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Chris Johnson Wins Stony Brook Foundation Discovery Prize

Discovery prize 2023 johnson lejuez
Discovery prize 2023 johnson wide
Chris Johnson, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, delivers his presentation for the 2023 Discovery Prize on September 18. Photos by John Griffin.

Chris Johnson, an associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Chemistry, was announced as the winner of the 2023 Stony Brook Foundation Discovery Prize on September 18.

The $200,000 Discovery Prize is awarded to an early-career Stony Brook faculty member in the STEM disciplines whose pioneering project embraces risk and innovation and embodies the potential of discovery-driven research. It is intended to advance and support the career of a rising star on the Stony Brook faculty, whose ideas and research may be so revolutionary that traditional funding agencies may be unlikely to provide support.

At the Discovery Prize finals in the Charles B. Wang Center Theatre, Johnson presented his research proposal, “A New Platform to Track the Chemistry of Climatically Relevant but Currently Underaddressed Ultrafine Aerosol Particles.”

Discovery prize 2023 johnson lejuez
Executive Vice President and Provost Carl Lejuez with 2023 Discovery Prize winner Chris Johnson.

Johnson’s proposal is based on the idea that we may create particles to manufacture clouds in order to temper the impact of climate change.

“This is going to be great to get this project off the ground,” Johnson said. “It is a high risk project with some chance of failure that federal funding agencies do not welcome anymore, so having something like this to get us going is going to be a huge help.”

The Discovery Prize was established in 2013 with a generous donation from the Stony Brook Foundation’s Board of Trustees as a way to advance pioneering scientific breakthroughs at a time when the primary source of support for basic research when governmental monetary support is dwindling.

“The basic research done at universities impacts our lives on every level, from the grand to the everyday, from crisis to convenience. As the world rapidly changes, often in ways that many of us can’t predict, we will rely on the work and preparedness of our researchers. We will rely on their innovation, their creativity, and their intrepid pursuit of new knowledge,” said Carl Lejuez, executive vice president and provost of Stony Brook University. “And that’s what basic research can do. Fortify creative new solutions. Create unexpected connections. Transform the world.”

Johnson explained that there are many different particles in the atmosphere, and many different molecules making different particles. Particles age differently, grow differently, and may form a cloud droplet sooner. Working to find which particles form clouds requires the research team to measure the size of the particles, age of the particles and cloud forming potential simultaneously, and one particle at a time.

Discovery prize 2023 finalists
Winner Chris Johnson (center) with (from left) Executive Vice President and Provost Carl Lejuez, and judges Ivet Bahar, Anissa Abi-Dargham and Richard Reeder.

One of the challenges is viewing the particles. While particles may be trapped on a surface for examination under a synchrotron or electron microscope, this is only feasible with the upper end of the climate relevant size range, forcing the team to look at big particles and then try to extrapolate back down into the size range, which could introduce numerous errors.

The goal is to build an instrument that directly addresses the size range based off of advances only recently available, using vibrational spectroscopy, or molecular fingerprinting. “Basically, each molecule has a unique vibrational spectroscopic identity: a series of peaks of heights, and exactly where these peaks are an energy of a photon that they absorb. And you can figure out from the spectrum what a molecule is and what molecules that are near it, and so on and so forth,” Johnson explained.

The team intends to use a pioneering method to measure the mass of these sorts of nano sized particles. “What we need to do is incorporate our way of doing vibrational spectroscopy, and this way of measuring the mass of particles and then we get the age and the mass at the same time from the mass we can straightforwardly derive the size,” Johnson said. “So now we have the size and mass of one particle at a time and then we just expose this particle to water vapor and see if it forms a cloud droplet or not. If it does, then we know what’s important. If it doesn’t, then we move on.”

The potential findings will have an impact on climate models, testing geoengineering particles, as well as trying to remove microplastics from the environment, which is a goal of the group. “Every time you take a breath, you breathe in about a million or 10 million of these particles every single time, so this could have dramatic effects on your health, especially particles and this side effect size range are particularly good at passing from your lungs into your bloodstream. Being able to understand how the chemistry of these particles interacts with your lungs, that tissue in there is going to be super important,” said Johnson.

There are even national security implications, as the findings may enable the team to determine how particles are wafted into the air and the jet stream, to determine where the particles were formed and what kind of industrial processes are going on throughout the world.

Discovery prize 2023 johnson awardThe winning proposal was chosen by a distinguished panel of four judges: Barry Barish, the President’s Distinguished Endowed Chair in Physics at Stony Brook and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics; Ivet Bahar, the Louis and Beatrice Laufer Endowed Director and Chair in Physical and Quantitative Biology, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology in the Renaissance School of Medicine and an internationally renowned structural and computational biologist; Richard Reeder, Associate Vice President for Brookhaven National Lab Affairs and professor in the Department of Geochemistry; and Anissa Abi-Dargham, chair of Stony Brook’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health in the Renaissance School of Medicine, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Associate Dean and Associate Vice President for Clinical and Translational Science in the Renaissance School of Medicine.

“It was an extremely difficult decision because they were all such good proposals and the presentations were astounding. After some very difficult discussions, we just saw that there was a slight edge in what Chris presented,” said Reeder.

Each of the three finalists worked with the public speaking experts at the Alda Center for Communicating Science on how to best present their research in a compelling yet rigorous pitch to the judges and audience.

“The Alda Center team helps you to think about things that you don’t think about very often and to put yourself in the audience’s perspective. When we’re talking to other scientists about technical things, it’s easy. When you’re talking to people that are farther away from the technical level that you’re used to thinking about, it can be hard, and the Alda Center team really helped us bridge that gap,” said Johnson.

Read more about this year’s finalists:

  • Chris Johnson, associate professor, Department of Chemistry, “A New Platform to Track the Chemistry of Climatically-Relevant but Currently Under-Addressed Ultrafine Aerosol Particles”
  • Mengkun Liu, associate professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, “Revolutionizing Nano Photonics: Exploring a New Highway for Light Matter Interactions”
  • Sima Mofakham, assistant professor, Department of Neurosurgery, “Promoting Neurological Recovery Through Self-Organization of Ensembles Encoding Goal-Directed Behavior”

— Beth Squire

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