From the cold reaches of Spitsbergen to the tropical warmth of Kuala Lumpur, Dr. Dickerson has traveled the globe to understand how air chemistry affects us all.
What is the area of your research?
Our group studies air quality and the atmospheric chemistry of this planet. We do research on local scale for the Maryland Dept of Environment and on a global scale supported generally by NOAA, NSF, and NASA. We’re part of the AURA science team, learning how to use satellites to measure trace gases in the atmosphere. I’ve been spending most of my time lately writing a new proposal to build an instrument that would be in geostationary orbit that would measure the important climate forcing gases: CO, CO2, and methane. It’d be nice if we get it, but the odds are about the same as winning the lottery!
How did you get into air chemistry, growing up I imagine it’s not something people normally see on a regular basis?
I always liked science. I was studying chemistry as an undergraduate, and heard a seminar by Hal Johnston where he was talking about the chemistry of the atmosphere, and I thought that was pretty exciting so I thought, well maybe this environmental chemistry stuff could be really fun. And then when I went to graduate school at Michigan my adviser (Don Stedman) had an interesting project to work on that involved the chemistry of the atmosphere. I could have just as easily done the chemistry of the oceans, or fresh water. It was an exciting time, though, because the crew of atmospheric chemists there included some of the best people in the world; Ralph Cicerone was on my committee and he’s now the president of the National Academy of Sciences.
I finished up PhD work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, which is a nice place to live. Tony Delany taught me how to build instruments that would fly on airplanes and NCAR had an Electra that we used to do island hopping all the way to Kuala Lumpur. It would take us a week to get to Malaysia in that old airplane!
Where else have you worked?
I did a short postdoc at NCAR, then followed the boss over to Europe to do a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute in Mainz and continued doing work with the measurement of reactive nitrogen from the ground and from airplanes. The experience of living in Europe for a few years is something I’d recommend for every new PhD. Once we went to the Pic du Midi in the Pyrenees in France to make measurements; they feed you very well there! Interesting priorities. There were no shower facilities, but they had 25 french scientists and 4 french chefs. I was there a week and I think I put on 10 kg! After that I came here. I’ve looked at other places but it’s been a privilege to work with excellent faculty and graduate students and I’m very fond of Maryland and it’s been good to me.
What do you think you could have done with your life if had turned out you didn’t like chemistry?
I like all sorts of science. I tried to study geology for a while, which is fun because geologists like to go out into the field. If I had to spend the rest of my life staring at a computer screen I think I’d go crazy. I think physics was the science of the 20th century, and computer science is of course the powerful new tool now and the combination has been enormously useful. The the 21st century will probably be the century of the life sciences. So I guess if I could hit the rewind button I would have learned more biology as I think that’s where the field is going. Of course, the biology you learn 30 years ago has no resemblance to the biology of today.
What was it like testifying before congress?
The EPA is required every five years to re-evaluate the national ambient air quality standards to make sure they are protective of human health. In the last integrated science assessment they concluded that the current standard for ozone should be strengthened. This annoyed a certain number of senators, and they demanded a hearing about whether it was possible to achieve ozone standards between 60 and 70 ppb. So I got to testify before congress and talk about that issue. I got called boring by a republican senator from Texas, though I’ve been called boring by better men than him, so I didn’t take it too seriously. It was an interesting experience, maybe some good will come of it: it’s absolutely true that the current standards are not strict enough to protect human health.
How many kids do you have?
Two, a boy and a girl. My daughter, Sarah, is off doing an internship in Johannesburg trying to save the world through international development, then wants to come back and do grad school somewhere. My son, Nathan, is in college in Minnesota at St. Olaf, studying to be a Norwegian I think (actually he’s pre-med).
What do you like to do in your free time when you’re not on these fantastic voyages across the world?
If it’s a good year I’ll enter road races, in the geezer category: 5 and 10 k races and a little bike riding. I do some woodworking – building furniture, I think my wife wants a new shoe rack. I like travel and I still have some friends in Germany that we like to go visit. I think that now that my kids are gone I could actually do hobbies a little bit! As Ross pointed out in my impromptu birthday celebration, I’m also an assistant scoutmaster.
Back in the day, I used to do some long bike touring where you take your bike for several days and go camping, as well as rock climbing. In college I wrestled and did Judo for a while. With my weight class I completed at 140 lbs, and i’m pretty sure I’ll never see 140 lbs again! I did football in high school. The university of Chicago’s football team was so bad, they found out I did football in high school and they kept trying to talk me into playing safety.
What kind of music do you like?
Well, I went to college on the southside of Chicago, and there was a lot of really good blues at the time, so I learned to really enjoy funky, electrified, Chicago blues. It’s one of my favorites. I also like folk and classical music. I have no musical talent, I can’t play anything other than the radio, but my wife and kids have some skills there.
What was your first concert?
If I could set the clock back and relive my life: in 1969 when I was 15 or 16, I would have run away from home for a week and gone to Woodstock. I would have stolen my father’s camera and hitchhiked to Woodstock, but I was much too timid at 15 to try any such thing. It would have gotten me into serious trouble… but it would have been worth it.
Where’s the craziest place you’ve been?
Perhaps Spitsbergen. You get there by going to the northernmost tip of Norway and then going another thousand miles north. Before we went, I looked it up and Spitsbergen had two indigenous species trees, a dwarf birch and pygmy pine, the larger of the two reaches a maximum height of 2.5 inches. You couldn’t leave the village without a gun or else you’d get eaten by polar bears. It wasn’t at the time a tourist attraction, so getting meals was difficult. We would get breakfast with the flight crew, but there was no way to eat lunch since there were no open restaurants or grocery stores. We had to tell the flight crew ahead of time to bring back dinner, and we would get a lot of caribou, reindeer, herring, potatoes, which tasted just fine when you didn’t have lunch.
What atmospheric chemical do you think most resembles your personality?
alpha-pinene. It smells nice and probably doesn’t kill anyone. The blue haze of the Blue Ridge mountains, before coal, used to be due to alpha-pinene.