Being able to describe your findings is just as important as gathering and analyzing the data.

Douglas Collins

Professor Douglas Collins says he does not just teach chemistry for the chemist but — in the real liberal arts tradition — as yet another method of experimentation and discovery that informs any discipline.

“My job is to help students use quantitative evidence to solve problems,” says Collins. “I am the product of a liberal arts institution, and I have found out firsthand the skills students have the chance to develop, especially critical analysis and communication through writing and speaking. Being able to describe your findings is just as important as gathering and analyzing the data.”

Collins says he loves to watch his students discover different ways of assembling that data, too — such as when they build their own machines to collect it, or devise unique ways to analyze their data using computers.

“I teach students how to use new tools effectively and accurately," he explains. "In addition, I want everyone to realize that they too can build a simple sensor to collect their own data.”

In his research life, Collins is an environmental analytical chemist, something he never predicted when he started as an undergraduate. Like many students fascinated by science, he thought he would become a doctor, but then he took a class about the culture of Siberia. He became fascinated with how air pollutants, particularly from smelting factories, made areas of Siberia some of the most polluted places on Earth. Medicine left his plans, and environmental science became a vibrant substitute.

At Bucknell, he is continuing his research into atmospheric chemistry — specifically, how air pollutants can react with surfaces to change their chemical compositions and environmental effects. When ozone, for instance, comes into a house, it might connect with latex paint in a bedroom, while in the kitchen it might interact with cooking oil stuck to the walls or cabinets. Chemical reactions with these surfaces might remove the ozone from the air we breathe, but could also produce different compounds with their own environmental or health effects. Collins' students explore cutting-edge research questions about this type of real-world chemistry.

Posted September 2018