A university Chair funded under the European Commission's Marie Curie Actions (MCAs) has pioneered ground-breaking research into the chemical transformation of organic compounds which take place high in the sky - an area where the biological dimension is traditionally ignored.
© Fotolia, 2013
The research work undertaken at Stockholm University's Department of Meteorology between 2006 and 2008 under the VOCAT project (Versatile Organic Compounds in ATmospheric processes) has demonstrated that organic matter generated at ground level can become airborne and provoke transformations in the atmosphere with a potentially important impact on the weather and also on our climate.
Marie Curie Actions are the European response to the American Fulbright Program, allowing competitively selected scientists to conduct research and teach abroad. While this mobility programme is primarily addressed well-established scientists, Dr Barbara Nozière was among the few to receive the award at the beginning of her career.
She had long suspected that the unique biological footprint made by the organic compounds emitted from the Earth's surface into the atmosphere had much more impact on atmospheric processes and climate than expected and she received support to investigate this under the VOCAT project.
In addition to the Marie Curie Chair, the VOCAT project also received enthusiastic support and nearly €1 million of funding from national programs in Sweden which, as Dr Nozière says, made a big difference in getting the projects off the ground.
"Through VOCAT we have been able to explore some scientific directions that were unusual and risky at the time, and otherwise difficult to get funded," Dr Nozière explains.
The research revealed new ways in which organic matter can affect climate, such as evidence for the interaction between microbial life and cloud formation. It also led to the discovery of an unexpected new class of reactions in atmospheric aerosols, giving a new picture on how aerosol particles might form and absorb sunlight.
The research also introduced new concepts, such as using the separation of bioorganic molecules (known as chiral separation) which for the first time enables biological molecules to be distinguished from non-biological molecules in atmospheric aerosols. It has also involved the prototyping of the first instrument to observe certain organic radicals, which are essential for the production of ozone and also important in other fields of chemistry, but have never been observed individually before.
Barbara Nozière was an Assistant Professor at the University of Miami and had been working in the United States for eight years when she received the award. "I was planning to continue my career in the US and there is no doubt that my return to Europe is entirely due to VOCAT," she says. The success of VOCAT has now secured for her a fully tenured senior position at CNRS (French National Research Administration). The high visibility of the work undertaken in the project has led to many offers for collaboration and exchanges from leading research groups in the world, in particular the US. "In addition, VOCAT has given me the opportunity to patent some of my findings and consider launching a start-up company."
The new directions opened up by VOCAT in atmospheric chemistry and green science are now being studied by other research groups throughout the world. The findings of the VOCAT project have attracted widespread interest among the scientific community, including biologists, who are now planning multidisciplinary programs on these topics. The project also received a lot of interest from the public, with an article in New Scientist, interviews for scientific radio programs, and many references to it and discussions on the internet.