Environmental Chemistry from Home

By Elizabeth Westbrook

Thanks to the amazing effort by the Bigelow staff coordinating the 2020 REU program, we have had an online internship experience that has been just as valuable as I imagined an in-person one would be. In addition to working on my individual project, each week is filled with seminars, lectures, and discussions held via Zoom that provide an opportunity to learn from a variety of professionals at Bigelow about different aspects of conducting and sharing research. I am constantly surprised by the approachability of everyone involved with our program, from the scientists and staff to the other students. This program has given me one of my first real looks into the world of science as a career and I am more excited than ever about the prospect of going down that path.  

My mentors this summer are Dr. Chris Aeppli and Dr. Brian DiMento. Working with them in the environmental chemistry laboratory from my home near Annapolis, Maryland this summer has been a constructive and enlightening experience. Their project is studying the photochemical breakdown of a type of persistent organic pollutant known as short-chain chlorinated paraffins (SCCPS). They hypothesize that this process is facilitated by dissolved organic matter (DOM) molecules, which are very large and create a so-called “microreactor” where SCCPs can accumulate and degrade. A better understanding of this process can inform action regarding the management of these molecules in the environment.

My project this summer contributes to this effort by studying the affinity of SCCP molecules for the microreactor created by dissolved organic matter. The goal is to prove that the ability of an individual SCCP molecule to degrade by this pathway is contingent on affinity for DOM. Since there are over four thousand molecules that are classified as short-chain chlorinated paraffins, it is necessary to use computational methods to determine the DOM affinity of each one, which is quantified by a partitioning coefficient, KDOM. If this hypothesis can be proved, then we will be able to predict the persistence of individual SCCP congeners in the environment!

These are some of the representative DOM molecules that I am using to model the behavior of DOM in the software that I am using, called COSMOtherm.

So far, the biggest challenge for me has been mastering the art of collecting and organizing data. Working with literature and data bases extensively for the first time has inspired me to finally learn the basics of coding so that I can eliminate inefficiencies in my future endeavors. I have also learned a lot about this topic from our weekly coding hours done over Zoom. The most rewarding thing about the work that I am doing is learning about using software and interacting with my computer in ways that I never have before, though I never considered myself to be a computer person before this summer. I am so excited to learn more about this topic in the second half of this program and to share the outcome of my work at the end of the summer.

Elizabeth Westbrook is a University of Maryland student in Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. This intensive experience provides an immersion in ocean research with an emphasis on state-of-the-art methods and technologies.

Environmental Chemistry from Home