Intersections of Climate, Environment, and Atmospheric Sciences
As an atmospheric scientist, Frank Keutsch directs most of his attention upward, literally and figuratively. But he got his start in science by venturing downward: exploring the old mines deep beneath Germany’s Black Forest region, where Keutsch was born and raised.
“As a child and teenager, I spent lots of time outdoors, poking around, collecting things—rocks, plants, old tools,” he recalls. “I especially liked going into the old silver and cobalt mines and finding materials with bright colors that stood out from the browns and grays of the soil, tailings, and decaying wood. It made me wonder what caused that range of colors.”
That curiosity led him to study chemistry at Germany’s Technische Universität München, and then doctoral work in physical chemistry at University of California, Berkeley. In 2001, he completed his doctoral work on the physical properties of hydrogen bonds and the quantum mechanical effects of their “tunneling behavior.” At that point, Keutsch recalls, “I wanted to apply my studies in a way that could have concrete impact. I concluded that my knowledge of physical chemistry could most fruitfully be applied to understanding the atmosphere.” He has raised an analytic gaze to the skies ever since: initially at Harvard as a Lecturer and Research Associate; then, from 2005 through 2014, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he rose to become the Tullock Professor of Chemistry and a faculty associate at the Nelson Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.
Last year, he moved to Cambridge, becoming the Stonington Professor of Engineering and Atmospheric Science in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “I am increasing the role that climate plays in my research, and Harvard is unique in the depth of interaction among researchers working at the intersections of climate, environment, and atmospheric sciences,” Keutsch observes. “It offers the perfect atmosphere—forgive the pun—for students doing applied research because it helps them understand the full context for the questions they’re addressing.”
Keutsch’s work focuses on determining the influence of human activity on the chemical reactions occurring in the atmosphere around us. He has pioneered lab synthesis of key reaction intermediates, hydroxy-hydroperoxides, and studies their interactions as an indicator of atmospheric change.
Previously, atmospheric chemistry was hampered by the lack of practical techniques for analyzing the lower atmosphere’s composition. But Keutsch’s group is reinvigorating the field: developing new methods for applying existing technologies; and creating highly effective ways of calibrating the instruments now emerging. One of their most exciting developments uses a “fiber laser”—an easily transportable version of traditional, immobile laser measurement systems. “Increasingly, researchers are employing our technology because it’s both portable and sturdy: it doesn’t get misaligned or require optical calibrating,” Keutsch says. “It’s become key to NASA’s airborne research campaigns.”
Indeed, the approaches created by Keutsch’s group are enabling scientists to conduct studies throughout the troposphere. “Our ultimate goal is to determine anthropogenic influence on tropospheric chemistry globally—from urban areas to tropical forests and oceans to polar regions.”
This profile originally appeared in Environment@Harvard: Volume 8, Issue 1