Scientists today possess an arsenal of cutting-edge technology. Chemical engineers can turn CO2 into vodka, planetary scientists can work in outer space, and physicists can manipulate single atoms in the lab.
Researchers use these tools to understand who we are and how we got here. Like Taylor Perron, a geomorphologist looking for clues in planetary landscapes, or Monika Schleier-Smith, a physicist testing the mechanical rules of the quantum realm.
They also face humanitarian crises. By 2050, climate change will cause 250,000 deaths per year. Corinne Le Quéré tracks greenhouse gases through the air, land and sea, while Paul Anastas pioneers ways to reduce their emissions. Meanwhile, cancer rates will nearly 50 percent increase in the same time frame. Carolyn Bertozzi invented a new field of chemistry that could produce effective cancer treatments.
These scientists embody the primary goals of science—to push the boundaries of what we know and advance human well-being along the way.
1. Paul Anastas: Father of Green Chemistry
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When you think of chemists, you might imagine pollutants and health hazards. But Paul Anastas turns this perception on its head. Anastas founded green chemistry in the 1990s to reduce toxic waste from chemical processes.
In addition to his research on sustainable chemistry at Yale, he has advised the Environmental Protection Agency and the White House on environmental issues related to 9/11, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the BP oil spill. He even goes into the boardroom and helps make Fortune 100 companies more sustainable. His work is transforming our future.
2. Carolyn Bertozzi: The Sugar Scientist Revolutionizing Health Care
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The cells are coated with sugars, like the colored layers of M&Ms. In a healthy cell, sugars are organized like a well-kept lawn, but in tumors they go awry. Carolyn Bertozzi, a professor at Stanford, studies this process to develop cancer treatments.
Along the way, she invented a field of chemistry that transformed medical imaging and drug delivery. Bioorthogonal chemistry includes a series of reactions that can be performed in the body without changing it. It has led to basic discoveries and medical advances, revolutionizing biochemistry as we know it.
3. Corinne Le Quéré: Climate pragmatist
Corinne Le Quéré is not a climate optimist. Nor is she a climate pessimist. She simply refuses to get caught up in the emotions of climate change. The climate scientist, based at the University of East Anglia, upended the conventional wisdom about storing carbon in the oceans.
Le Quéré brings her groundbreaking work directly to policymakers. As chair of France’s High Council on Climate, advisor to the UK Committee on Climate Change and former member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, she helps politicians implement science-led policy.
Read more: Scientist you should know: Corinne Le Quéré tries to prevent climate change
4. Taylor Perron: The Planetary Detective
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The vastness of space and time fascinates Taylor Perron. As a geomorphologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he questions how landscapes shape human and planetary origins.
The thought of these questions is scary, he says, but they lead to existential questions about who we are and how we got here. Perron uncovers clues buried in planetary landscapes to piece together the past. His geological detective work stretches from Hawaii to Mars, painting a clearer picture of the past and charting a future.
5. Monika Schleier-Smith: The Atom Wrangler
Monika Schleier-Smith’s lab at Stanford is filled with lasers and mirrors. It uses them to fine-tune customizable atomic grids. Controlling this phenomenon – called quantum entanglement – adds to the computational problems that quantum physics can solve.
The applications are huge. It could build the world’s most accurate clocks or expand the possibilities of quantum computing. But it also asks fundamental questions about the universe, like what happens when information falls into a black hole and how does gravity work on subatomic scales? Schleier-Smith’s experimental prowess allows him to ask questions that theorists only dreamed of.