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Rarefied Air: Liz Pillar

By Mary Venuto

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is a nonprofit organization of geophysicists with over 62,000 members from 144 countries. At their most recent meeting last December, 24,000 people presented and discussed the newest interdisciplinary and international research in geophysics, which makes Liz Pillar’s accomplishments all the more impressive.

Pillar, a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at UK, received the “Outstanding Student Paper Award” (OSPA) at AGU’s fall 2013 meeting. Only the top 3% of presenters are awarded an OSPA. This award recognizes the quality research that Pillar has conducted in atmospheric chemistry.

“I was shocked to win,” said Pillar “I had no idea I even had a shot at winning, but it was really exciting.”

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The geophysical sciences include four fundamental areas: atmospheric and ocean sciences; solid-Earth sciences; hydrologic sciences; and space sciences. Pillar won the award for her work in atmospheric sciences by studying the loss of ozone (a key atmospheric gas) catalyzed by iodide.

“Liz’s research opens new avenues for studying reactions of atmospheric relevance,” said Assistant Professor Marcelo Guzman, Pillar’s advisor and head of the research lab.

The general understanding of ozone is that it serves as protection against UV radiation in the stratosphere.  What most people don’t know is that in the lower atmosphere, ozone is a pollutant and an oxidizing agent. Yet, previous knowledge could only explain about 50% of observed ozone losses, which means that there is still much to learn about the ozone cycle and how it impacts the lower atmosphere.

This prompted Pillar to investigate the role that iodide may be playing in catalyzing the destruction of ozone at the air-water boundary of aerosols. Pillar’s work discovered that iodide can destroy ozone under atmospheric conditions. What’s more important is that they found that more reactive species can be formed and further transmit the cycle of ozone destruction in the troposphere. Environmental models can include these species and better predict what is going on in the atmosphere.

“Liz has proven to be a perseverant and creative researcher, a requirement needed to conduct extraordinary research,” said Guzman.

This award is not only great for Pillar, who plans to continue this type of research post-graduation, but also great for the Guzman lab and environmental research being done. This award gives face to the quality of work that is being done here in the Department of Chemistry at UK.