Song Gao, Assistant Professor
Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences
Collecting the Keys to Understanding Aerosols and Climate
Scientists know that aerosols—such as dust, smog, and smoke—have an impact on air quality, human health, and ecosystem balance. They also contribute to changes in global climate that may have a multitude of environmental consequences such as rising sea levels, which threaten coastal areas like Florida.
According to Song Gao, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, aerosols are at “the frontier of atmospheric chemistry research. They pose the largest uncertainty in the assessment of Earth’s climate.” With the support of a Chancellor’s Faculty Research and Development Grant, Gao recently traveled to the West Indies to collect aerosol samples for a new study on the chemical components of these tiny airborne particles.
During the summer months, African dust frequently travels across the Atlantic Ocean and into the Caribbean and southeastern United States, affecting climate, deteriorating air quality, and causing public health concerns. Studies have linked African dust aerosols with the initiation of coastal area red tides that are harmful to both humans and marine ecosystems. Gao, who teaches chemistry at the college, and biology major Calista Siobhan Ming spent part of this summer collecting samples of dust-impacted aerosols in Barbados, a Caribbean island directly in the path between Africa and central/north America. The sampling site was on the east coast of Barbados, getting air flow of aerosol particles from the Atlantic Ocean immediately to its east.
Ming, a participant in the Undergraduate Honors Program and Dual Admission Program for optometry, spent a month assisting researchers at an on-site laboratory. “We were on top of a cliff about 100 feet above the Atlantic Ocean,” she said. “Every day, I was up and down a 50-foot sampling tower four or five times. We would unload the samples, store them in a refrigerator, clean the samplers, load new filters, and put them back at the tower top.”
“The central objective of this project was to better understand the chemical components of atmospheric aerosols in the Caribbean and South Florida, as well as their sources and evolution pathways,” Gao said. “The findings can potentially make significant contributions to understanding several key issues in climate change, biogeochemical cycles, and public health. The fact that African dust can make it all the way to the sky above us in South Florida, as seen from satellite images, just shows how interconnected the world is, and we humans need to look at environmental problems with a global perspective.”
Ming will help Gao analyze samples and data, looking for signatures of organic compounds. “Instrumentation such as mass spectrometry will be used for sample analyses. Data analysis methods will include factor analysis and other statistical tools,” explained Gao. Ming plans to present her research findings next spring at the Undergraduate Student Symposium and at national conferences.
“I am passionate about science,” Ming said. “To be there in Barbados, to see how everything was done, you appreciate the process that scientists go through. Before, I didn’t exactly understand how you collect this kind of data. We read the results [of a study] when it is finished and polished. There is a lot of work that goes into it.”