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UCI School of Physical Sciences
“Answering the World’s Big Questions”

Research & Distinguished Speakers Menu




Professor Donald R. Blake

UCI Department of Chemistry

Rowland-Blake Lab

What led to Professor F. Sherwood Rowland’s Nobel Prize winning discovery that household aerosols containing chlorofluorocarbons were creating a hole in the earth’s ozone layer? How did the Gulf Oil spill of 2010 affect the atmosphere above the ocean?  Could diabetes or cancer be detected through gases in breath samples? 

In 1995, the late UCI Professor F. Sherwood Rowland was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work as the first scientist to warn that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) released into the atmosphere depleting the earth’s vital ozone layer—and that this depletion was going to catastrophically increase in magnitude unless emissions of CFCs were greatly reduced immediately.  Now led by Rowland’s former student and colleague of nearly thirty years, Professor Donald R. Blake, the Rowland-Blake lab at UCI today continues to lead the world in atmospheric chemistry research.

Since 1988, Professor Blake and the Rowland-Blake research group have been involved in NASA and NSF sponsored airborne projects, and during the Gulf Oil spill of 2010, NSF asked the Rowland-Blake Lab to determine the effect the spill was having on local and regional air quality.  The group’s research continues to find innovative applications for their trace gas analytical capabilities, such as detecting disease in humans by measuring the presence of gases in human breath samples, blood, and urine.




Professor James Bullock

UCI Department of Physics & Astronomy

Director, Center for Cosmology

How old is the universe?  How big is the universe?  What is it made of?  

In order to really understand the evolution of the universe, we need to understand how it’s made up on the smallest scales.

Professor Bullock, one of the world’s leading theoretical cosmologists, is working on the nature of dark matter, the process of galaxy formation, and the assembly of the Milky Way galaxy.  Bullock uses detailed observations of the Milky Way and its neighbor galaxies to address the broad questions about the Universe. 




Professor James Famiglietti

UCI Earth System Science Department

Director, UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling

How are the earth’s water cycle and freshwater resources being impacted by climate change? 

Professor Famiglietti’s work has been incorporated into several of the world’s leading global climate models, the complex numerical simulators used to predict and understand global change, and that provide the basis for assessment of future climate in the IPCC reports. Most recently, he and his students have pioneered methods using data from a new, satellite gravity mission to identify groundwater depletion in the world’s major aquifers. Their work has highlighted unsustainable rates of groundwater use around globe – from the Central Valley and the High Plains aquifers in the U. S., to the Middle East, India, China and Australia. 

Professor Famiglietti’s research utilizes NASA satellite imagery to detect global changes in groundwater.  Recent highlights of his career include coverage by “The New York Times”; selection as the 2012 Birdsall-Dreiss Disgintuished Lecturer by the Geological Society of America; and his prominent role in an upcoming documentary by Participant Media, “Last Call at the Oasis,” scheduled for global release in May of 2012. 




Professor Reginald Penner

UCI Department of Chemistry

Director, Center for Solar Energy

 How are researchers working to enhance the scalability and efficiency of solar energy technology?

The sun is the largest untapped resource currently available to meet the growing demand for clean energy.  More energy from the sun strikes the earth in a single hour than all human beings use in an entire year, but at present, this abundant resource provides only a tiny fraction of global energy needs.  Researchers from the UC Irvine Center for Solar Energy are studying the fundamental scientific principles of converting solar energy into usable forms and methods for applying this knowledge to create low-cost technologies. The research covers three general areas:

(1) converting solar energy to chemical fuels by mimicking photosynthesis
(2) making inexpensive and highly efficient photovoltaics from earth abundant materials
(3) using nanowires to convert wasted solar heat to electrical power.

Professor Penner is a world-renowned chemist, specializing in analytical and materials chemistry.  Penner serves as the director of the UCI Center for Solar Energy, established in 2007 to study the fundamental scientific principles of solar energy conversion and to educate scientists, students, and the general public about harnessing our most abundant energy resource.




Professor Eric Rignot

UCI Department of Earth System Science | NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

How will the earth’s ice sheets respond to climate change in the coming century?  How will the earth’s melting glaciers affect sea levels?

Ice melting from ice sheets and glaciers is the largest contributor to global sea level rise at present. Most of the melting occurs at the coast, along channels occupied by fast moving glaciers. Outside of Antarctica, the Patagonian Ice Fields are the largest contributor to sea level rise in the southern hemisphere. West Greenland glaciers are the largest dischargers of ice in Greenland and a leading contributor to sea level rise from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Professor Eric Rignot is the world’s leading expert on polar ice sheets and the effects of global climate change on the cryosphere. With more than 20 years of research experience, he has been a Principal Investigator for NASA projects in Patagonia, Greenland, and Antarctica.  His current project involves an innovative use of airborne technologies—state-of-the-art gravity (AIRGrav), GPS, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and laser profiler (LiDAR) systems on helicopters—to provide high-resolution, high-precision mapping of bed topography, glacier ice thickness and sea floor bathymetry in the Patagonian Ice Fields of Chile and to demonstrate the applicability of this multi-sensor approach to the coastal regions of western Greenland. 




Professor A. J. Shaka

UCI Department of Chemistry

Are the current forms of alternative energy—solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal, etc.----viable with regard to scale and cost?  Is there a “deep green” option?  What if we could develop a form of nuclear energy that would be safe, inexpensive, and plentiful?

Professor Shaka is currently exploring options for clean and safe nuclear energy.  Thorium-232 is so safe, it’s used in Coleman lanterns.  Thorium-232 can be used to make Uranium-233, a stable isotope that can fuel a safe and green nuclear power plant that produces less than 1% that of current power plants using Uranium-235 solid fuel elements.   It’s cheaper than coal and found in abundance in the United States:  “There is enough thorium in Idaho to power us for 5,000 years without one iota of conservation.”

Professor Shaka received his Ph. D. from Oxford University in 1984 on a Rhodes Scholarship, and joined the UCI faculty in 1988 after a Miller Fellowship at UC Berkeley.  He is an expert in magnetic resonance, and is a licensed Senior Reactor Operator for UCI's research nuclear reactor.  He was elected a Fellow of the AAAS in 2007 and was awarded an Emmy for Best Instructional Video for a chemistry distance-learning project with Coastline College in 2010.  He appears from time to time in the "Ancient Aliens" series on the History Channel.