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Superheroes of Science

Jun 20, 2020

Gouri Prabhakar is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University. While the majority of her time is spent teaching both graduate and undergraduate students, she also researches both physical and chemical processes of the atmosphere that lead to change in the concentrations of various air pollutants. Prabhakar's research involves a combination of both data analysis and experimental work. She has participated in many field campaigns where she has collected samples of air, using instruments on aircraft, and analyzed them for pollutants. One of the goals of Prabhakar’s research is to better understand the chemical pathways that pollutants undergo in the atmosphere. By understanding the processes that various pollutants depend on, scientists can better understand and predict what the concentrations of pollutants will be in the future. One application of this research is to study the influence of pollutants on both the physical and chemical properties of clouds. When pollutants are added to the atmosphere, the surface area from which clouds can form increases because there are many more particles present. An increase in surface area leads to the development of many smaller droplets of water which creates a brighter cloud. The types of pollutants can also lead to the development of acid rain from the clouds. Prabhakar has been involved with several campaigns where data was collected from the eastern Pacific Ocean. The coast of central California was chosen as a setting for these campaigns because of the busy ports in this location. Prabhakar explains that the persistent deck of clouds located in this region, known as stratocumulus clouds, provide the perfect meteorological and anthropogenic setting where scientists can study the influence of the emissions from ships on clouds. The stratocumulus clouds combined with the stable boundary air below them creates an ideal, natural lab setting. Prabhakar encourages interested students to email professors doing research in an area of science that they find interesting. She suggests that many times students may find there are ways they can get involved either with looking at data or with various opportunities for summer projects. It is also important for high school students to develop a solid foundation in science and mathematics to help prepare them for a career in science.