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Nancy Hess  | Photo Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL)

Nancy Hess | Photo Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL)

Meet Nancy Hess -- an expert in spectroscopy (i.e. the change in light intensity and/or frequency resulting from its interaction with matter that gives information about electronic structure, geometry and chemical bonds). At Pacific Northwest National Lab (PNNL), she leads the geochemistry/biogeochemistry and subsurface science group. Dr. Hess recently took some time to share how she’s using molecular level spectroscopy to protect water supplies and advance carbon capture and sequestration technologies, and how the Apollo missions, Jacques Cousteau and the Krebs cycle all had a hand in encouraging her interests in science.

Q: What sparked your interest to pursue a science career?

Nancy Hess: My father was a professor of plant pathology and he would take me into his lab and greenhouses when I was young. I loved seeing all the laboratory equipment and learning about the experiments he designed to understand how plants worked. He obviously enjoyed what he did and conveyed that excitement to me. Also, I grew up during the era of the Apollo missions to the moon and Jacques Cousteau’s explorations of the sea -- science exploration was very exciting!

Q: You specialize in spectroscopy and biogeochemistry. Why did you choose these fields?

NH: I have always enjoyed the beauty and the complexity of processes in the natural world. The more I learned about science the more I wanted to understand these processes at the molecular level. Spectroscopy gives you that insight.
Q: Why is spectroscopy important? What do you hope your work in this area will to?
NH: What we observe in nature is controlled by molecular processes. As scientists, we want to develop predictive models, for example, of the movement of contaminants in groundwater to protect water supplies. To develop these models, we need to be able to identify and understand the key molecular processes that control the binding and release of the contaminant on a mineral surface and how it moves in the groundwater. The next challenge is to be able to scale those processes from the molecular level to the basin level. My research at the molecular level can be integrated with other scientists’ work to understand the bigger picture.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the projects your working on right now?

NH: I currently contribute to two research projects at PNNL’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL). One studies microbial communities that metabolize cellulose and the other studies the sequestration of super critical CO2 in deep geologic reservoirs. I have been fortunate at PNNL and EMSL, a Department of Energy user facility here, to work on a great diversity of research areas from stress in thin films and the fate and transport of radionuclides to hydrogen storage materials.
Q: Did you have a teacher or role model who inspired you to become a scientist?

NH: In addition to my father, I had a great biology teacher in high school. Learning about the photosynthesis and the Krebs cycle was a great awakening because I could see the chemical reactions that described the flow of energy from one system to another, and that was really fascinating.

Q: Do you have any advice for students interested in becoming scientists?

NH: Be curious. Find opportunities to work with scientists and participate in their research. It is very rewarding! There is so much information and ideas available on the web. Even if you do not live close to a science institution, there is a lot of science you can do at home or you may find ways to interact via the internet.
Q: You mentioned the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory earlier, what makes this facility unique?

NH: EMSL is funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Biological & Environmental Research, which supports world-class research in the biological, chemical, and environmental sciences. The program - and EMSL - focus on developing innovative solutions to the nation's environmental challenges as well as those related to energy production. EMSL has a distinctive focus on integrating computational and experimental capabilities – as well as collaborating among disciplines. This approach yields a strong and synergistic scientific environment. Bringing together experts and state-of-the-art instruments critical to their research under one roof, EMSL has helped thousands of researchers use a multidisciplinary, collaborative approach to solve some of the most important challenges our country faces. These challenges cover a wide range of research, including synthesis, characterization, theory and modeling, dynamical properties, and environmental testing.
Q: Do you have a favorite tool in the lab?

NH: There are so many it is hard to choose. At EMSL, we just finished bringing online more than 30 new state-of-the-art instruments funded by the Recovery Act that are already providing new scientific insights.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
NH: Being outside with my family -- hiking, skiing and running.

Q: Who is your favorite fictional scientist?
NH: Buckaroo Banzai.