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Newfound ambition fuels student’s career

July 18, 2008

Bryan Rolfe, whose interest in math and science was sparked at a young age, is now pursuing degrees through the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in chemical engineering and math. He credits his father as one of the greatest reasons he has a science-oriented mind.

“Although he never got his degree, my father was always interested in science,” Rolfe says. “When I was in high school, he bought me an 8-inch Newtonian Reflector with an Equatorial mount, a big telescope. Seeing galaxies and star clusters was mind-blowing.”

In high school, Rolfe enrolled in an honors chemistry course that only reinforced his love of scientific inquiry. His father had told him that advanced chemistry was horrible, so he entered his first class tentatively.

“The teacher argued that chemistry is really just the study of the interactions of atoms, and atoms make up everything, so chemistry is absolutely fundamental to everything,” he recalls. “These words won me over.”

Rolfe now works with Dr. Laura Wasylenki, a research scientist in the School of Earth and Science Exploration at ASU. Together, they conduct research in the study of isotope effects on environmental systems at the W. M. Keck Foundation Laboratory for Environmental Biogeochemistry, a mass spectrometry facility in the basement of the Physical Sciences building.

“Isotopes of any given element have the same number of protons in their nuclei but a different number of neutrons, which results in a mass difference,” he explains. “An isotope fractionation occurs when the isotopes of an element behave differently during a chemical reaction because they have slightly different atomic masses.”

Rolfe and Wasylenki are studying how isotopes of the metal molybdenum (Mo) fractionate during adsorption to manganese (Mn) oxide particles because such adsorption happens on the ocean floor and governs the Mo isotope composition of seawater and ocean sediments. Once this phenomenon is understood in the laboratory, the results will aid interpretation of isotope signatures recorded in ancient ocean sediments.
Rolfe’s specific role in the project involves varying temperature and salinity to see how they affect the isotopic fractionation. “Basically, I create test-tube experiments using a solution of dissolved Mo and Mn oxide particles that I synthesize,” he explains. “The samples are analyzed with a mass spectrometer to measure precisely the ratio of Mo isotopes relative to a known standard.”

When the research is complete, Rolfe and his mentor believe the information will help other researchers interpret the Mo isotope compositions of natural samples that tell us about oxygen levels in the deep past. Their research will also help Rolfe decide what he will be researching in graduate school.

After completing his graduate degree, Rolfe is considering pursuing a Ph.D. or doing something that he has dreamed about since third grade: becoming a fighter pilot for the United States Air Force.

Wasylenki, his mentor, says Rolfe is mostly self-taught in science, as “his ability to learn very quickly are just amazing.”

Moreover, Rolfe worked hard to get where he is today and has reaped the rewards. In high school, Rolfe admitted to being a procrastinator with less than average grades. By his junior year, he managed to take control and reprioritize his goals. While he could not salvage his GPA, he would make up for it with his work at the university. This past April, Rolfe was one of three ASU juniors to be awarded a Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier award for undergraduates studying science, math and engineering.

Previously, he received a NASA Space Grant and has given a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of the Sciences conference in Boston and attended the Pale Blue Dot III conference in Chicago. Last year, Rolfe obtained a German Academic Exchange Research Internship and was selected as one of 10 American Chemical Society Research Internships in Science and Engineering scholars. The internship paid more than two hundred American students to aid researchers at a German university for three months.

 “I am extremely thankful for the opportunities I’ve had at ASU,” he says.

Debra Fossum,
Office of Research and Economic Affairs