Oberlin News Center

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Oberlin News Center

Associate Chemistry Professor Catherine Oertel '99 (center) works with students in her lab. 
Photo By Tanya Rosen-Jones

Catherine Oertel ’99, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has received the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award. The award program supports the research and teaching careers of talented young faculty in the chemical sciences, and provides an unrestricted research grant of $60,000.

Oertel, who joined the chemistry and biochemistry faculty in 2006, studies the corrosion of historic Baroque pipe organs. Pipe organs of the Baroque age are the “endangered species” of the musical world and are noted for their ties to significant composers and pre-industrial technologies. The natural corrosion of organ pipes threatens the ability of these historic instruments to produce sound.

In Oertel’s lab, students study synthesis and structural chemistry of complex oxides. One project involves lead oxide carboxylates and their role in corrosion of organ pipes. The second project focuses on synthesis of mixed-metal oxides with potential applications in mediating sunlight to carry out chemical reactions. She says the Dreyfus grant will allow her to take new directions in each of her current projects. “One of the special things about the Dreyfus award is that there is a lot of flexibility in how it can be used,” she says.

Being a teacher-scholar means helping students make discoveries about new ideas in chemistry, while simultaneously contributing to published work. “Involving student researchers makes it possible to try more experiments than I would be able to do alone,” she says. If I'm successful in helping a student become engaged in research, he or she also contributes ideas and suggests new experiments. The students do much of the laboratory work that eventually goes into our publications and presentations.”

The relationship also exposes students to the frustrating and rewarding parts of doing research. “I think these experiences can help students make decisions about what they want to do after Oberlin.”

In 2012, Oertel received a five-year, $475,000 early CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation in support of her research with pipe organ corrosion. Her findings on how materials and conditions affect corrosion rates could eventually shape strategies for protecting pipe organs. More generally, her research will contribute to the understanding of corrosion of lead-tin alloys, not just those used to make pipe organs.

Oertel is the chemistry department’s fourth faculty member to receive the Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award. Other recipients are Rebecca Whelan (2011), Manish Mehta (2009), and Matthew Elrod (2003).

“There are few liberal arts colleges that have four winners,” says Mehta. “It speaks to the individual achievements of our faculty, by way of their internationally recognized research programs and their commitment to high-quality teaching. It also speaks to the overall strength of our chemistry program and the powerful environment at Oberlin. The national competition for these awards is very strong each year, so this is a significant achievement.”