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ACS Award For Creative Advances In Environmental Science & Technology

by Craig Bettenhausen
January 7, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 1

Credit: Laurel
Donald R. Blake, UC Irvine
Credit: Laurel

Sponsored by the ACS Division of Environmental Chemistry and the ACS Publications Division

Many chemists credit the encouraging words of a mentor with setting them on a course to a career in science. But Donald R. Blake was instead pushed in that direction by discouraging and repeated dismissals. As a draftee serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War, Blake would play trivia games with his fellow servicemen and lose badly. “This one guy would say, ‘Don, here’s a simple question for a simple mind.’ Kind of a mean thing to say,” Blake recalls. “So, I asked this guy who thought he was so smart, ‘What’s the highest degree you can get?’ and he said a Ph.D. I said, ‘What’s the toughest subject?’ and he said chemistry. So I decided that if I was going to prove to myself that I wasn’t a simple mind,” that would be the way to go.

After he got out of the service, Blake, who is now 60, enrolled at PalomarCommunity College in 1974. He credits a lot of his subsequent success to the year and a half he spent there. “If you worked hard and you studied hard, you could do well. So all of a sudden, when I put some effort into it and got some As, it felt good, and made me feel good about myself,” he says. From there, Blake matriculated at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1978.

Later, as a graduate student at UC Irvine, Blake joined the research group of Nobel Laureate F. Sherwood Rowland, a collaboration that would shape Blake’s career. He rose in the group from student to postdoc to salaried researcher. In 1998, he was offered a faculty position alongside Rowland. “It’s always been the Rowland group, and then the Rowland-Blake group, and even though Sherry passed away in March, it’s still the Rowland-Blake group,” Blake says.

Blake’s research, which focuses on the parts-per-trillion-by-volume measurement of trace atmospheric gases, has had major impacts on the understanding of climate change and of air pollution, says Barbara Finlayson-Pitts, a fellow professor at UC Irvine and the 2004 winner of this same award. “His integrity is unquestionable, and delightfully, it comes with a wonderful sense of humor.”

Especially notable were his measurements of methane in the air over Mexico City and his finding that liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) containing approximately 5% of highly reactive butenes was important in the formation of photochemical air pollution, says colleague Roger Atkinson, an emeritus chemistry professor at UC Riverside. That study was “an excellent example of basic research leading to the identification of a real-world solution to an environmental pollution problem; i.e., eliminating reactive butenes in the LPG.”

Building on such success, Blake’s lab is expanding the applications of their methods, including to the detection of disease-state markers in human breath. “It’s fun looking at data from a project; that’s really exciting. I don’t think a person can convey the excitement you feel when you think you’re onto something, even if you’re not really onto something. We in science are always just a heartbeat away from making a discovery,” Blake says. “We’re very fortunate.”

Blake will present the award address before the ACS Division of Environmental Chemistry.


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