In her spare time, Emily Smith loves to go hiking in places such as Bryce Canyon National Park and rock climbing (photo lower left).
An elementary school experiment to identify several common household “compounds” was all it took to hook Ames Laboratory researcher Emily Smith on the field of analytical chemistry.
“It was probably fourth grade and we had several substances that we were supposed to identify, based on their properties,” Smith says. “I think there was sugar and baking soda … I don’t remember the rest. What I do remember is that I was fascinated by how we analyzed things like crystal structure or pH to figure out what they were.”
That keen interest in finding out what makes up materials still drives Smith’s career as she uses state-of-the-art instruments to analyze the various composite parts of various types of biomass in search of the best feedstocks for producing biofuels. Her work includes developing new instrumentation, such as a scanning angle total internal reflection Raman microscope which, by changing the angle of a laser directed on the sample, can provide a 3-D image of the sample’s chemical content.
“When people ask what I do, I usually say I’m an instrument builder,” Smith explains. “I work to solve problems and answer questions by finding new ways to measure the chemical makeup of samples. “
Like many Ames Lab researchers, Smith also holds a faculty appointment at Iowa State University. Recruited by well-known Ames Lab and ISU analytical chemist Ed Yeung in 2006, she’s currently seeking tenure in addition to her regular duties in the research lab and the chemistry classroom. That academic and national laboratory duality provides the best of both worlds and was key in her decision to move to Ames, which is unique in having a national lab physically colocated on a college campus.
“You wear two hats, but you also get to take advantage of both sides,” Smith says. “In academia, you’re typically conducting more focused research on your own, where the national lab system requires you to be part of a collaborative team. It’s built into the infrastructure and culture from the way projects are funded and the research is conducted, to the way results are published.”
That also provides an advantage for students studying under Smith, giving them opportunities they would not typically have in a strictly academic setting. And training the next generation(s) of researchers is an important measure as Smith views her career.
“I don’t have Nobel aspirations,” she says with a chuckle. “I hope in the next 10 to 20 years, that I’ve built a solid reputation and helped move technology forward... and that I still enjoy coming to work every day! But I’m more interested in seeing how my students progress and the contributions they make to the field. Their success will hopefully be a reflection on me as their mentor.”
~ by Kerry Gibson