Richmond speaks to the essential properties of water at Spring Presidential Research Lecture

Richmond (right), with Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for RIGE
Richmond (right), with Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for RIGE

Geri Richmond, the University of Oregon’s Richard M. & Patricia H. Noyes Professor of Chemistry, spoke before an audience of faculty members, students and community members at the Spring 2013 Presidential Research Lecture on May 7.

“Follow your curiosity,” Richmond said, when asked what advice she would offer to women pursuing careers in the sciences. “And make decisions about yourself when you are feeling really good about yourself, not when you are down.”

In her lecture, which was titled, "At the Water's Edge: Understanding Environmentally Important Processes at Aqueous Surfaces," Richmond examined some of the essential, life-sustaining properties of water surfaces — everything from the way water and oil interact to the ways in which water sustains life. Water, Richmond said, plays a key buffering role within the human body, helping to maintaining the body’s temperature at 98.6 degrees.

“Water is the only substance on earth that is naturally present as a solid, a liquid and a gas — ice, water and water vapor,” she said, explaining how her area of focus was specifically on the thin, top layer of water.

“Only within the past decade have we even been able to see these surface molecules.”

Richmond walked through some of the surface properties of water, which has weak bonding qualities even though it has high surface tension, and gave an overview of the many layers of her research. During a discussion of how oil interacts on water surfaces, she examined the structure of surfactants — substances used in the manufacturing of soaps, makeups, shampoos and countless other household products. She described the structure of surfactants as having heads that “like” water and tails that “like” oil.

If you were to look at the structure of the most effective soaps, you would see surfactants lined up neatly with their tails in oil and heads in water, she explained. In this way, the best soaps are those that are most effective at lowering surface tensions.

Richmond was introduced by UO President Michael Gottfredson and Vice President for Research and Innovation Kimberly Andrews Espy. Gottfredson pointed to Richmond’s recent appointment to the 25-member National Science Board — the governing board for the National Science Foundation (NSF) —  and listed some of her numerous awards and accolades, including being inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 2011, and recently receiving the American Physical Society’s 2013 Davisson-Germer Prize in Surface or Atomic Physics. He credited Richmond with being a world-class researcher as well as an outstanding teacher and mentor to her students, words that were echoed by Espy.

“Geri’s integrated passion for scientific research, teaching, and international engagement is a source of inspiration to scientists around the world,” Espy said.

Richmond’s lecture was followed by a question and answer period led by Patrick Phillips, associate vice president for research. Phillips pointed out that Richmond was almost as well-known for her outreach and advocacy activities on behalf of women scientists as she was for her research and asked her to discuss her work on behalf of the Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists (COACh). The COACh organization, which Richmond co-founded to provide mentoring and support to more than 10,000 women scientists in the U.S., launched internationally two years ago.

Richmond discussed some her efforts to provide support in places such as Africa, where women scientists are often forced to temporarily leave their home countries to pursue graduate degrees elsewhere. In many cases, leaving leads to divorce and the loss of child custody. Richmond was asked to recount an interaction from her travels that stuck with her. Having had so many meaningful interactions with women scientists around the world, she found it difficult to single out one experience.

“With every single visit,” she said. “There’s been a story for me to remember.”

- story and photo by Lewis Taylor, Office for Research, Innovation and Graduate Education