Undergraduate Research

Aziz Mohammed '23

OUR Featured Researcher: Aziz Mohammed '23

Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones

Aziz Mohammed (he/him) is a Chemistry major conducting mentored research under Professor Matthew Elrod. His project is titled "Investigation of Mechanism and Kinetics of Organosulfate Formation from Polyols on Atmospheric Aerosols".

Please describe your project: 

My project investigates the formation of compounds called organosulfates in areas of high acidity in the lower atmosphere. Organosulfates are molecules containing sulfate groups (OSO32-) attached to a carbon backbone. In Prof. Elrod’s lab, we use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to study the rate, or kinetics, of the reaction. Kinetics analyses allow us to determine what steps are involved in forming the product. Based on our understanding of how fast these reactions take place, we can judge the importance of reactions in atmospheric chemistry and further develop our understanding of processes that contribute to climate change. Results from my project will contribute to modeling air pollution and climate change.

A brief summary (the elevator speech) of your research project: 

I’m working on is focused on determining the kinetics and mechanism of organosulfate formation in the lower atmosphere. Organosulfates are compounds correlated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease and are increasingly present in the atmosphere. The results of this project will contribute to modeling air pollution and climate change. 

What does the process of doing your research look like?

I work in the laser lab on the third floor of the science center, not because I use the lasers, but because it is close to the chemicals and instruments I use. I start by outlining my goals for the day in my lab notebook and try to stick to that outline for as long as I can, usually about an hour. When I inevitably hit a roadblock, I consult another research student or Prof. Elrod, and we try to solve the problem together.

Why is your research important?

My research is important because it contributes to modeling atmospheric chemistry, air pollution, and climate change. Beyond its impact on climate models, organosulfates are recognized as toxic compounds strongly correlated with human respiratory and cardiovascular disease. By determining the rates of the formation reactions, we can better understand what steps might need to be taken to control the concentrations of organosulfates in the atmosphere to mitigate the adverse health effects.

How did you get involved in research?

During my first year, I realized how much I love chemistry and wanted to get more experience thinking about chemistry in new and exciting ways. So, I looked on the department website, read about professors’ research interests, and attempted to read some recent publications. Eventually, I asked Prof. Elrod if he had an opening in his lab, and he did.

What is your favorite aspect of the research process?

I love research because you get to do something that no one else has done yet, and that feels exciting. Research can often be frustrating; sometimes your experiments don’t work, or the data forces you in a different direction, but that makes the victories more fulfilling. One of my favorite aspects of research is the feeling that you earned every scrap of information, none of the results were handed to you – you discovered them. 

How has working with your mentor impacted the development of your research project?

When I started in Prof. Elrod’s lab, he set the direction of the project and the daily agenda. As I became more competent in the lab and more confident in understanding the project, our day-to-day became much more collaborative. I began contributing more ideas and posing questions that shifted the daily goals and helped shape the project.

How has the research you’ve conducted contributed to your professional or academic development?

While I was fairly confident that I wanted a career in chemistry before working with Prof. Elrod, my experience in his lab solidified my desire to pursue a career in research. Research transformed from an abstract concept that felt uncomfortable to something that I look forward to each week. Working in Prof. Elrod’s lab also greatly improved my critical thinking and problem-solving skills and allowed me a creative outlet in a less traditional sense.

What advice would you give to a younger student wanting to get involved in research in your field?

I would say that the best thing you can do is investigate what is going on at Oberlin and get involved in the department, even if a spot in a lab isn’t immediately available. Talk to older students, reach out to professors, attend office hours, TA for a lab, OWL for a class, work in the stock room, and start trying to read the literature in the area you’re interested in. Reading papers is a skill that takes time to develop, and it was tough for me to do at first; if you can understand even 10% of what is going on, you are off to a great start.