"Having that opportunity to do that kind of one-on-one teaching where you are actually showing students how to do chemistry — not just learn about chemistry, but how to do chemistry — is really rewarding."
Cars leak oil onto the road. Rain washes pesticides off crops into the surrounding soil. Old storage tanks seep industrial fluids into the ground. Modern life is full of hazardous compounds that find their way into the environment. Predicting the effect these compounds will have on the environment, and hopefully confining potential damage, requires an understanding of what happens to them once they are out there.
Associate Professor of Chemistry Molly McGuire is chipping away at one small piece of this dilemma. Technologically speaking, it's a very small piece — for some of her research, she uses an atomic force microscope that can examine features a million times smaller than the width of a human hair. The microscope generates a molecular image of a sample by using a tiny tip to check the forces generated by molecules on the sample surface.
To help understand the fate of environmental contaminants, McGuire is studying the reactions that occur on the surface of clay minerals, which are a large component of soil. She is especially interested in minerals that contain iron, a key factor in molecular reactions that involve exchanges of electrons. As the iron within a mineral gains or loses electrons, perhaps by interacting with a pesticide or other contaminant, it can change the mineral's physical structure and other properties.
McGuire is motivated to do her research in part by the knowledge that it may aid other scientists studying the fate of environmental contaminants. Mentoring future chemists in her laboratory is another inspiration. "Having that opportunity to do that kind of one-on-one teaching where you are actually showing students how to do chemistry — not just learn about chemistry, but how to do chemistry — is really rewarding," she says. "Taking them with you through the entire process and getting to the stage of actually publishing work is great."
McGuire's enthusiasm for opening students' eyes to new worlds has taken her beyond the chemistry laboratory. She has traveled to Nicaragua with the Bucknell Brigade, a service-learning project devoted to supporting efforts to build a sustainable future for some of the poorest communities in Nicaragua. In 2009, she co-directed the Bucknell in Nicaragua summer course with Dr. Paul Susman, a Bucknell professor of geography. The class incorporated discussion of environmental concerns, but science was not the overall thrust. Understanding human relations and their impact on the environment was. "One of the reasons I decided I wanted to teach at a liberal arts college is that I think there is more to life than just chemistry," McGuire says. "I love teaching chemistry, I love interacting with students in the lab, but there is more to life, and there should be more to their education, than that."
Posted Sept. 9, 2009