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Exploring the world one molecule at a time

September 29, 2010
By Nik Olsen

Chemistry Professor Ellen Fisher is so deeply rooted in her expertise that she literally can't see the world around her without the benefits of chemistry. For her, it's the mixture of compounds that form her corrective contact lenses that makes it possible to see clearly.

Explorer of basic compounds that create everyday objects

Ellen Fisher is chairwomen on the Department of Chemistry and a 17-year faculty member.

Fisher’s contact lenses are just one modern aid developed through materials chemistry, the same science that has produced the colored metal on her coffee mug and carpet on the floor.

A winding educational path brought Fisher to where she is today - chairwoman of the Department of Chemistry at Colorado State, 17-year faculty member, and explorer of the most basic compounds that combine to create the everyday objects we all need – and a myriad of devices that may not be necessary but are sure nice to have around.

In high school, she didn’t envision her talents and interests combining to propel her toward days of particle excitation with lasers, supervising graduate student mass spectrometry experiments, and teaching undergraduates students the basics of chemistry.

“A lot of chemistry is applied math,” Fisher says, “and that’s what initially attracted me.”

Fascination with the molecular world

Through the guidance of chemistry faculty at Texas Lutheran University, where Fisher earned a double major in chemistry and mathematics, she developed a fascination with the molecular world.

“How materials are made or modified on a molecular level can have an impact on the overall material,” Fisher explains. “As a chemist, I want to know how that happens.”

In her laboratory, Fisher uses plasmas and lasers to excite molecules and studies their interactions with surfaces. The goal is to improve a process that makes something else possible or work better. For instance, improving surfaces in photovoltaic solar cells may help the cell more efficiently process sunlight, thus yielding more energy from a smaller panel.

Change surface properties without changing desirable feel

Recent work in Fisher’s lab centers on using plasma to modify membranes and fibers like silk, cotton, and wool. Imagine a silk scarf that’s more resistant to wrinkles.

“Can we change the overall surface properties without changing the desirable feel?” Fisher asks, adding that you wouldn’t want a wool sock to be any less warm and cozy, but a wool sock that wicks away moisture better could make a foot even happier.

Amplifying desirable effects of material can yield benefits for human health too. In magnetic imaging, for instance, the better an image is rendered, the better a doctor can see medical problems. Iron oxide works great at improving the clarity of medical images, but in a more raw form, ingestion of iron oxide can pose health risks. Enter chemistry: A chemist may be able to manipulate the surface of iron oxide particles so they become nontoxic to the body while retaining benefits to imaging, Fisher says.

Decreasing size of devices now a materials problem

One facet of our lives crying out for chemists’ innovations is microelectronics. Cell phones, laptop computers, and personal music players are about as small as they can get using current technology such as silicon microchips. Consumers’ thirst for the next smallest thing, however, has yet to be quenched. Once again, enter chemistry.

“Decreasing the size of devices is now a materials problem,” Fisher says. While silicon has long been the material of choice for microchips, some other material may dethrone silicon as king if that material can make electronic gear even more pocket-sized.

Exploration into the unknown a joy

Such is the life of a chemist: Once a discovery is made, other areas arise for exploration. And it’s exploration into the unknown that keeps piquing Fisher’s interest in chemistry.

“We’re creating new knowledge,” she says. “We’re doing experiments that have never been done before and seeing things that have never been seen before. “It’s amazing to be involved in the creation of knowledge. That’s one of the joys of academics: the freedom to explore.”

Originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Fall 2010.