Science Wednesday: Small Science to Help the Planet

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. At first, the only scientist I knew of was Albert Einstein, but I had no aspirations of growing up looking like him. Then I discovered a “Space Cadet” television character who was a physicist—and a woman. It was cool. Finally a role model I could follow!

What I liked about science was doing experiments and learning things that nobody else knew. I thought it would be great to learn science and help the planet at the same time.
Now I have the privilege of working for EPA where our mission—to protect the environment and human health—is based on scientific knowledge. The scientific knowledge that I use in promoting EPA’s mission is nanotechnology.

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a coalition of U.S. government agencies that fund or use nanotechnology research, nanotechnology encompasses materials with dimensions between one and 100 nanometers (no small molecules need apply) and have unique properties that enable novel applications. (My colleague Nora Savage did a great job explaining nanotechnology on a previous Science Wednesday post.

Two scientists received the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics for making a nano-sized discovery: giant magnetoresistance, or GMR. GMR is a property some metals have at the nanoscale, and it was used to develop smaller computer hard drives with more storage than before. Some of these are now found in our cell phones and MP3 players.

GMR is just one example of the many types of nanomaterials that have the potential to lead to exciting new products. But could some nanomaterials also be harmful to the environment?
That’s where I come in. I work on a grant program I developed supporting research focused on nanotechnology and the environment. I may not be a Space Cadet, but I am a scientist who helps the world. It’s kind of like a dream come true.

About the Author: EPA Environmental scientist Dr. Barbara Karn focuses on “green” nanotechnologies, including using green chemistry, green engineering and environmentally benign manufacturing to make new nanomaterials and products for preventing pollution. Look for more about her work and her dream job in future Science Wednesday posts.