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Emily Fischer

2009 Wesely Award Winner Reaches Great Heights as “Atmosphere Detective”

Emily Fischer

Emily Fischer, a Ph.D. candidate in Atmospheric Sciences, prepares to calibrate instruments in the laboratory at the University of Washington after bringing them back from the spring 2009 field research campaign on Mount Bachelor in central Oregon. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington.

When Emily Fischer was a little girl, she was so fascinated by wind that she called a TV meteorologist to ask what caused it. Fischer got her answer, and the curious nature she expressed in childhood didn't drift away with the passage of time. In fact, during spring 2009 she ventured 9,000 feet to the summit of Mount Bachelor in central Oregon to conduct research in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington.

Atop the mountain, Fischer and her research colleagues collect data on what the wind carries across the Pacific Ocean from Asia—concentrated packets of particles, or pollution plumes, visible by satellites and sometimes as large as the state of Washington.

The thin air, snow and frost that coats scientific equipment on Mount Bachelor pose challenges for researchers. However, the pristine air provides a contrast to the pollution plumes particles so that they can be identified before they pass over North America, where they mix with existing pollutants to form the haze that hangs over the continent.

“Optical properties can reveal whether the particles, or aerosols as we call them, are smoke from a forest fire, Asian industrial pollution or dust from the Gobi Desert,” said Fischer, who describes herself as half chemist/half meteorologist.

“The goal of the work I'm involved in is to understand how the pollutants that have become diffused by moving around the planet absorb and scatter the sun's light. This is one of the major uncertainties in climate science right now. We understand the effects of greenhouse gases well, but there is still much to learn about aerosols.”

Fischer is a participant in the Global Change Education Program (GCEP), which was established by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) to promote undergraduate and graduate training in support of DOE's global change research activities.

Her accomplishments have earned her the honor of winning the 2009 Marvin L. Wesely Distinguished Graduate Research Environmental Fellowship (GREF) Award. The GREF program began in June 1999 under GCEP to support graduate students in BER-funded collaborative global change research at universities and national laboratories.

“Emily has been interacting with the Gaffney-Marley research group at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and that collaboration with her and her mentor, Dr. Dan Jaffe, has been extremely productive,” said Dr. Jeff Gaffney, professor and chair, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Department of Chemistry. “Her efforts to identify long-range transported aerosols from Asia into North America have used detailed meteorological modeling, as well as both aerosol and tracer gas measurements. Emily’s aerosol samples are currently being studied in our labs for both their optical absorption properties and trace element composition to aid in confirming the meteorological back trajectories. Emily is truly deserving of the Marv Wesely GREF award.”

“Emily is a fantastic student,” Dr. Jaffe said. “She has an innate curiosity that won't let her leave a problem unsolved and the drive to keep at it until she finds the answers.”

“I love being an ‘atmosphere detective’ and want to keep doing this,” Fischer said. She adds that in the future she hopes to attain a faculty position at a university that supports collaborative research.

For information about the Global Change Education Program, including access to fellowship applications, visit the program Web site.