I'm studying model reactions but I want to find a place where they are applicable. It is not that useful to study a model unless there is a real-world situation where that model applies.

Will Kerber

Iron is everywhere. It provides structural support to buildings, carries oxygen in our bloodstreams and makes an indestructible frying pan. The ubiquity and versatility of this metal has not escaped notice by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Will Kerber.

"Iron is a great element," he says. "It's my favorite one." Kerber is especially interested in the environmental chemistry of iron. He studies the reactions that iron undergoes with natural organic matter, "a catch-all phrase for all of the nonliving organic material in the environment," he says. For example, when a plant or animal dies and decomposes, the organic matter that had made up its body is released haphazardly into the environment. Iron interacts very strongly with this loose, natural organic matter.

Kerber's research focuses on understanding the structure and reactivity of iron-complexed organic matter. He is interested in certain transformations that take place in the presence of light known as photochemical reactions. He studies what types and amounts of organic products are produced and how much iron reacts under certain conditions.

For now, Kerber does his research in the laboratory with carefully controlled types and quantities of organic material. However, he plans to incorporate more field work in the future. "I'm studying model reactions but I want to find a place where they are applicable," Kerber says. "It is not that useful to study a model unless there is a real-world situation where that model applies." He is particularly interested in the possibility of applying his expertise to the study of the metal-laden "frac waters," a bi-product of natural gas drilling, through the Bucknell University Marcellus Shale Initiative.

A new instrument the chemistry department purchased in summer 2010 will help Kerber make his research accessible to undergraduates. Called an LCMS, or liquid chromatograph-mass spectrometer, the instrument is used to analyze the types and amounts of organic reaction products. Most importantly for undergraduate research, the instrument does not require years of laboratory experience to master and it can analyze large numbers of reactions in a relatively short period of time.

Kerber is particularly interested in seeing students not just learn the laboratory techniques of chemistry but also understand how to design and interpret their work. "That is the hardest thing about being a scientist," he says. "There is the technical difficulty with doing experiments; you have to know how to do them right and get good data. But the harder thing to do is, after you have done that experiment, to figure out what it told you and what is the next question to ask."

Posted Sept. 27, 2010

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