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Fall 2017

Art, Science and an Off-the-Grid Childhood: An Interview with Aurora Clark

IDREAM Energy Frontier Research Center deputy director and Washington State University professor

Daniel Pope

IDREAM Deputy Director Aurora Clark says growing up in a small, isolated town in central Washington state gave her the tools to become self-reliant and overcome adversity.
Image credit: Shelly Hanks, Washington State University

Aurora Clark had an eclectic upbringing as a child of artists growing up in a small, isolated town in central Washington state. Her mother was a spinner and a weaver who raised sheep for their wool and used natural dyes from the surrounding land to color her textiles. Clark’s interest in science began at an early age, when questions arose about how these muddy brown concoctions of mashed-up bugs or plants could transform into the deep purples that appeared on her mother’s textiles.

This isolation, however — the closest hospital was an hour away — meant self-reliance and overcoming adversity. And if you asked Clark to describe herself now and about what she found to be important in being a successful scientist, it is not only having that spirit of curiosity, but it is also being a fighter and developing the ability to overcome hardship and rejection without losing spirit. The confluence of art, science and off-the-grid living is what she attributes for instilling her with these values.

Clark began her education as a student of veterinary science at Central Washington University. If you grew up in an environment where birthing lambs was a normal day for you, this would seem like a natural evolution. But by her second year, it was apparent that this was not the career path for her. Memorization is a fact of life in the biological sciences, but Clark was much more interested in learning the fundamental principles behind natural phenomena. For her, there was much more appeal in using the basic building blocks of science to interpret the inner workings behind natural phenomena.

Clark found a kindred spirit in her undergraduate advisor, Joanne Peters, who started her on the path to chemistry. Her positive research experiences led to the desire for higher education. She obtained her Ph.D. at Indiana University. Her research there was focused on theoretical chemistry, working on such problems as deriving new equations for analyzing molecular wave functions. She then went on to a postdoctoral position at Los Alamos National Laboratory, studying the complex chemical interactions and bonding of heavy element complexes.

In 2005, Clark joined the Washington State University chemistry department, and today she is a professor supervising seven graduate students and five postdoctoral fellows in a computational chemistry research lab. In addition, she is the director of the Center for Institutional Research Computing, the interim director of WSU’s Institute of Nuclear Science and Technology, and a fellow of the American Chemical Society. She also balances her many professional duties with family life as a mother of four. And in line with her roots, she now lives out on the rolling hills of the countryside, among all varieties of fruit trees along a steadily growing number of animals.

Although her career is focused on theoretical and computational chemistry, Clark has not shied away from learning as much as she can about other areas of chemistry. This philosophy has served her well as she manages her work as the deputy director of an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) known as Interfacial Dynamics in Radioative Environments and Materials (IDREAM). The scientists at this center aim to better understand some of the most complex chemistry on the planet: the tank waste at the Hanford Site, a former plutonium production complex in southeastern Washington state. To accomplish this will be the combined goal of several universities and national labs, and will cross many scientific disciplines.

The basic science questions that IDREAM seeks to answer are the behaviors of solutions and their interfaces in extreme environments. The specific focus of the project is the dissolution of aluminum solids in highly basic solution environments, with many ionic species, with a low availability of interacting water, and the addition of radiation throughout the system. These are the conditions present at the Hanford Site.

At this site, 60,000 metric tons of high-level waste resides in the underground storage tanks. This waste is to be vitrified. This process immobilizes nuclear waste into a glass form that can then be safely stored over very long time scales. However, this process is hindered by the aluminum solids in the waste. The aluminum originated from cooling tubes and uranium slug encasements. The problem then is promoting the dissolution of the aluminum solids in these environments.

This IDREAM project tackles this problem by separating it into four research goals. The first research goal is to gain a better understanding of how the solution itself behaves, the species that are dissolved inside, their reactivity and bulk properties, such as viscosity and fluid flow. For the scientists, a major question is how does the aluminum solvation and reactivity alter the processes that lead to aggregation and formation of solids. The second research goal examines more closely the role of the solution interface with solid aluminum surfaces. What properties and interactions between this interface could lead to instabilities on the surface and promote dissolution? The focus of the third research goal is to better quantify the fundamental properties, forces and interactions that lead to the formation of aluminum clusters across a variety of sizes and shapes. And finally, throughout every research goal is the accounting for the role that radiation plays in pushing these systems outside of their usual states. Meeting these goals requires an intensely collaborative experimental, theoretical and computational effort.

In her role in the EFRC, Clark’s eye towards interdisciplinarity has allowed her to coordinate efforts across the institutions involved in IDREAM and to apply the skill and knowledge of those in her lab in some fashion to nearly every level of the project. Her goal within IDREAM, and as a theoretical chemist in general, is to use new theories and computational studies to create a broader understanding of chemistry that can be used to guide experimental design and the interpretation of data obtained from this incredibly complex chemical system.

Her focus on interdisciplinarity is not just for practicality. Clark is a big believer that all fields of chemistry are important and interesting. Finding that passion to broaden your knowledge across subjects is what’s important as traditional barriers between areas of chemistry have broken down and the problems facing the next generation of chemists will become increasingly interdisciplinary.

Clark’s career is a decades-spanning example of how the combination of an innate passion for science and personal fortitude can create a path leading from an isolated sheep ranch to applying fundamental scientific principles to one of the most difficult chemical challenges on the planet.

About the author(s):

  • Daniel J. Pope is a Ph.D. candidate at Washington State University and is a member of the Interfacial Dynamics in Radioactive Environments and Materials (IDREAM) Energy Frontier Research Center. His current research focuses on performing computational studies examining defects in solid-state structures and the role of defects in surface/solution interfaces.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.