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Chem Major Nabs Class of ’21 Award

Danielle DraperThe effect of nitrogen dioxide on aerosol formation might not sound like a particularly creative field of study—unless you study chemistry at Reed.

Chem major Danielle Draper ’13 just won the coveted Class of ’21 Award, recognizing exceptional creativity, initiative, and spontaneity, for her thesis, which looked at how nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emitted by vehicles affects the formation of aerosols, or tiny particles, in forests. It turns out that trees naturally emit gasses—like those responsible for the scent of spruce needles—that turn into aerosols in the atmosphere. Danielle wanted to know how that process was affected by manmade emissions--in other words, how humans are changing the “natural” flow of a forest. In particular, she investigated this reaction as it occured at night, under the cover of darkness.

To conduct her experiments, Danielle had to construct an atmospheric chamber, build a special computer model to study chemical kinetics, and analyze reams of data. Her findings were intriguing. While most tree emissions (e.g. the spruce-scent particles) react with NO2 to create more particles in the atmosphere than they would have alone, alpha-pinene, an emission largely found in pine trees, actually produced fewer particles when combined with NO2.

Danielle’s thesis quickly won accolades in Reed’s chemistry department. Her adviser, Julie Fry [chemistry 2008–], called her thesis "stunning" and said that her results “will be surprising and impactful in the atmospheric chemistry community." Danielle is currently working with Fry to publish the project in a professional journal. It has won acclaim elsewhere too: Danielle has been invited to join the chemistry department at University of California, Irvine, “whenever she is ready.”

That qualifier is to give Danielle some time off from chemistry to pursue her other passion: aerial dance. Inspired by a contest in Science magazine called “Dance your PhD,” Danielle decided to choreograph the results of her thesis at Portland’s Do Jump Theater last May. (The show, in three parts, is available to watch here, here, and here. The dancers in green represent organic molecules emitted by vegetation; the dancers in orange represent NO2).

Intellectual and artistic in equal measure, Danielle was the perfect choice for the Class of ’21 Award, endowed by Reed alumni to recognize “creative work involving an unusual degree of initiative and spontaneity.” She has no plans to give up either of her passions in the future. Next year, she will begin graduate work at UC Irvine. But first she is preparing to go to Boulder’s famous Aerial Dance Festival, for which she received the single scholarship for an emerging choreographer. Congratulations, Danielle!

Tags: Class of 21, Thesis, Julie Fry, Chemistry