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July 29, 1994
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Ken Keatley
Hopkins Environmental Engineer Receives
An assistant professor at The Johns Hopkins University has
been awarded a 1994 National Science Foundation Young
Investigator Award for her research in the field of environmental
A. Lynn Roberts, of the Department of Geography and
Environmental Engineering in the Whiting School of Engineering at
Hopkins, was one of two researchers in the United States chosen
to receive the award in the field of environmental
The awards, which are intended to recognize talented young
researchers and to extend them research support, can provide each
recipient with up to $100,000 a year for five years in federal
and private funds.
Most of Dr. Roberts' research falls into one of two areas:
investigating contaminants in aquatic systems, and developing
improved technologies for remedying contaminated groundwater.
"I have long found the issue of the damage that we can do
to the environment to be quite gripping," she said. "My
philosophy, to paraphrase George Santayana, is that those who
cannot learn from past pollution problems are condemned to repeat
One project in her laboratory is an investigation, with
Hopkins engineering colleague Edward J. Bouwer, 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 the stratospheric ozone depletion
observed in the Antarctic. Halon production has been
internationally banned, so industrial chemists are scrambling to
find 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,"
said Dr. Roberts. "We need to know something about its chemical
and biological degradability under different conditions."
One way in which she hopes to help in avoiding future
problems is to develop quantitative models that will predict the
fate of chemicals before they are emitted to the environment.
"There are some 60,000 organic chemicals in use right now,
and thousands more being synthesized each year," Dr. Roberts
explained. "Nobody has time to measure the physical-chemical
properties and transformation rates for each of these, in every
sort of setting. But this is information we need to predict
whether these chemicals will be a problem 20 years from now."
She and her team of laboratory researchers are testing a
model Dr. Roberts developed that predicts environmental
transformation rates from chemical structure. A refinement they
are currently investigating is whether spectroscopic information
can be used to predict chemical reactivity.
"The idea is that if someone synthesizes some new chemical,
they can predict how it's going to behave," Dr. Roberts said.
"The results so far have been really encouraging; we think this
looks like a promising technique."
Foresight may limit future contamination but the magnitude
of past problems is staggering, with estimated annual cleanup
costs in the billions of dollars. Dr. Roberts' team is 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 technology eliminates the need for perpetual
maintenance of a contaminated site," she said. "We can't afford
to pump and treat for 50 years or more."
Dr. Roberts received her bachelor's degree in geology from
Pomona College, and worked as a consulting hydrogeologist. She
earned a master's in contaminant hydrogeology from the University
of Waterloo and a doctorate in environmental chemistry from the
Department of Civil Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in 1991. She served as a lecturer and postdoctoral
associate at MIT before joining the Hopkins faculty last fall.
Dr. Roberts has previously been honored by the
Environmental Chemistry Division of the American Chemical Society
for her research.
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