“It all started with an email,” says Thomas Mathwig, a high school senior from Ocean Lakes Mathematics and Science Academy in Virginia.

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Thomas stands next to the diurnal chamber that is used to expose samples to similar light as would be found in the marine environment.

Thomas’ interest in chemistry prompted his te
achers to recommend that he contact Dr. Pat Hatcher at Old Dominion University about potential research opportunities on which he could base his senior project.

“Dr. Hatcher and I met up to talk about his research and it was during this meeting that I met Wassim.” Says Thomas.

Wassim Obeid is a post-doctoral scholar Dr. Hatcher; both researchers are members of the ADDOMEx team and are investigating the effects of weathering on oil that is released into the ocean as a result of oil spills. Thomas is helping Wassim analyze how light can contribute to these effects.

“The experiment is called The Effect of Photo-bleaching on Oils.

So we’re studying the photodegredation of oils by exposing samples of Macondo oil to UV rays in a growth chamber to simulate what happened during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. We want to know how different amounts of light will affect the chemistry of oil in an oil spill.”

“The most excited I’ve been was when we were talking about gas chromatography and I got to actually look at the results (called a chromatograph) of our experiment on screen.” Says Thomas.

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Thomas demonstrates a typical computer read out of 2D Gas Chromatography.

“Gas chromatographs are really cool machines that I didn’t even know existed. So being able to learn about and observe these machines has been the most interesting part of this research for me”.Gas chromatography works by heating a sample until it turns into a gas. This gas is then passed through a long column that will separate the components of the sample based upon size and polarity.

Thomas has been responsible for helping Wassim integrate the area found under each of the peaks in the chromatogram results. This helps them calculate exactly how much of each compound are in the samples.

“I’ve gotten a look at how the professional world uses the scientific method and conducts science: in a controlled environment, with lots of precise instruments. I’ve had to create and run several experiments in school, and even though I try the best I can to perfect them, they’re still pretty flawed in comparison.”

“I’ve also learned how much time it takes to conduct research like this. It can be really time consuming to get the results that you need. High school experiments might take a while, but they just aren’t on the same caliber.”

Thomas will be writing a paper on his research during the academic year, complete with a literature review. He will also be presenting his work at the Tidewater Science Fair in March. After graduating high school, he plans on attending a university, although he’s not sure which one yet.

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A chromatogram of the results of a sample analysis. The taller the peak, the greater the concentration of a particular compound in the sample.

“Chemistry is definitely a major I would be interested in. But in the STEM field in general there is a lot of cool stuff. But chemistry is highest on my list right now.”