Science Students Join National Atmospheric Field Study

CONWAY, Ark. (July 15, 2013) – What makes the Smoky Mountains look smoky and why are the Blue Ridge Mountains blue? Just ask Hendrix students Alyssa Jaksich and Dagen Hughes.

This summer, Jaksich, a senior chemical physics and economics major from Nashville, Tenn., and Hughes, a junior chemistry major from Hot Springs, Ark., are working on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Southeast Nexus (SENEX) study and field campaign in Smyrna, Tenn. 

The major aim of the study is to examine the interactions between biogenic (natural) and anthropogenic (human-caused) emissions at the nexus of air quality and climate change.

The study uses a combination of atmospheric modeling and aircraft measurements onboard the NOAA WP-3D research aircraft to clock over 120 flight hours across the southeast U.S. The aircraft is sampling directly over Arkansas due to the proposed science questions regarding isoprene emissions from the Ozarks, the presence of large power plant plumes in West Memphis and the oil and gas industry in the Fayetteville Shale region.  

The southeast U.S. is an interesting region to study the relative roles of atmospheric gases, aerosols and aerosol precursor gases with respect to their effects on climate change and air quality, according to Hendrix chemistry professor Dr. Courtney Hatch, who is mentoring the students in their research.

“The southeast U.S. has not warmed as much as other regions in the U.S. in response to climate change,” Hatch explained. “It is believed that the temperature anomaly in the southeast U.S. is likely related to the high aerosol concentrations derived from chemical reactions between anthropogenic (O3) and biogenic (volatile and semivolatile organic compounds emitted from vegitation) aerosol precursor gases emitted in this region.”

The opportunity to work on-site in a field environment is a unique experience for undergraduate student researchers, Hatch said.

“The experience of participating in a scientific field study is extremely different from the experiences most Hendrix science students get in the laboratory in which preparation, data collection and analysis can be done on a much longer time scale,” said Hatch.

“Generally there is only a finite amount of time to gather data in the field. Field work requires what NOAA calls ‘rapid science synthesis,’ where the previous days science may help determine where you fly/sample the next time out,” she said. “In this way, the necessity to keep up with data analysis during the study creates an intensive research environment. Thus, the uniqueness of this experience arises from the fact that the students will directly see the science evolve as the project progresses.” 

Hatch’s research background is closely related to the science questions posed by SENEX field scientists. Currently, one of her major laboratory projects is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Atmospheric Chemistry program.  Because her research experiences have predominantly involved laboratory measurements of the physiochemical properties and surface chemistry of atmospheric aerosols, the opportunity to participate in SENEX enhances the broader impacts of her professional research endeavors, she said. 

The NOAA SENEX project has significant implications for environmental policy, Hatch said.

“As anthropogenic aerosols are currently being regulated by the government due to their health effects without concern for their cooling climate effects, it is imperative to develop strategic policies that will address both our changing climate and our air quality simultaneously,” she explained.  “There is a need for focused and intensive research at the nexus of air quality and climate change to inform policy makers of the most effective strategies to improve air quality without a net cost to our climate and health.”

Participants in the study include investigators from a number of academic and government institutions and represent 30-40 of the top atmospheric researchers in the country. But that is not all. The SENEX project is only a subset of the various field studies that are collaborating to study the atmosphere across the southeast US, including resources and facilities from the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Electric Power Research Institute in addition to NOAA. Together, the collaboration includes four airborne platforms and four ground based field sites distributed across the southeast. 

Jaksich and Hughes are two of only four undergraduate students working on the SENEX project. Their summer research was partially funded by Your Hendrix Odyssey : Engaging in Active Learning and NOAA.

“Working alongside and simply talking with these researchers is an experience in itself resulting in a transfer of knowledge and advice that could greatly effect and influence my future education and career path,” said Jaksich. “Another potential outcome of this study that has a great deal of value to myself is the possibility of publications. After the field study is complete all of the acquired data will be readily available to us, this includes data from all aspects of the study, not just the data we collect.”

Prior to joining the project, the students went through a two-week training period on campus to learn the atmospheric chemistry behind the major science goals of the project and the theory and instrumentation of a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GC/MS).

“I never dreamed that I would be given the opportunity to take part in a highly collaborative and coordinated study such as this with some of the world’s top researchers as an undergrad,” said Hughes. “I am so thankful that I have been given this opportunity that will allow me to explore so many options for my future, and represent Hendrix while doing it. My Hendrix Odyssey is more than an educational goal. It is a personal journey toward finding my vocation.”

Jaksich and Hughes will present their results this spring at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Dallas, Texas. 

Founded in 1876, Hendrix College is a national leader in engaged liberal arts and sciences education. For the fifth consecutive year, Hendrix was named one of the country’s “Up and Coming” liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report. Hendrix is featured in the 2012 edition of the Princeton Review as one of the country’s best 377 colleges, the latest edition of Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think about Colleges, Forbes magazine's annual list of America's Top 650 Colleges, and the 2013 edition of the Fiske Guide to Colleges. Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. For more information, visit www.hendrix.edu.