Building UAlberta's expertise in environmental chemistry

New assistant professor brings environmental perspective and international experience

Katie Willis - 23 April 2018

When Ran Zhao moved to Canada from Japan with his family in 2006, he was determined to find a great chemistry program. After carefully selecting the University of Alberta as his top choice, Zhao spent a year studying analytical chemistry, before realizing he had a taste for something a bit different.

"I really wanted to study environmental problems, so I moved to the University of Toronto, where there was a program focused solely on environmental chemistry," explained Zhao. There, he finished his undergraduate degree and PhD, studying atmospheric chemistry with a focus on fine particulate matter. Following his PhD degree, Zhao conducted post-doctoral research at California Institute of Technology. "Exactly 10 years after I left, I found a position here at UAlberta. Very fortuitously, I got the job."

So a decade later, Zhao is back at the UAlberta campus as an assistant professor of environmental chemistry in the Department of Chemistry, here to help build a program that he was looking for in 2006.

Impactful research

"Environmental chemistry is a relatively new discipline that applies fundamental chemistry to environmental samples," says Zhao. "It's about context. How are things introduced to the environment? How do chemical reactions and processes evolve? What is the end stage, or what is the potential effect?"

One area of research Zhao hopes to further explore is cook stoves. "These tools are very prevalent in the developing world, such as in China, where I grew up," explained Zhao.

Cook stoves rely on alternative fuels, like wood or animal dung, as a source of energy, leading to many emitted pollutants. And, with indoor aerosol pollution believed to be the third leading risk factor for illness in humans, following only high blood pressure and tobacco smoking, this work is more pressing than ever.

Back at the University of Alberta, Zhao is excited to apply UAlberta's analytical chemistry expertise to the field of environmental chemistry. "I am also excited to work closely with Sarah Styler, a fellow environmental chemist whom I studied with at UToronto, to accelerate UAlberta's research expertise in atmospheric chemistry."

Student connection

Zhao will begin teaching in September 2018, including an introductory general chemistry course and a third-year course in environmental chemistry.

In addition to his formal role as an instructor, Zhao also hopes to use his international experience to support UAlberta's international student community.

"I have a rich international background. I've lived in many countries-China, Japan, Canada, and the United States," explained Zhao. "I love Canada, but when I first arrived, I had difficulties as a newcomer in terms of both the system and culture. If I can help international students in our community to faster acclimatize to their new environment, I would be happy to do that. I understand the value that different cultures and perspectives bring, and I'd like to use my international background to assist international students in our community."