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Superlative Scientists

USC Dornsife welcomes two new assistant science professors whose research focuses on some of the greatest challenges facing the 21st century — climate change and the search for clean, renewable energy.

By Susan Bell
February 6, 2014

USC Dornsife welcomes Naomi Levine (left), Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and Earth Sciences, and Smaranda Marinescu, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Chemistry. Levine's research explores climate change effects while Marinescu focuses on sources for clean, renewable energy. Photos by Erica Christianson.

USC Dornsife welcomes Naomi Levine (left), Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and Earth Sciences, and Smaranda Marinescu, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Chemistry. Levine's research explores climate change effects while Marinescu focuses on sources for clean, renewable energy. Photos by Erica Christianson.

Although Naomi Levine has taken 20 cruises off Bermuda, she spent no time lounging by the pool. These were research trips she took as a doctoral student to collect microscopic organisms such as photoplankton and bacteria. Her goal was to understand how these organisms might be impacted by climate change.

“It was pretty grueling,” she said. “Especially when you are working 18 to 20 hours a day, trying to take meticulous, careful measurements on a diesel ship that is constantly rocking.”

Levine is one of two recent faculty additions in the sciences. Joining USC Dornsife in December 2013, Levine is Gabilan Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and Earth Sciences; and Smaranda Marinescu, who came on board in August 2013, is Gabilan Assistant Professor of Chemistry.

Levine also researches the effects of climate change on trees in the Amazon rainforest. Her studies show the Amazon to be more sensitive to climate change than is currently predicted.

She is developing new computer models based on the approaches she used to model the Amazon rainforest that will allow her to better predict how changes in climate (e.g. temperature, pH, light stress) will impact marine photoplankton and bacteria.

“We are trying to understand whether certain organisms have coping mechanisms that allow them to better survive and out-compete others under future climates,” she said.

Her current research focuses on dimethylsulfide (DMS), a climatically relevant trace gas produced by marine phytoplankton and bacteria.

“DMS is a cool gas because it is produced by these microscopic organisms at the surface

of the ocean and is then released into the atmosphere where it goes through a series of reactions and ultimately becomes microscopic particles on which clouds form,” Levine said. “So the more of this gas that is produced by these organisms, the more clouds form. And the more clouds in the atmosphere, the cooler the surface of the earth. 

“Our work is focused on understanding whether changes in climate will increase or decrease the production of this gas and whether the change in gas production might offset changes in climate.”

She noted that until scientists understand why these organisms are producing this gas it is difficult to predict whether they will produce more gas in warmer climates, or if they will produce less. Producing less could have the opposite effect and actually increase temperatures.

“We aim to build better computer models which will allow us to capture why and how the organisms are making this gas,” she said. “This will allow us to predict how much of this gas will be produced in the future which will ultimately help us better predict expected temperature changes.”

Levine’s research was the first to show that bacteria produced significant amounts of DMS in the natural environment.

“My work showed that, especially at the end of the summer, a significant portion

of the production of this gas in the subtropical North Atlantic is coming from bacteria, rather than photosynthetic organisms,” she said.

Levine, who holds a bachelor’s in geosciences from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in chemical oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (MIT-WHOI) Joint Program, did her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University. She was a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellow.

Levine said she was drawn to USC Dornsife by the quality of its marine environmental biology department.

“I’m excited to work with forward-thinking colleagues who are doing truly innovative, cutting-edge interdisciplinary research,” she said. “The energy and enthusiasm and the progressive, innovative thinking really stood out in this department.”

 

Smaranda Marinescu is researching the synthesis of novel inorganic materials and how they can be used to convert solar energy.

“Energy harvested directly from sunlight offers a desirable approach toward fulfilling the global need for clean energy,” she said. “Collecting and storing solar energy in chemical bonds, as nature accomplishes through photosynthesis, is a highly appealing strategy to solving the energy challenge.”

Born in Romania, Marinescu earned a bachelor’s of science degree from California Institute of Technology (Caltech) where she researched organometallic and organic chemistry. After earning her Ph.D. from MIT in 2011, she returned to Caltech to work as a National Science Foundation Center for Chemical Innovation postdoctoral fellow.

At USC Dornsife, Marinescu focuses on the development of practical systems to facilitate the conversion of water or carbon dioxide into fuels. “My previous work in the energy area has focused primarily on fundamental studies,” she said. “In my work at USC, I would like to combine fundamental and practical aspects to develop systems that could be directly applied to catalysis for solar energy conversion.

“This will require new catalysts that are stable, active, and inexpensive,” she said. “These are challenging goals, but we are eager to work in an exciting area with broad potential benefits for society.”

Marinescu said she particularly appreciates the collegial and collaborative approach of the chemistry department.

“I am very excited to work in a supportive environment with a world-class group of highly active researchers,” she said. “The core research facilities at USC Dornsife provide the state-of-the-art instrumentation necessary to characterize our new materials at the molecular level,” she said. “The department fosters collaborative work among researchers from diverse backgrounds. And, most importantly, students here are really enthusiastic about research.”

Leana Golubchik, professor of computer science and electrical engineering at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, was instrumental in bringing the new faculty members on board. Golubchick is director of Women in Engineering and Science (WiSE).

“Professors Marinescu and Levine are both outstanding junior faculty members who show tremendous potential for making significant contributions to science within their respective fields,” Golubchik said.

“WiSE hopes to contribute to building an environment in which their research thrives. We want them to fully maximize their individual talents while acting as role models and mentors to our students and postdoctoral researchers.”