Suzanne Blum
Suzanne Blum, assistant professor of chemistry, has developed a fluorescence technique that makes molecules glow, allowing scientists to see the triggers of chemical reactions. Photo illustration by Steve Zylius / University Communications

Products created through chemistry – from drugs to solar and fuel cells – play critical roles in energy independence, commerce, manufacturing and human health. For this reason, it’s important to understand the mechanisms of chemical reactions – the transformations of molecules into new materials.

Because less than 1 percent of molecules might react at any given time, it’s often difficult to pinpoint the trigger of a chemical change. Suzanne Blum, assistant professor of chemistry at UC Irvine, has developed a fluorescence technique that makes molecules glow, allowing chemists to see the triggers of chemical reactions.

She’ll discuss the technique at a public breakfast lecture 7:30-9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, in the UCI Student Center. Here, Blum previews her talk.

Q: What are glowing molecules?
A: They’re like tiny glow-in-the-dark stars. We use a laser to pump lots of light energy into molecules, causing them to fluoresce. Then we can locate and observe them one at a time to see how they behave and whether they’re causing a chemical reaction.

Q: How do chemists use glowing molecules?
A: Chemists previously used glowing molecules to provide information about chemical reactions that involve billions of molecules. A change in color or brightness of a group of molecules may indicate that a reaction has occurred. What we’re doing is studying one molecule at a time using a microscope and a sensitive camera. The microscope lets us see small objects, and the camera detects emitted light. A change in color of one molecule can provide unprecedented insight into chemical reactivity by allowing detection of a chemical change at one molecule instead of billions of molecules. My lab seeks to better understand how chemical reactions work so they can be designed more efficiently, produce fewer toxic byproducts and use less energy.

Q: What do you hope people will learn from your lecture?
A: It’s important to develop new technology that helps us answer scientific questions. I hope to give people a taste of cutting-edge science and show them how simple, everyday concepts such as glow-in-the-dark stars can be used in the lab to gain insight into complicated scientific problems.

Q: Why does this field interest you?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by identifying molecules that no human has seen before. The unknown motivates me, and the intricacy of nature inspires me to design experiments that shed light on complex chemical reactions. When I was very little, I thought scientists were only educators who explained the world to others. Then I learned that scientists conduct experiments and get to communicate the results to others. It’s this merging of innovative research and teaching that really excites me.

Q: What do you like most about UCI?
A: Attending two public universities, the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and UC Berkeley, gave me a strong appreciation for that type of education. I enjoy the energy of public universities, UCI included. On any given day, there are hundreds of events, student groups and classes. It’s mind-boggling to think of all the information that’s being shared during just one day on campus. Also, the chemistry department here provides a collegial, collaborative and supportive environment for teaching and doing research.