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Alumna shares research with Linfield science students

Melissa GallowayMelissa Galloway ’06 found herself on the opposite side of the chemistry podium at Linfield College recently.

Not long ago she was a promising chemistry student making an impression on her professors. Now, a visiting professor at Reed College, she returned to Linfield to speak with students as a successful scientist working to improve the air we breathe and educating the next generation of chemists.

Galloway was first inspired by a quirky science teacher in junior high who taught students how to dissolve coins in acid. Her interest was further sparked in high school when she discovered that lead is present in many products that contain calcium, including the popular tummy tamer, Tums. Now, she is researching toxic materials that affect air quality and may affect human health.

“Trees naturally emit organic compounds as protection mechanisms,” Galloway explained. One of these compounds is glyoxal, which is not harmful by itself. However, it can mix with other compounds and adversely affect air quality and human health.

Galloway’s research focused on the reaction of glyoxal with aerosol particles, which are more prominent in polluted areas but exist throughout the atmosphere. She discovered that when glyoxal reacts with aerosol particles, they mix to form a dark brown color that can actually soak up the energy from light in the atmosphere causing a warming affect. “If this dark color is produced in the atmosphere, it can contribute to climate change,” Galloway said.

In addition, those reactions have consequences on human health. When aerosol reacts with organic compounds, it affects ozone production. This result affects air quality, and can in turn create breathing problems for people who suffer from asthma, respiratory disease or weakened respiratory systems.

Galloway’s work is currently focused on forested areas primarily in northern Michigan. She has found that reactions vary in different types of environments due to variables such as trees and levels of pollution. Atmospheric chemistry is a field for the determined scientist – trial and error is inevitable, so persistence is crucial.

“The best part about chemistry is that often you fail over and over and then suddenly, it works,” she said. “Those successes can sometimes be things you never expected to find.”

Galloway attributes her success to the Linfield Chemistry Department faculty, including Brian Gilbert, associate professor of chemistry, who recognized her talent.

“Melissa’s aptitude for chemistry became apparent early on in her freshman year,” said Gilbert. Galloway spent her first college summer alongside Gilbert researching silver and gold colloids and how molecules interact with them using laser-based techniques.

“He always pushed me to try new things and go for challenges,” Galloway said of Gilbert. “Everyone in the chemistry department supported me and pushed me to aim high.”

Galloway was encouraged to narrow her career plans, and ultimately took on an assignment relating to environmental research. That passion led her to the study of compounds in the atmosphere, which have direct ties to global warming.

“Chemistry is fun, but it is more fun when you know why you are doing it,” Galloway said. “Globally, atmospheric chemistry is an important issue.”

Galloway chose Linfield because she knew a small, liberal arts college was the perfect fit for her. “I wanted to be a name, not just a number,” she said.

The personal attention of the chemistry staff helped her to discover a career that would enrich her life. Linfield became not just the perfect college for her, but also the first stepping stone of her path to success.

Galloway is proof that finding the right field and the ideal campus to explore it on is crucial to success.

By Alison Bouchard ’12