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15 minutes getting caught up with Bailey Bowers

She's attending Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and can tell you all about "everywhere, everyday chemicals"

The Icon recently caught up with Bailey Bowers, a 2013 Ada High School graduate now at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. We are sharing parts of our conversation with Icon viewers.

After you graduated from College of Wooster, we lost track of you. Please bring us up to date.
I'm currently attending Carnegie Mellon University to obtain my PhD in Chemistry. I’m aiming to defend my thesis in August 2022, which simultaneously feels very far off and panic-inducingly soon.

Can you tell us more about your specific field of study?
I would call myself an environmental chemist first and foremost. I am fortunate to be part of an interdisciplinary center at Carnegie Mellon where I work alongside other scientists and engineers, primarily working on air quality issues.

For example, we simulate wildfires in our laboratory by burning woods and grasses. We measure the chemical makeup of the gases and particles in the smoke to contribute to a better understanding of the impact wildfires have on Earth's climate and human health. 

My own thesis work differs somewhat from that though – I really care about "everyday, everywhere" chemicals that have the potential to harm human health and the environment.

To be clear, every single thing in the world is a chemical – the food you eat, your body and the components that make it up, the clothes you wear, the car you drive... everything is chemicals!

But, the unfortunate reality is that a lot of chemicals do not have to undergo rigorous testing to prove their safety before they are released on the market, which means that everyday consumer products often contain chemicals that can be harmful at very low doses.

These chemicals are often persistent and hard to break down, so they can infiltrate our drinking water, natural waters, and undergo global transport throughout the environment. 

The class of “everyday, everywhere” chemicals I work with most frequently are per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They’re used in many applications, the most common being nonstick coatings on cookware, carpets, and even food packaging.

PFAS can be found in the blood of nearly every American and can be detected in many drinking water sources. Since PFAS are used in some firefighing foams (more specifically, aqueous film forming foams, or AFFFs), military bases and airports are often contaminated, which can lead to groundwater contamination.

For example, Dayton’s drinking water supply is contaminated with PFAS, likely due to the usage of AFFFs at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. You can read all about PFAS in Ohio at the Ohio EPA website here:

PFAS is toxic to humans and wildlife even at low doses, so their presence in drinking water is especially concerning. And even worse, PFAS are so persistent that some have called them "forever chemicals" - although I find that to be a little pessimistic, since my thesis work is all about finding better methods to remove these compounds from drinking water.

My advisor started working on PFAS decades ago, when no one really knew much about these compounds, which makes it especially cool that I’m working them now, while they’re getting a lot of media attention. 

I like environmental chemistry because there's a cause behind what I do – so when the instruments break or the data analysis isn't going well, I still feel like I'm part of something bigger, which motivates me to keep forging ahead. 

Where can I learn more about these "everyday, everywhere" chemicals?
I love the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie. It’s a great intro to this concept.

I also really look up to Arlene Blum, who founded the Green Science Policy Institute ( Their website is full of information that is accessible to a non-scientist, which I think is really important.

Scientists need to continue improving their communication to the public, and especially in my field, where the general public is so affected by the poor decisions that scientists employed by large corporations have made, there's a lot of work to be done to regain trust. 

Upon receiving your doctorate, what are your professional intentions?
I really want to teach at a college or university like where I went to undergrad – I don’t have any interest in managing a lab with many researchers and graduate students, but I do really enjoy teaching undergraduate students.

Thinking about when you were a student in Ada schools, are there teachers who may have encouraged you or inspired you to pursue your current field of study?
Three people come to mind immediately, and I will admit that it’s biased towards high school because that’s what is freshest in my mind. 

The first and arguably most obvious is Mr. Lusk, since he taught me chemistry and physics. I had such a solid base of knowledge in those fields when I went into college, largely thanks to him.

He’s also an exceedingly encouraging and kind person who showed care and concern towards every student, whether they were acing the class, doing just okay, or barely scraping by. I definitely aspire to be that kind of teacher someday. I also have many fond memories of our high school quiz bowl team, for which he served as an advisor.

The second is Mrs. Ludanyi, who taught me three years of high school math. I never felt like a good math student – in elementary and middle school I shed a lot of tears about math, especially those timed multiplication table tests. I still don’t think I’m very good at math, but Mrs. Ludanyi changed my attitude about it.

I felt very supported and in fact, math started to feel fun! I also admired her focus on the fundamentals – she wasn’t interested in rushing us to the next unit until we had mastered the one we were currently working on, and that really stuck with me. It just runs so radically counter to how most educational systems work today, but it really resulted in better outcomes for the students.

Last but not least is my art teacher, Mr. Wells. I think it’s so important to have a life and identity outside your career, and for me, art is still to this day a creative outlet that I enjoy in my free time.

My time in the art room was a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of my high school life, and it was also a place where I really felt like what I had to say and offer to the world mattered, which is huge for any adolescent. Mr. Wells created that environment and I’m really grateful for that. 

Read any good books lately?
I don’t get to read as much as I’d like to, on top of the reading I do for school. I did just start Heather McGhee’s “The Sum of Us” and it’s been really informative so far. 

Since leaving Ada after high school have you seen the world? 
Unfortunately, no! I haven’t been to any other country except Canada. I would like to travel more, especially after the pandemic subsides.

Do you remember who you sat beside in Kindergarten? Who was your teacher?
I actually didn’t live in Ada for Kindergarten, so my answer wouldn’t mean much to anyone reading this. My first year in Ada was third grade. I don’t remember who I sat by, but I know Mrs. Butterfield was my teacher. 

When someone asks where you are from, how do you describe Ada, Ohio?
My canned answer is “a really small town in rural northwest Ohio.” If I feel like adding some pizazz, I’ll tell them about the Wilson Football Factory and how they’ve probably seen some nice footage of my hometown during Super Bowl coverage. 

Since graduating from college have you randomly met anyone from Ada?
I went on a trip to an instrumentation company to get training and met someone there who grew up in Ada. But even better, her father worked with mine at Ohio Northern, so I knew both of her parents when I was a kid. So our connection was even closer than Ada, in a way. 

What’s a small-town girl like you doing in Pittsburgh? Or, what kind of culture shock have you experienced since moving from Ada?
I think Pittsburgh is a really great city for someone from a rural place like Ada. It doesn’t feel like a big city unless you’re downtown.

It’s pretty walkable and the public transit is great. There’s also a lot of parks and green spaces, which I think is so important for transplants from rural places like me.

Although I will say that anytime I leave the city, I am always in awe of how big the sky is and how far you can see.

It's been great catching up with you and we look forward to hearing more from you as your career develops.