Hinrichs Awarded Prestigious NSF Grant

Undergraduates to assist chemistry professor in climate change research

In the complex field of climate science, undergraduate researchers at Drew University are working to solve a piece of the puzzle to improve the accuracy of climate change projections.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded Ryan Hinrichs, assistant professor of chemistry at Drew, a $350,000 grant for a three-year study of pollutants’ effects on particles in the atmosphere. Hinrichs expects the results will lead to more realistic models of atmospheric chemistry that will contribute to our understanding of how the climate will change.

Winning the NSF grant last fall was no simple feat—only one in five research proposals gets funded—and it marks Drew’s first NSF Research at Undergraduate Institutions grant in chemistry.

Climate change is real, a serious issue caused primarily by greenhouse gases, Hinrichs said. The scientific community needs to do a better job of helping both the public and policymakers understand it so that society is motivated to tackle the problem, he said.

“There remain a lot of climate skeptics,” Hinrichs said. “The goal is to increase everyone’s confidence in climate science.”

Hinrichs will work with Drew undergraduate researchers for three summers studying how the properties of solid particles suspended in the air change when exposed to ozone and nitrogen dioxide, the air pollutants that create smog.

“A big question in climate science is how these particles—things like sea salt, soot and mineral dust—affect the climate,” Hinrichs said.

These particles—also known as aerosols—are involved in cloud formation: generally speaking, the more particles, the whiter the cloud that forms and the less sunlight that can reach the earth.  For that reason, aerosols have a cooling effect on the earth, Hinrichs said.

Hinrichs, however, expects to find that certain environmental contaminants, which adhere to aerosols, may actually hinder water uptake—and cloud formation—as the particles are exposed to ozone and nitrogen dioxide. The net effect of that would be less cooling to offset the warming caused by greenhouse gases.

In the study, the researchers will expose particles to contaminants found in the environment, such as forest fire smoke residue or vehicle exhaust, before introducing the components of smog.

Beyond the research results, the project will give Drew undergraduates experience designing and running experiments. “This is where they really learn how to be a scientist,” Hinrichs said. The NSF grant funds three undergraduate researchers per summer.

In the second and third summers, a science teacher from a New Jersey high school will take part in the research.  The teacher’s hands-on research experience is intended to generate ideas for developing a climate change curriculum at his or her school, Hinrichs said.

Hinrichs, 35, joined the Drew faculty in 2007 and specializes in atmospheric chemistry.  “The more I study it, the more complex I realize it is,” he said.

The married father of two, who earned his PhD at Cornell University, believes it is his responsibility to help non-scientists understand the effects of pollution on the atmosphere.  He taught a freshmen seminar on climate change last year and next spring will teach “Toxic Chemicals: Great Challenges to Environmental Science” to non-chemistry majors.—Margaret McHugh

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Posted: March 26, 2010