Johns Hopkins Gazette: August 22, 1994

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
    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
    "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
    "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
    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
    "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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