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Published on January 22, 2024
UC San Diego's Kimberly Prather Wins Prestigious NAS Chemical Sciences Award for Aerosol ResearchSource: RightCowLeftCoast, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The scientific community is tipping its hat to Kimberly Prather, an atmospheric chemist from UC San Diego, who's snagged the 2024 NAS Award in Chemical Sciences, as acknowledged by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Recognized for her trailblazing work on atmospheric aerosols, Prather's research is a game-changer for our grasp on air quality, climate, and what it all means for our well-being.

Being lauded for "revolutionizing our understanding of atmospheric aerosols and their impact on air quality, climate, and human health," Prather holds the reins at UC San Diego as a distinguished chair in atmospheric chemistry, she's got ties with both the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the university's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, plus, she's the brain behind the NSF Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment. She created a buzz early in her career with the aerosol time-of-flight mass spectrometry (ATOFMS) technique, a nifty tool for sniffing out what aerosol particles are made of on the fly, a tool that's now a hot commodity in field studies worldwide.

Margaret Leinen, the vice chancellor for marine sciences at UC San Diego and the honcho at Scripps Oceanography, couldn't hold back her admiration, saying, "Professor Prather is one of the most distinguished aerosol chemists in the world and this honor recognizes that her work stands out amongst all research in chemistry," in a statement obtained by Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The award not just puts a spotlight on Prather's smarts but also broadcasts the importance of aerosols when it comes to the air we breathe, our health, and the big picture—our climate.

Prather's currently on the front lines of a study in Imperial Beach, Calif., where coastal water pollution is crashing the party, thanks to leaky wastewater management over in Mexico, her work using DNA sequencing and mass spectrometry has managed to trace back the nasty bits in the air all the way to the troubled Tijuana River, this study laid down the groundwork for the Airborne Institute at UC San Diego that kicked off in March 2023 with Prather taking charge as co-director; and back in 2021, Prather played a key role in opening the gates to the NSF-funded Scripps Ocean-Atmosphere Research Simulator (SOARS), a laboratory gadget designed to spill the beans on air-sea interactions, leading to insights that might just give our air quality and climate models a sharp edge.

Don't think she stopped there—during the Covid-19 scramble, Prather was on the frontline, pushing hard for clear-cut public health advice on aerosol transmission and getting down to business with the authorities to ensure we were all clear on how this pesky virus spreads. She even took it up a notch and dropped an air-filtration device at the White House to hammer home the message about cleaning up our act. The NAS honors will be dished out at the big annual shindig this April, and with a resume that includes coveted spots in the NAS, NAE, and a bunch of scholarly clubs, Prather is in no short order of accolades.