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Meet an Atmospheric Chemistry Grad Student

Ph.D. Student Stephanie L. Mora Garcia with her spectroscopic instrument, the Incoherent Broadband Cavity Enhanced Absorption Spectrometer (IBBCEAS).

Ph.D. Student Stephanie L. Mora Garcia with her spectroscopic instrument, the IBBCEAS.

March 22, 2021

Stephanie L. Mora Garcia, a Ph.D. student at the University of California San Diego, works with her advisor, Dr. Vicki Grassian, to study fundamental molecular processes in atmospheric chemistry (CHE 1801971, 2002607, 1702488). We had the opportunity to interview Stephanie about her life as a graduate student:

How would you describe your research in a Tweet?

I helped build and optimize the Incoherent Broadband Cavity Enhanced Absorption Spectrometer (IBBCEAS), an instrument that allows us to study reactions that lead to the trace atmospheric gas nitrous acid. We study the formation of this gas because it is generated during natural and anthropogenic processes like fossil fuel combustion and forest fires. Nitrous acid contributes to smog and poor health outcomes for people, so understanding how it behaves can help researchers to develop remediation techniques and technology.

What is the coolest thing you have done lately as a grad student? Why did it excite you?

As co-outreach coordinator for our graduate student organization (Society for Women in Graduate Studies in Chemistry and Biochemistry), I helped to organize our first virtual outreach event. We talked about the chemistry behind the popular “slime” toy, and presented a hands-on demo. This event was exciting because it was a reminder of kids’ natural curiosity about science and my desire to contribute to making science more accessible to the public.  

What has surprised you most about doing research?

Many scientists use different forms of art to help themselves continue to be creative with their research. I’ve been inspired by this and have been dabbling in sketching my science.

What’s your favorite snack for a long day of research?

My favorite snack for a long day in lab is cold fruit! Especially pineapple. The tanginess is a nice pick me up.

Describe a time that you failed in research and how you overcame it.

During my first year as a graduate student, I worked on optimizing an instrument, which meant I wasn’t producing data. In the moment, it was difficult not to see that as failure in my research, because I did not have tangible results to make me feel like I was making progress. I overcame this feeling by reminding myself that I chose the project because I enjoy a challenge, and that the research I would eventually be able to do with my instrument would be exciting. 

What is your STEM Spark story – what got you interested in science?

When I was a sophomore in high school taking my first chemistry class, the teacher was covering the concept of solubility based on polarity. After class, I stayed to ask if that was the reason why I needed an oil-based makeup remover to remove water-proof mascara. That moment was special to me, because it was the first time I used my knowledge of science to make sense of the things in my everyday life, and it was also the beginning of that teacher encouraging me to pursue science.

What was your favorite kids’ science show and why?

I remember Bill Nye the Science Guy being played in my third and fourth grade classes and particularly enjoying it. The skits and science experiments were visually self-explanatory and that drew me in because my first language was Spanish, and I did not begin to learn English until around that same time. I felt as if I was learning about science, even if I did not fully understand what Bill Nye was saying! 

(Fun Fact: Bill Nye the Science Guy was funded by NSF!)

Who is your favorite fictional scientist and why?

Shuri from Black Panther! She is confident in her intelligence and is proud to be using it to aid the people of Wakanda.

What scientific question would you most like to answer?

Broadly, the scientific question I would most like to answer would be how we can use the scientific knowledge we have to help communities who historically have suffered environmental injustice have healthier air to breathe.

What’s your science dream job?

I would love to be a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution or community college near San Bernadino, CA, where I grew up. I know these institutions get a higher enrollment from students who are underrepresented in STEM, and I want to aid in propelling them forward in their careers as scientists, just as I was helped as an undergraduate.   


-       Learn more about the NSF Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment (CAICE)




The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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