lab, with developing and testing new instruments. If the laboratory tests are successful, then the next step is to assemble a field instrument and make measurements outside. In 2010, I spent six weeks in Los Angeles for a field campaign. This past winter, I traveled to Utah for field measurements in an oil and gas field.
What in your lab could you not live without?
The NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Chemical Sciences Division has a great staff of experienced researchers. I'm able to bounce ideas off other scientists and get their advice on all kinds of questions in the lab and with interpreting data.
If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?
When you design a new instrument, the initial work is very exciting. It starts with sketching ideas, ordering parts, and assembling equipment. The initial results are also exciting. The next steps involve troubleshooting to optimize the instrument and get the best results. There can be small leaks or mistakes in the software. I would love to have a Troubleshooting Robot that would tackle the more tedious tasks.
When did you know you wanted to pursue science?
When I was in high school, I spent one summer in the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon. There were 10 high school students in the program, and we helped Portland State University geologists collect ammonite fossils. I still have a giant paper bag of ammonite fossils at home. After that, I had the general idea that I would like to get a science degree.
When I went to college, I joined the cross-country team. We met every day at 4:15 p.m. on the track. Pomona College is in Los Angeles County, and it's only three or four miles away from the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. But some days, I couldn't even see the mountains because of the smog. There would just be a brown haze and no mountains. I was fascinated by the air quality, and decided that I wanted to study atmospheric chemistry.
What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?
Two important skills for a career in science are being able to write and being curious about the world. You can practice those skills by reading books on any topic that interests you. When I was in junior high, I read biographies about Richard Feynman and was entertained by his scientific investigation of everyday questions.
And how about a personal favorite book?
That's a tough question, because I have many favorites. Most recently, I've been reading Guy Delisle's graphic novels about his travels in North Korea, Burma, and Israel.
What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?
There are a lot of odd one-of-a-kind tasks. Recently, I had 30-foot long power cables and sample tubing laid out in the hallway and was pulling them through a giant piece of pool hose to make a sampling inlet.
Do you have an outside hobby?
For the past several years, I've wanted to do a half-ironman distance triathlon. I didn't have a field campaign planned for this summer and I decided that this was my chance. My current hobby is training -- swimming, biking, and running over and over. I'm signed up for the Boulder Half-Ironman race in August.
What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?
If I wasn't a scientist or engineer, it would be hard to choose. I might become an environmental lawyer or maybe start a company. Or I might just bicycle around the world.
Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?
This past year, I read a biography about Marie Curie, Obsessive Genius, and was amazed by her persistence and obsession with her research.
Rebecca Washenfelder earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in environmental science and engineering from California Institute of Technology, and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Pomona College.