UC San Diego Atmospheric Chemist Receives Prestigious National Academy of Sciences Award
Kimberly Prather recognized for pioneering work on atmospheric aerosols
Kimberly Prather, an atmospheric chemist at the University of California San Diego, is among 20 individuals being honored by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for extraordinary scientific achievements.
Prather has been awarded the 2024 NAS Award in Chemical Sciences, which honors innovative research in the chemical sciences that contributes to a better understanding of the natural sciences and to the benefit of humanity. The award recognizes her research for “revolutionizing our understanding of atmospheric aerosols and their impact on air quality, climate, and human health.”
Prather is a distinguished chair in Atmospheric Chemistry with joint appointments at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and is the founding director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment (CAICE).
Prather’s research focuses on natural and human-made aerosol particles and how these particles influence the atmosphere, climate and human health. Early in her career, she developed a novel technique, known as aerosol time-of-flight mass spectrometry (ATOFMS), that provides real-time information on the size, chemical composition, and sources of individual aerosol particles. ATOFMS instruments are now widely used in atmospheric field studies around the world.
"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," said Margaret Leinen, vice chancellor for marine sciences at UC San Diego and director of Scripps Oceanography. "The award also highlights the importance of Professor Prather's work for humanity, calling attention to the role of aerosols in air quality, health and climate. We are proud that she has been able to do so much of this groundbreaking work at UC San Diego."
Prather is currently leading research on the transfer of coastal water pollution via sea spray aerosols in Imperial Beach, Calif., a community that has faced the impacts of chronic coastal water pollution from inadequate wastewater treatment in neighboring Mexico. In a 2023 study, Prather and colleagues used DNA sequencing and mass spectrometry to link bacteria and chemical compounds in coastal aerosols back to the sewage-polluted Tijuana River flowing into coastal waters. This research led to the creation of the Meta-Institute for Airborne Disease in a Changing Climate (“The Airborne Institute”) at UC San Diego in March 2023, with Prather serving as co-director.
In 2021, UC San Diego opened the NSF-funded Scripps Ocean-Atmosphere Research Simulator (SOARS), a first-of-its-kind laboratory instrument to study ocean/atmosphere exchange processes across the air-sea interface, for which Prather served as co-principal investigator. Since its opening, the CAICE team has led interdisciplinary experiments using SOARS to better understand how temperature, wind speed, and microbiology impact the production of sea spray aerosols and gases. These findings have significant implications for improving air quality and climate models and predicting future climate.
The NAS award also recognizes her for being “an active leader and communicator, providing key guidance on the role of aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Early on and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Prather became a leading voice in communicating about airborne transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This included teaming up with a coalition of scientists to publish a call for clearer public health guidance on the role of aerosol transmission, submitting letters to leaders in the Biden Administration to address inhalation exposure of the virus, and delivering an air-filtration device to the White House to advocate for cleaning the air, as well as ongoing public outreach throughout the pandemic on social media, public forums and more.
"Professor Prather has fundamentally changed how we think about clean air and human health," stated Dean of Physical Sciences Christine Hrycyna. "Her work on aerosols during the COVID-19 pandemic helped doctors, scientists and policy-makers understand how to slow transmission. This highly prestigious award from the National Academy of Sciences celebrates her innovative research and is exceptionally well-deserved.”
The winners will be honored in a ceremony during the National Academy of Sciences 161st annual meeting in April 2024.
In addition to this honor, Prather is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering (NAE), American Philosophical Society, an elected fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
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