Trevor VandenBoer joined the Department of Chemistry at York University as an assistant professor in analytical and environmental chemistry in 2019. His research involves development of instrumentation to probe the atmospheric chemistry of reactive nitrogen species. Emissions of reactive nitrogen have perturbed the global nitrogen cycle to unprecedented levels. These chemicals are introduced to the environment by human transportation, agricultural, cooking, cleaning, and industrial activities. His work focuses on impacts of these compounds on indoor and outdoor air quality with emphasis on the role of exchange at interfaces.
VandenBoer completed a PhD in Environmental and Atmospheric Chemistry at the University of Toronto focusing on the quantitation and atmospheric chemistry of atmospheric reactive nitrogen at a variety of national and international field locations, including an NSERC-supported exchange at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, CO. He then held a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland where he quantified the exchange of reactive nitrogen at the biosphere-atmosphere interface across a latitudinal transect of boreal forest sites.
Read Trevor’s Emerging Investigator Series article “An instrument to measure and speciate the total reactive nitrogen budget indoors: description and field measurements” and read more about him in the interview below:
Your recent Emerging Investigator Series paper focuses on An instrument to measure and speciate the total reactive nitrogen budget indoors: description and field measurements. How has your research evolved from your first article to this most recent article?
From our initial study in a New York home, the levels of nitrogen oxide (NOX = NO + NO2) pollutants we observed created a lot of concern.1 We first worked in a collaboration with materials chemist Michael Katz at Memorial University to design metal-organic frameworks, taking advantage of the highly porous nature of these materials, to selectively deactivate nitrous acid (HONO) indoors as potential next-generation technology to be placed in air handling systems.2 Then we worked with organic chemist Chris Caputo at York University to design molecular BODIPY dyes as high-sensitivity probes that were also selective in passively sensing HONO without instrumentation indoors, as we discovered no such probes existed and that HONO was an interference in prior studies of nitrogen oxide pollution indoors.3 As the field evolved alongside this research, it became apparent to us that indoor air was as varied as the individuals who use indoor environments, meaning that we had to get new instruments into the hands of non-experts and a lot of indoor spaces to study them, to complement dedicated field campaigns using experimental homes. Taken together, this progression of work from our team and collaborators has evolved with the rising awareness on the need to improve indoor air quality, from identifying chemicals of concern, to targeting key components for better measurements, and developing solutions capable of mitigating indoor pollutants.
What aspect of your work are you most excited about at the moment?
At the moment, we have a lot of different field projects at various stages of their life cycle and I am excited about all them! We have been designing new instruments to study nutrient use efficiency, air quality, and greenhouse gas emissions in agricultural settings; deploying our suite of instruments in a research cruise on the Atlantic Ocean to study the chemistry of marine fog during the Fog and Turbulence Interactions in the Marine Atmosphere (FaTIMA) campaign in the summer of 2022; and the teams at YorkU are preparing for an upcoming urban air quality campaign in Toronto during the summer of 2023 where NOAA and NASA aircraft will investigate our urban plume of Atmospheric Emissions and Reactions from Megacities to Marine Areas (AEROMMA), alongside our team of international collaborators making ground site observations. Working as part of big international teams allows researchers in the group to work on high-impact chemistry questions, interfacing with world-class resources and scientists, and it is always very exciting to facilitate these opportunities for them!
In your opinion, what are the most important questions to be asked/answered in this field of research?
With respect to our current work indoors, the answer is very broad, but remains: Is our typical indoor air good or bad and what are the best metrics to assess this? Answering this question is a huge challenge. More specifically, these are the questions that I think we are still trying to answer that feed into this: Are there important chemical transformations we need to consider or are physical properties of molecules and indoor surfaces controlling the composition of indoor air? Are there simple changes to our behaviours and activities indoors that can create major air quality improvements, or do we need to totally rethink how we handle our indoor air from a building-design and operation perspective?
What do you find most challenging about your research?
The logistics of conducting environmental chemistry fieldwork. This activity is very atypical compared to traditional laboratory-based chemistry experiments. Obtaining permissions, permits, and training to install field infrastructure in challenging locations while maintaining safety and high-quality analytical measurements is no small feat! This demands a substantial amount of time spent identifying, connecting, and committing to ongoing communications with a large team of experts spanning contractors, engineers, freight, etc. before we get to study the important chemistry we’re interested in at these locations.
In which upcoming conferences or events may our readers meet you?
You can meet me in March 2023 at the Spring Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Indianapolis, as part of the Bridging the Interfaces of Atmospheric Chemistry session, where I will be presenting the instrumentation in this work and some more recent findings we have obtained with it. In June, several group researchers and I will be at the annual meeting for the Canadian Society for Chemistry in Vancouver to present on several ongoing research projects in the team.
How do you spend your spare time?
While spare time is fleeting for an Assistant Professor, prioritizing activities like soccer, running, etc. are important to me for physical health. Similarly, time spent reading or gardening provide present-moment focus to unwind. When I just cannot keep the chemist in me at bay, I will admittedly use my free time for kitchen and brewing experiments, drawing from scientific principles.
Which profession would you choose if you were not a scientist?
If I was not a scientist, the profession where you’d be likely to find me would be one that bridges my agricultural upbringing with societal awareness of food systems, like efficiency in production or limiting waste.
Can you share one piece of career-related advice or wisdom with other early career scientists?
Take your time in obtaining both your formal and informal training to get the most out of each step along the way. Make time during each step of your training to develop new transferrable skills for your future and broaden your scientific perspectives by sharing your research interests with as many people as you can.
1 S. Zhou, C. J. Young, T. C. VandenBoer, S. F. Kowal and T. F. Kahan, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2018, 52, 8355–8364.
2 D. McGrath, M. D. Ryan, J. J. MacInnis, T. C. VandenBoer, C. J. Young, and M. J. Katz. Chem. Sci. 2019. 10:5576-5581. DOI:10.1039/C9SC01357A
3 D. Nodeh-Farahani, J. N. Bentley, L. R. Crilley, C. B. Caputo and T. C. VandenBoer, Analyst, 2021, 146, 5756–5766.