All of our science is built on the work of our predecessors – reading their work and understanding it is key to building on it.
Jeffrey S. Gaffney, Ph.D., Chair and Professor of Chemistry
Years at UALR: 8.5
Education: B.S. (Honors) Chemistry (71), University of California at Riverside, M.S. Chemistry(73), University of California at Riverside, Ph.D. Physical Organic Chemistry (75), University of California, Riverside
What do you love about being a professor? I came to UALR after 31 years working as a Senior Chemist/Chief Scientist at three of the Department of Energy National Labs. Coming to UALR in July 2006 gave me the opportunity to be able to “pass on” my knowledge of chemistry to undergraduate and graduate students. Having come from a small campus, UC Riverside, and being born and raised in the area and the first from my family to graduate with a doctorate, UALR gave me the opportunity to interact on a daily basis with students with similar backgrounds to advise, teach, and mentor them in the sciences. Working with bright motivated students and being able to challenge them to really learn the fundamentals of chemistry and science and help them to see how chemistry is in everything around us is terrific.
What areas in your field interest you the most? I am most known for my research in environmental and atmospheric chemistry, and in particular climate change research. However, if you look at my background and publications, with the strong fundamental knowledge of chemistry that I learned over the years, I have actually published papers in all sorts of areas ranging from analytical, biomedical, nuclear chemistry, organic, geochemistry, combustion chemistry, theoretical chemistry, and stable isotope chemistry applications. So I guess, I would say that I have and continue to have a very broad interest in all of chemistry and would also note that for many problems: Chemists Have Solutions!
What are you researching currently? Just finished up a major review on Mercury in the environment, and before that reviewing available data on ethene levels in the southwest and central southern U.S. (including Arkansas). That latter work was done relating the ethene background to potential problems from biomass burning and from combustion of ethanol as a fuel. Most folks are not aware of the potential air pollution problems from biomass burning due to cracking of the ethanol to compounds like ethene, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and methane that all have potential impacts. Ethene has been overlooked as an air pollutant, but it is a potent plant growth hormone. You may know of it as the active ingredient in “banana gas,” a mixture of a low level of ethene and carbon dioxide and air that is used to ripen green bananas once they get to the grocery store. Other areas of interest include instrumentation development and measurements of natural radionuclides present in aerosols. For example, we just got data back on Carbon-14 levels in the aerosol here at UALR that finds about 75-80% of the carbon is coming from biomass burning here in Little Rock. That finding is similar to other areas we have studied and indicates that were putting a lot of controls on fossil fuels (where the 14C would be zero), and that trash, agricultural, and leaf-burning activities along with natural organic aerosols are the major contributors to the carbon in the sub-micron aerosols were breathing.
What book or person has had the most impact on you and why? My thesis adviser, Dr. James N. Pitts, Jr., who passed away in June of this year at 92-plus years. He was my freshman chemistry instructor and also undergraduate research mentor and my thesis adviser. Dr. Pitts was a world expert in air pollution and photochemistry and director of the Statewide Research Center at UC Riverside. He was very pro on undergraduate research and helped to mentor and encouraged a number of us including another undergraduate who was a couple of years ahead of me – Nobel Laureate – Dr. Richard Schrock of Harvard. I really miss Jim Pitts, but had the honor of doing a 3.5 hour long interview of him in 2007, along with Nobel Laureate Dr. F. Sherwood Rowland at the University of California Irvine for the Atmospheric History Project for the American Meteorological Society that is housed on the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) website.
What do you like to do in your free time? Well, my wife and I were really into raising and training parrots, cockatoos, macaws, etc. We recently wrote and self-published that is out on Amazon called “Confessions of a Birdaholic.” I have a Facebook page under that title that has a lot of old videos with bird tricks, talking birds, etc. I also have to admit that I am an avid video game fanatic – especially playing Tiger Woods’ 14 game and actually ranked in the top 10 in Pro ranking worldwide. And in my spare time I have a salt and freshwater aquarium, terrariums with geckos that we keep up, and I collect stamps.
What one bit of advice do you give your new students? Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can get done today. Learning how to organize your time and get things done is very important if you are going to succeed. I would also note that communication is at the heart of all things along with chemistry – so chemistry students should also work hard in their writing and speech classes. I also like to tell students “There are no new ideas, just a lot of unfunded old ones.” So read the literature and learn from history. All of our science is built on the work of our predecessors – reading their work and understanding it is key to building on it.