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Scientist Studies How Aerosol Impacts Health & Climate Change

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Scientist Dan Curtis and his students are studying how aerosol particles influence the Earth’s climate, urban visibility and public health.

Curtis, who has studied the effects of atmospheric aerosol the past decade, joined Cal State Fullerton’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry this fall as an associate professor. He previously spent nine years as a faculty member at Cal State Northridge, conducting research and teaching. 

He earned his doctorate in atmospheric and analytical chemistry from the University of Colorado Boulder and held postdoctoral research positions at the University of Iowa and the University of California, Los Angeles. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Emory University in Atlanta.

What inspired you to go into this field?

I have a deep curiosity to understand the world around me and why things are the way they are. Even at a young age, I would try to figure out how things worked and why scientific phenomena occurred. Like many scientists, I had an incredible high school chemistry teacher who showed me just how amazing chemistry is as a field of study.

What are your research interests?

I study small particles suspended in the atmosphere called aerosols. These particles affect Earth’s climate by scattering or absorbing light. For example, when you wear a black shirt on a sunny day, you might notice that it feels warm. The reason is that it is absorbing sunlight and the absorbed energy is converted to heat. Black aerosol particles, such as soot from fossil fuel combustion, can also absorb visible light and convert the energy to heat. This causes the particles to warm the Earth’s atmosphere. If the particles do not absorb light, they can scatter the light instead. This would tend to cool the Earth’s temperature.

Why is studying aerosol particles important?

The aerosol particles can affect public health when people breathe them into their lungs. These particles form from different chemical reactions that occur on the ground or in the air. One type of particle I am studying with my students is called brown carbon, which is found in photochemical smog, so we are trying to better understand how smog affects climate. We are also interested in smoke particles from wildfires or wood stoves. Wildfires are increasing in severity due to climate change, and a large number of people around the world cook on wood burning stoves, especially in developing nations. We’re also studying naturally occurring aerosol particles, such as particles produced from the ocean.

What do you hope students get from your teaching?

I want my students to see my passion for chemistry and for understanding how the world works from a scientific standpoint. A large part of that is having my students work on problem-solving skills and to be able to apply their knowledge to measurements that they can use when they graduate. I also want students to understand how science can impact society and improve people’s lives directly.