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Syracuse Scientist Receives CAREER Award to Study 'Ice Chemistry'

Chemist Tara Kahan will examine effects of 'dirty ice' on human health

Sep 4, 2015 — Article by: Rob Enslin

Photo of Tara Kahan

Tara Kahan

A chemist in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences has received a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation to study ice's role as a chemical reactor.

Tara Kahan, assistant professor of chemistry, will use the $579,000 grant award to conduct some of the industry's first studies of the chemistry of “dirty” ice (i.e., ice containing compounds such as road salt).

“I am very excited about this project,” says Kahan, whose expertise includes physical, environmental, and atmospheric chemistry. “Most investigations into the chemistry of ice and snow involve pristine environments such as polar regions. We're also interested in ice and snow in cities, where there are high concentrations of road salt and organic matter, and whose effects haven't been fully investigated. Our goal is to better understand how ice chemistry affects human health."

Using various techniques including Raman microscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy, and chromatography, Kahan will look at how salt and organic matter change the structure of ice surfaces and then react with pollutants, such as components of gasoline.

“This work will provide us with an understanding of ice as a chemical reactor, something that is needed to parameterize predictive models accurately,” she says, adding that graduate and undergraduate students will carry out the experiments. “It will also provide data that improves atmospheric models.”

Kahan’s research should provide valuable insight into ice chemistry in the Arctic. She says that, as ice melts, shipping increases, causing ice and snow to become contaminated by gasoline components. When these pollutants react with sunlight during the Arctic's long summer days (a process known as photochemistry), they transform into toxic products that disrupt the area's delicate biogeochemical cycles.

"I hope to be able to better predict how salt from seawater and organic matter from mostly anthropogenic sources [i.e., human activity] affect the photochemistry of these pollutants," Kahan says.

The project also has a strong outreach component. Kahan will design a summer workshop that enables local middle school students to serve as science journalists. The students will interview environmental scientists at the University and then present their findings at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) in Downtown Syracuse.

“It will be a great opportunity for Syracuse University to connect with the local community through the students’ presentations,” Kahan says. “Plus, our graduate and undergraduate students serving as mentors will learn valuable communication and leadership skills. It will be a ‘teachable moment' for everyone."

A CAREER award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within context of the mission of their organizations.

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Rob Enslin