Inside USD

Chemistry Research Propels Powelson

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Ask Michelle Powelson about her decision to attend the University of San Diego and she’ll first take you back to when she was a third-grader, fascinated by math and science, and shared her future plans with family members.

“I said ‘I’m going to a college in California where I’ll be able to see the ocean,’” recalled Powelson, a New Jersey native. “I didn’t know anything about USD at that time, of course, but later, when I took a tour here, I fell in love with the beautiful campus.”

The beauty of USD through its Spanish Renaissance architecture, flowers and overall appearance is quite a sight. Mission Bay and the Pacific Ocean are visibly within reach. But ultimately, Powelson’s decision to be a Torero was complete when she heard about the requirement of all undergraduates in USD’s chemistry and biochemistry department.

“I liked it when they told me that undergraduate research was a requirement, that I’d get to do actual research and not just clean the beakers,” said Powelson, now a junior chemistry major.

In fact, it only took two weeks into her freshman year to get started. Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor and current Department Chair Tammy Dwyer, Powelson’s preceptor and advisor, announced in class that a professor was seeking freshmen students to work in his research lab.

That directive led Powelson to Professor David De Haan, who teaches courses in analytical and environmental chemistry. He’s been researching, through consistent funding by the National Science Foundation, chemical changes that occur in clouds and aerosol. His research students identify and quantify new, previously unknown sources of urban haze.

De Haan welcomed Powelson into the research lab and what’s transpired since has shaped the latter’s USD educational experience. Powelson’s not only done important research on air pollution, but she’s also presented it at conferences in Irvine, Calif., Orlando, Fla., and this past fall, at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco attended by 22,000 people. She’s also presented at USD’s annual spring undergraduate research conference, an event that takes place again on April 18.

“It’s such a great department,” Powelson said. “I always tend to brag about the chemistry department and faculty to my friends. They’re all wonderful and they know all their students. They really care about you. The opportunities I’ve been given, the small class sizes, the research and conferences, it’s just been amazing.”

Powelson’s interest in chemistry blossomed in high school with her AP honors course. That passion, through working and learning with Dwyer, De Haan and others, has only grown at USD.

“It’s a fascinating subject, because it’s always changing. People often ask me why not study biology or marine science, but I like the math of the science, I like the combination of the two. One of my favorite things about chemistry research is that you never know what’s going to happen when the results are all in. It’s like one giant puzzle. It’s a giant problem that seems never-ending, and it can be frustrating at times, but once you’re able to figure out some big or small details, there’s this amazing feeling of accomplishment that comes over you.”

De Haan, a professor at USD since 2001, has certainly been impressed.

“Michelle took to research like a fish to water,” he said. “She can quickly learn new lab techniques, takes charge of her projects and seems to enjoy just being in the lab. People in our department have been very impressed with the research skills she has developed over the last 2.5 years.”

She’s done such exemplary work that a favorite moment came at the conference at UC Irvine. “I was presenting the research and the people I spoke to thought I was a first-year graduate student, not an undergrad student,” she said. “To be a freshman presenting research was unheard of.”

Powelson’s diligent work in USD’s Shiley Center for Science and Technology labs is preparing her for a decision she’ll have to make in the not-to-distant future about graduate school. One hurdle is picking which type of chemistry to focus on there. Finding out about numerous chemistry sub-categories was an eye-opener upon arriving to USD. Through her work with De Haan, she said the analytical aspects, the equation-solving parts within environmental chemistry and other disciplines, is what she prefers.

“Michelle’s work has been a big part of some of the presentations I’ve done recently,” De Haan said. “From the response to these presentations we know that other atmospheric chemists are very interested in her work. Michelle is a co-author on one manuscript we’re working on right now.”

Powelson said getting the research published, hopefully before the end of her senior year, “would be the best gift anyone could ever give me, because it’s a reward for all of the long hours that have gone into it.”

She’s also got a deep desire to put her scientific research skills and energy into cancer research. Powelson is the president of USD’s student Colleges Against Cancer chapter, whose major fundraiser is the American Cancer Society-associated USD Relay for Life. Powelson is the chairperson for this 24-hour event, happening April 5-6 on campus from 6 p.m. to 6 p.m. The theme, “Be a Superhero,” encourages all participants to dress as their favorite superhero and walk laps in support of cancer survivors, loved ones lost and to raise funds for cancer research.

“I’m sick and tired of seeing cancer kill the ones we love or break the hearts of those we love,” said Powelson, whose connection to cancer includes her father’s multiple battles with skin cancer, her grandfather, and a cousin who was diagnosed in her early 30s. “I don’t want to see it anymore, so I’m trying to do my part as best as I can. I also want to help educate the campus community as much as possible.”

Perhaps Powelson will contribute research that leads to a cure. Imagine that for a moment. “I have a passion to stop the hurting,” she said.

If so, it would be nice to know that passion was developed while she was at a university in California near the ocean.

— Ryan T. Blystone

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