“I fell in love with her because of chemistry,” Rebecca tells me as they sit cross-legged, fingers drumming on the basement floor outside of the lab where they work. From the way Emmy looks back at them from across the foyer, I know that this love is ultimate truth.
There are lots of aerosols in the atmosphere – an aerosol takes form as any particle suspended in air. Emmy and Rebecca’s research, which they complete in the lab of Dr. Andrew Berke at Smith College, focuses on aqueous aerosols. “In sea spray, the salt is an aerosol,” Emmy explains, referencing the salt-water and red-sand Maine beaches that raised her, worlds apart from the red dirt of Rebecca’s Oklahoma. Aqueous aerosols are at their heart aerosols—like salt in ocean spray—surrounded by water and suspended in the air. The water that holds aerosols also holds the potential for countless reactions; a potential that seems both exciting and scary, in ways just beyond what we can touch.
“In this new environment the aerosol can do chemistry, the water will evaporate, and they will be left as this other thing, with different properties like absorbing light or reflecting heat,” These changes, Emmy tells me, are both indicative of and problematic in the face of climate change as many aerosols are pollutants. Implications of a heating world are inseparable from the importance of the love story they show me.
The couple’s shared work stems from months of Emmy working alone. She fell in love with the solvent of aqueous aerosols – not the primary chemistry that they are involved in, but everything around it that uniquely impacts how that chemistry happens. Mimic environments of water, ammonium sulfate, and alcohol systems fill her days and heart. Emmy looks at how the aerosols separate, like “oil and vinegar,” she tells me, interested in how and why they behave like they do. This separation is key to her work – particles soluble in only specific layers, so Emmy and Rebecca work to separate; isolating events, one layer at a time. The type and concentrations of aerosols vary depending on where you are in the world – weather, wind, emissions all impacting what they look like. There are certain pollutants that become worse pollutants in the presence of alcohol – alcohols separate in aqueous aerosols, and if a pollutant is sitting with a layer of alcohol then a reaction is likely to happen, transforming that pollutant into a more potent version of itself.
The solution was so delicate there could be no outside interference; over the last 8 months, Emmy went through an extensive period of trial and error to see that separation without interfering with the solution – testing its layers while keeping it the way it is. After reading about the way embryos are held in straws, she realized that they could put the solution in straws too, freeze them, slice them, and then test the solution at its various levels. “Intensely frustrating,” she tells me. The bendy part of the bendy straw became their medium, four hands delicately, painstakingly splitting them with razor blades into perfect discs, then using the information the melted discs provide to recreate a 3-D gradient of what the solution consists of at each point in the straw. Here, there was clarity – coupled with a never before seen, efficient way of doing this science. Alcohols, when present, weren’t separating the way they were expected to. The existing literature has no grasp on this; Emmy and Rebecca brought something new to the field as they were falling in love. As there are ratios of polar to nonpolar bonds in the constructions of molecules, they determined that above a certain number in that ratio, the alcohols separate and below that then they don’t; new information to the world, implications profound – other scientists now have a way of knowing when harmful reactions will occur.
I watch her make a straw – movement gentle, soft with the mastery of someone whose hands know what they are doing. I imagine her slicing the straw – perfect discs of the same width, small yet somehow still massive.
In establishing their process, several important things happened. First, they realized that some solutions weren’t behaving the way they should. Second, they developed a novel method for testing solutions without interference. Third, they fell in love.
“Science is slow,” Emmy says. Over the summer, their friendship flourished – both needing to be single due to the tumultuous nature of living as an early twenty-something. Alone but together, they talked each other through ups and downs, dating and life, listening to music and slicing straws as they navigated their independent journeys. Like clockwork, Emmy and Rebecca could always find each other sitting outside of the lab where I spoke with them together months after their relationship began. At 8:00 AM on hot weekday mornings under fluorescent lights, Emmy would, with methodological graciousness, pass over some of her coffee – they would share this, sometimes talking a lot and other times not talking very much at all. This was the start of their days together, and uniquely the start of their relationship. Beautiful, simple consistency, actions causing reactions.
Both had worked in the lab for several months before they became friends; they each knew who the other one was but had never connected. The circumstances had never been right.
They came to chemistry for very different reasons – Rebecca came to the lab after overhearing a conversation about Berke’s work but stayed because they always felt pulled to it, initially analyzing the kinetics of the solutions that the lab uses and now working on the project Emmy began. “Even though on the microscale, it has massive implications on the environment and health of the planet,” Rebecca tells me as we walk around the lab, instruments dimly lit with the light of the basement windows. “I love the challenge of being in the lab, but also of talking to people about why it matters.”
Emmy came to this work at a turbulent time in her life – working in the lab for a few hours a week while taking time off of school, she started her journey with aerosols as a new and independent project. “I care about the environment and want to do something, and this feels like I’m doing something,” she says, and she is: atmospheric chemistry came as a perfect balance for her – it felt perfectly suited to her position in life but also blending the elements of physical and organic chemistry that she loves. Her findings will impact the ways climate models are constructed in the future – her work becoming immediately accessible, useful to so many people beyond the lab, telling us with clarity what our environment will look like because of the reactions happening around us constantly.
Their lab work strikes me as incredibly tangible – Emmy reminds me that chemistry is normally pretty tangible, but this feels unique, immediately present. Even if this work impacted no one else, it feels resoundingly important because of the people doing it – two young, queer people making a space for themselves in a world devoid of their image. Science is the tick-by-tick exploration of a world that is both political and touchable, making it inseparable from identity. This is a love in the face of extreme climate change; Emmy, with articulated preciseness, tells me exactly how aware of this reality she is – atmospheric aerosols are known to have negative health impacts. These impacts grow in scale as the aerosols react to heat in the atmosphere – as the Earth continues to heat up, aerosols transform, reacting in great magnitude, compounding and increasing pollutants in the atmosphere. This transformation in turn transforms the environment, uniquely changing human lives in ways that are immediately present. Lyoxyl, the organic aerosol used in their research, for example, becomes a mitosol – an aerosol which is more problematic for human and environmental health. That reaction happens in some environments, but not others. This is where Emmy’s work is: telling climate scientist when and where these harmful, compounding reactions will occur – what alcohols separate, and what don’t. The implications of their research are important in places where emissions are a problem – the places already feeling the most intense impacts of pollution will have accelerated reactions, meaning compounded harms.
Rebecca and Emmy developed a model that streamlined the process of identifying harmful reactions – giving explicit information and creating a pathway with a novel, bendy method. The method itself is one of the most exciting developments in their love story because it allows for a way to examine a solution or substance without interference, with the potential to be replicated and used in any research where substances need to be examined in this way.
By doing this work, this science, Emmy and Rebecca are doing something in the face of the unknown. “I listen to the news every morning and hear that we are going to die, but I feel okay about it knowing that I’m doing something about it. I’m doing my part, so in some ways, it’s kind of comforting to be doing this,” Emmy asserts to me without question. Her work is revolutionary not just because it is providing new information to the field, but because it is done from a place of true love. She smiles, enamored by the pursuit of tiny particles in the air.
“We talked through things together, you supported me through corroding our entire instrument and through losing so much data,” Emmy speaks to Rebecca directly, and I bear witness. The novel method they developed is a two-person job; neither could do it alone. Labs are sterile, but they are far from devoid of humanity; science is the most meaningful when it stems from shared purpose, from people coming together. In order for it to mean anything in the face of worlds that feel uncertain, it must be built on love.
“I developed feelings first, falling in love with chemistry first. But what I love most about chemistry is the people who do it,” Rebecca says when I ask them about falling for Emmy. “This place has really helped me. I had been going through so much but felt called to be here and knew there was important work to be done.”
“I see a lot of parallels between our relationship and our work here,” Rebecca says, looks at Emmy, and smiles. “In science, the work of putting together the puzzle happens with a lot of conversations, but also the puzzle pieces sometimes communicate to you. It’s a lot of talking through it, but it’s also a lot of not talking through it and just doing, just working with your hands, what the data is telling you. Trial and error. But the way we got together was wordless. We were able to communicate well without words because of the rhythm we already had, together.”
There were only two days that they could’ve gotten together; just three hours after Rebecca’s summer research fellowship ended, they realized how clearly they felt for each other without even talking about it – a relationship began almost immediately. “In chemistry only certain things react. In a glass of water, there are millions of molecules – what is the likelihood that one thing will make its way over to another thing with the right reactive group but also the right orientation to react? It’s a one in a million shot, and we found it,” Emmy can’t stop smiling.
In that two-day period, they came to their correct orientation – falling in love over the summer but putting their research ahead of their chemistry. On that last day of work, they made plans to spend time together in the evening to celebrate. The environment was perfect – they made dinner together in a friend’s house, and the simplest action on Emmy’s part was to reach out a hand. No words necessary, just an action, and ripples of reactions to the present moment.
Love is science – a process, a series of actions, something that sometimes raises more questions than it answers. It is also full of frustrating moments; Rebecca and Emmy had already cried together over the loss of data long before their first real fight.
I pushed the question of love. “What does it mean to you?” I ask, and Rebecca replies with the sort of clarity that comes from knowing something so intensely that it is impossible to not prove it.
“When I think about chemistry, I think about language. It’s a language for the tiny things. Love is a language. It’s an action, chemistry is full of actions. They are kind of one of the same,” they say. “People talk about having good chemistry, and we do – approach it from the biophysical hormones but also that love grows and changes. Chemistry is just that growth and change.”
“I love chemistry more than anything else in this world,” Emmy tells me, straws and razorblade in hand. Science is dependent on love. “Everything is chemistry to me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone as happy doing the thing that they study as I see you. You light up in the lab like you light up in the sun,” Rebecca responds, leaning their head on Emmy’s shoulder, eyes to the unseeable sky alive with light and aerosols.