Pioneering Pollution Research Earns Roberts 5-Year NSF Grant By Ken Keatley Anyone who goes sniffing around in Lynn Roberts' lab had better be careful. Some of the work being done literally stinks. On a recent afternoon, as Dr. Roberts observed, lab technician Penney Miller was measuring the concentration of polysulfides culled out of a ginger-colored, malodorous water sample collected from a Massachusetts lake. "You don't want to smell that," Miller said. "Take my word for it." Though the sulphur-laden water sample may be offensive, things are otherwise coming up roses for Dr. Roberts and the five researchers in her Ames Hall basement lab. This summer, Dr. Roberts, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, was awarded a National Science Foundation Young Investigator Award. She is one of only two researchers in the United States to receive the award this year in the field of environmental engineering. The awards, which recognize talented young researchers and extend them research support, guarantee each recipient $25,000 annually for five years. However, the NSF will also match an additional $37,500 raised privately by the recipient each year, so the potential value of the award is $100,000 annually. "This NSF award is really nice, because it gives me five years of research funding with no strings attached," Dr. Roberts said. "There is flexibility with this award, and that's what we need in research." Dr. Roberts was honored for her pioneering work investigating contaminants in aquatic systems and developing improved technologies for remediating contaminated groundwater. "I have long found the issue of the damage that we can do to the environment to be quite gripping," Dr. Roberts said. "My philosophy, to paraphrase George Santayana, is that those who cannot learn from past pollution problems are condemned to repeat them." A key piece of equipment in her lab is a gas chromatograph. Using a syringe, Dr. Roberts and members of her research team inject water samples into the desktop machine, which then measures the presence of contaminants at levels as low as one part per million or billion. The sophisticated analysis plays an important role in each of the five research projects that are simultaneously under way. One is an investigation, with Hopkins engineering colleague Edward J. Bouwer and graduate student Terry Phillips-Seitz, of the environmental fate of trifluoromethyl iodide. It is being proposed as a replacement for halons, fire-extinguishing chemicals believed to be responsible for up to 25 percent of stratospheric ozone depletion observed in the Antarctic. Halon production has been internationally banned, so industrial chemists are frantically searching for a substitute without ozone-depleting properties. "Before we start manufacturing something in large quantities, we want to find out what is going to happen to it," Dr. Roberts said. "We need to know something about its chemical and biological degradability under different conditions." Foresight may limit future contamination but the magnitude of past problems is staggering, with estimated annual clean-up costs in the billions of dollars at the 1,200 sites currently on the Superfund list. Thus, two members of Dr. Roberts' team--graduate students Lisa Totten and Marina Grigorova--are studying passive remediation technology, which involves introducing appropriate substances underground to react with or to absorb pollutants. By examining the reactions contaminants undergo, they hope to learn what controls the formation of undesirable by-products. "This eliminates the need for perpetual maintenance of a contaminated site," she said. "We can't afford to pump and treat for 50 years." Another way Dr. Roberts hopes to avoid future problems is by developing quantitative models that will predict the fate of chemicals before they are emitted into the environment. Currently, graduate student Michelle Crossman is testing a model Dr. Roberts developed that predicts environmental transformation rates from chemical structure. "The idea is that if someone synthesizes a new chemical, they can predict in advance how it's going to behave," she explained "We think this looks like a promising technique." Dr. Roberts was a lecturer and postdoctoral associate at MIT before joining the Hopkins engineering faculty last fall. She has also been honored for her research by the American Chemical Society's Environmental Chemistry Division.
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