My Science Life: James Kubicki, Department Chair Of Geological Sciences

Welcome to the My Science Life feature of Dr. James Kubicki. James Kubicki is currently Chair of the Department of Geological Sciences and the interdisciplinary Environmental Science program at UTEP.

His academic pathway has taken him from undergraduate work at CSUF, a Ph.D. from Yale with research performed at the Carnegie Geophysical Laboratory (with Russell Hemley), postdoctoral appointments at Caltech (under Geoff Blake and Ed Stolper) and the U.S. Navy (under Sabine Apitz), and a faculty position at Penn State. Over this time, his research has ranged across high-pressure melt structure, melting, nucleation and volatiles in magmas, organic contaminant recalcitrance, bacteria-mineral adhesion, plant cell wall architecture, and nanoparticle surface chemistry.

model of hexane soot or “black carbon” interacting with H2O and SO2 (Credit: James Kubicki)

The overarching theme in all these studies has been to understand geochemical reaction mechanisms that control the rates of processes in the environment. To follow this path, Kubicki has relied upon computational chemistry and spectroscopy to learn details of molecular structure, especially in systems with significant disorder (e.g., glasses & melts, soot, and mineral-water interfaces). He enjoys a collaborative approach to combine the expertise of colleagues to obtain a more comprehensive view of the chemistry in the systems of interest.

Favorite Quote

William Blake

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

This is a favorite quote because geochemists and mineralogists are doing this on a daily basis. For computational chemists who work in femtoseconds (10-15 seconds), an hour can practically be an eternity.

What Is A Typical Day For You?

My day is divided among administration, research and teaching. Fortunately, we have a great staff in the Dept. of Geological Sciences at UTEP (Kristen Gonzalez, Carlos Montana, Joel Gilbert, Annette Veilleux, Amber Bruner), so much of the administration can be delegated. I also enjoy the strong participation of our 20 faculty within the department. Consequently, there is still time each day to log in and run calculations, analyze results and work on papers & presentations. Teaching non-science majors affords the opportunity to communicate why we need to be concerned about environmental policy and the science that informs it.

The best part of my job is working one-on-one with students because you can get an immediate sense of their progress and learn from their questions. A Ph.D. student, Jason Boettger, just defended his thesis which gives one a great sense of satisfaction because you know someone has accomplished a long-term goal while gaining skills and knowledge that can carry them forward. Working with students from other groups is an opportunity I rarely pass up because molecular modeling provides insights that field and laboratory research do not. The complementarity of these approaches makes for better scientists.

Tell Us About Your Research

The toxic effects of contaminants in our environment depend on the nature of the element or compound and on the form it takes. For example, work on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) has shown that they can be toxic and carcinogenic, but in the field, sequestration within soot or organic matrices can make them less bioavailable and diminish their potential impact on organisms. In general, I like to find people who are interested in compelling problems of importance in the real world who can benefit from molecular-level insight. Susan Brantley (Penn State) was great for this because she is always innovating in the field and lab.

Performing research and teaching with her has been one of the joys of my career. Often laboratory experiments and analysis can have multiple or ambiguous interpretations. This is where computational chemistry can test various proposed explanations and provide an objective measure for assigning speciation to spectra or other experimental data. The collaborations with a wide range of scientists always teaches me something new helps me to keep looking at the world with new eyes.

What Are Some Of The Biggest Challenges In Your Field?

Technically, running quantum mechanical simulations on models large enough (e.g., 10K atoms) for long enough (e.g., 1 millisecond) is a grand challenge. A breakthrough that would allow this type of simulation to be run on a normal basis would expand our capabilities dramatically. Fortunately, we have some very intelligent people such as Eric Bylaska at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory working on breaking this barrier. One alternative is to design accurate, reactive classical force fields to use instead of quantum calculations. The classical approach can handle millions of atoms and millisecond simulations, but often the force fields do not allow for chemical reactions to occur and they have limited accuracy. Leaders in this area are Adri van Duin of Penn State and Julian Gale of Curtin University.

On the cultural or social side, scientific challenges are bridging the gaps between separated disciplines and between physical & social sciences. For example, one finds there is not enough communication between environmental scientists and toxicologists or health scientists. Another area I am interested in is the connection between soil and atmospheric scientists. The real world connects all these areas of study, but funding agencies, universities and professional societies divide up to focus on specific topics which creates artificial barriers. Organization is necessary, but we need to be more proactive in picking our heads up from our narrow areas of focus and make sure we connect with disciplines related to our own.

What Advice Do You Have For Those Pursuing A Career In Your Field?

Science has changed dramatically since I was a student. The paradigm 30 years ago was to find a narrow area and become one of the world’s experts in that topic. We still need specialists, but more and more specialists will need to work in teams to tackle the complex problems we face in science and society today. To be a good team member, you should know your own strengths and weaknesses, leave your ego behind, find people who complement your skills, and not be afraid to explore new areas.

Practically, one should be versatile to take advantage of opportunities that arise. I was fortunate to study in a methodology that has grown due to the efforts of others building faster computers and more powerful programs. Without Gaussian Inc., my career pathway would have been much more difficult and less productive. Keep striving even when you have failed. I almost dropped out of scientific research twice in my career, but I am very happy I did not have to leave this path prematurely. Sometimes satisfying results can be a long time coming, but success is much sweeter when you have sweated long for it.

The ‘My Science Life’ project is a core part of Science Trends’ mission to give a voice to scientists and allow them to connect with tens of thousands of people. It is an opportunity for people, like yourself, to share their “story” and in doing so, make science more approachable and personal.

Interested in being part of the My Science Life project? You can find the details about submission here.

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