University of Michigan chemist Kerri Pratt was named to the 2024 class of Brown Investigators, the first class selected through the newly formed Brown Institute for Basic Sciences at Caltech. Pratt, a professor of chemistry and of earth and environmental sciences, will receive $2 million over five years to support her research.

The cohort comprises eight distinguished mid-career faculty working on fundamental challenges in the physical sciences, particularly those with potential long-term practical applications in chemistry and physics.

Pratt studies the chemical interactions between atmospheric trace gases, particles, clouds and snow in the Arctic, which is warming faster than elsewhere on Earth. She focuses as well on wintertime environments, which are highly understudied and often experience poor air quality, she says.

Pratt will focus her Brown Investigator project on the application of new state-of-the-art field-deployable mass spectrometers to discover and measure new chemical compounds in the atmosphere. With these instruments, they will conduct novel “lab-in-the-field” perturbation experiments to explain new chemical mechanisms in the troposphere.

“I was shocked and honored to receive the news from Ross Brown himself,” Pratt said. “I am so excited for my research group to investigate the fundamental details of chemical reactions in the atmosphere. We will use these experiments in the field to discern the details that tell us not just what, but also how and why.”

By comparison, Pratt says, most field measurements and funding are focused on measuring the amount of a chemical compound over time.

The Brown Institute was established in 2023 through a $400-million gift from entrepreneur, philanthropist and Caltech alumnus Ross M. Brown.

Caltech and Brown share a common purpose: advancing fundamental science discoveries with the potential to seed breakthroughs that benefit society.

“My hope is the support provided by the Brown Investigator Awards will help to spark and encourage the researchers’ creativity and enable them to pursue riskier innovative ideas that extend beyond their existing research efforts and align with new or developing passions,” Brown said. “By supporting mid-career faculty, we can provide funding at a time when they are poised and prepared to make profound contributions to their fields.”

--Morgan Sherburne, UM News