FIREX Collaboration

Part of working in a lab this summer involved collaborating with other students and researchers on their projects. There were a lot of opportunities for everyone to pitch in and help on research that wasn’t our primary focus. Some field in science and chemistry can be really competitive, but the nice thing about atmospheric chemistry is that scientists are usually willing and eager to share projects, datasets, and opportunities with other groups and institutions. This is partly because atmospheric chemistry is such a large, complicated system to study. Sometimes it takes large teams of people to pull off experiments.

In the O’Brien group we do laboratory research. This means that my project does not involve real samples from the atmosphere; instead, I approximate atmospheric conditions and run controlled experiments. Other groups work to directly measure the atmosphere (i.e. field research) and this summer we had the opportunity to collaborate on one of these projects. NASA runs a campaign called FIREX that investigates air quality resulting from wildfires and agricultural burning in the United States. This summer they assembled a wide variety of instruments and aircraft to measure aerosols and gases produced by burning in Washington State. The FIREX team is working with over thirty partnering agencies on this project, including my lab. We packaged filters in sterile environments to send with NASA to the sites of the fires. There the researchers will pull atmospheric air through the filters, capturing any aerosols that may be present, and repackage some of the filters to send back to us. We can then study the aerosols however we like.

This collaboration is really cool. We get real atmospheric data that we could never afford to collect on our own, and NASA gets more qualified scientists working toward the ultimate goal of understanding our atmosphere and climate. It also meant that we got to take a field trip to NASA Langley to check out some of their instruments. We saw their equipment packaged up to go on planes (albeit for a slightly different mission to southeast Asia) and got to talk to some team members about the instruments that they had built. It was super interesting to see how NASA’s labs differed from ours at William & Mary, and it was fun to discover that they are just as messy and disorganized (if not more so).

It’s really wonderful to work in a field where communication and cooperative research is rewarded. I was so grateful for the chance to tour a NASA project’s headquarters and it’s very exciting to be involved in bigger projects with other schools. Here’s a link to the FIREX website for anybody who is interested in reading more about the research:

Thanks for keeping up with the blog! More posts about this summer are coming soon.


  1. The economic value is certainly also a factor! A lot of motivations for atmospheric research are related to atmospheric warming/cooling budgets and human health concerns, so there is a lot of public funding available with these interests in mind. You’re right about there being less to profit on when it comes to atmospheric science, especially compared to research that focuses on molecules that can be used for technology or medicine. This is one reason why organic/drug development, biochemistry, and synthesis are much more competitive fields. Atmospheric chemistry is also relatively up-and-coming, so there is far more emphasis on exploration and development of theory than there is on creating economically lucrative technologies or solutions. One area of atmospheric that may be more “product focused” is instrument development, but that’s not a big part of my project or my lab.

  2. lhcampopiano says:

    Very interesting stuff! I was particularly intrigued by your description of atmospheric chemistry as a collaborative field as opposed to more competitive ones. You argue that it is because of the subject’s complexity that large collaborative groups are necessary. I wonder if it might also be the case that the economic value of the data is relatively small and therefore there is less incentive to steal research. Where does research funding for most atmospheric chemistry come from? Mostly government agencies, or is the private sector also interested?

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