2010 Feb. 15: NJ: Rutgers chemist has made smog and smoke her life’s work

Rutgers chemist has made smog and smoke her life’s work
Monday, February 15, 2010
Last updated: Monday February 15, 2010, 6:24 AM
BY JAMES M. O’NEILL
The Record
STAFF WRITER

Rutgers University chemist Monica Mazurek turned a childhood irritant into the focus of her research.

Mazurek, who has spent the past decade studying air pollution in the New York metro region, grew up in the 1950s in Pasadena, Calif., which she calls the nation’s smog capital. Her oldest sister had childhood asthma.

"I guess I was inspired by smog," Mazurek said.

Her nose has become so finely attuned to smog that she can recognize the odor. "I can smell smog," she said.

As an undergraduate at the University of California at Los Angeles, Mazurek majored in organic chemistry, but after working in a lab she decided she didn’t want to be a bench chemist. She was intrigued by forensic chemistry. In the early 1980s, she started work on a project that identified the molecular markers that could help scientists determine the location of oil reserves by studying sediment.

"Then oil prices crashed and I refocused on studying the atmosphere," Mazurek said. "Our team started sampling clean and dirty days in Los Angeles."

At a conference, she happened to sit next to a mechanical engineer from the California Institute of Technology who was studying fine particulates of carbon in the atmosphere. They got to talking and Mazurek realized her specialized skills could help him identify what had produced the particles, so they could zero in on the sources of pollution.

"Think of the particles of pollution in the air as M&Ms with different coatings," Mazurek said. "We rinse off the coatings and look at the chemistry using a mass spectrometer. The coatings can have hundreds of compounds."

Certain compounds are distinctive markers for sources of pollution. Levoglucosan, for instance, is generated from the combustion of cellulose — newspapers and hardwood. Two other compounds, dehydroabicitic acid and retene, are byproducts of burning softwood, such as pine.

Cholesterol also produces compound markers on the outer shells of particles, and cottonseed oil — used by fast-food restaurants for frying — produce their own markers. By studying the ingredients used at certain fast-food chains, scientists can identify the markers distinctive to those chains and then determine where particulates are coming from.

Mazurek joined the Rutgers faculty 15 years ago. Her work over the past decade has identified restaurants and burning wood as a major source of particulates in the air over North Jersey and New York City.

Her research is funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation.

"Monica was part of the team that opened up the field of analyzing the chemistry to unravel the sources of organic particulates. She was one of the pioneers of this," said Richard Flagan, a former colleague at CalTech. "It’s detective work using clues that nobody had looked at before."

Rutgers University chemist Monica Mazurek turned a childhood irritant into the focus of her research.

Mazurek, who has spent the past decade studying air pollution in the New York metro region, grew up in the 1950s in Pasadena, Calif., which she calls the nation’s smog capital. Her oldest sister had childhood asthma.

"I guess I was inspired by smog," Mazurek said.

Her nose has become so finely attuned to smog that she can recognize the odor. "I can smell smog," she said.

As an undergraduate at the University of California at Los Angeles, Mazurek majored in organic chemistry, but after working in a lab she decided she didn’t want to be a bench chemist. She was intrigued by forensic chemistry. In the early 1980s, she started work on a project that identified the molecular markers that could help scientists determine the location of oil reserves by studying sediment.

"Then oil prices crashed and I refocused on studying the atmosphere," Mazurek said. "Our team started sampling clean and dirty days in Los Angeles."

At a conference, she happened to sit next to a mechanical engineer from the California Institute of Technology who was studying fine particulates of carbon in the atmosphere. They got to talking and Mazurek realized her specialized skills could help him identify what had produced the particles, so they could zero in on the sources of pollution.

"Think of the particles of pollution in the air as M&Ms with different coatings," Mazurek said. "We rinse off the coatings and look at the chemistry using a mass spectrometer. The coatings can have hundreds of compounds."

Certain compounds are distinctive markers for sources of pollution. Levoglucosan, for instance, is generated from the combustion of cellulose — newspapers and hardwood. Two other compounds, dehydroabicitic acid and retene, are byproducts of burning softwood, such as pine.

Cholesterol also produces compound markers on the outer shells of particles, and cottonseed oil — used by fast-food restaurants for frying — produce their own markers. By studying the ingredients used at certain fast-food chains, scientists can identify the markers distinctive to those chains and then determine where particulates are coming from.

Mazurek joined the Rutgers faculty 15 years ago. Her work over the past decade has identified restaurants and burning wood as a major source of particulates in the air over North Jersey and New York City.

Her research is funded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation.

"Monica was part of the team that opened up the field of analyzing the chemistry to unravel the sources of organic particulates. She was one of the pioneers of this," said Richard Flagan, a former colleague at CalTech. "It’s detective work using clues that nobody had looked at before."

Advertisements
This entry was posted in N ("New") States = NH, NJ, NM, NY = New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s