Included in Issue: Spring 2024

Five Questions with Jenna Ditto

Aerosol Scientist Spotlight

Jenna Ditto
Assistant Professor
Department of Energy, Environmental, and Chemical Engineering
Washington University in St. Louis

How did you get involved in the aerosol science community?

I didn’t always know I’d be interested in aerosol science! When I was an undergraduate student in chemical engineering, I found myself constantly trying to learn more about environmental applications of the field but I wasn’t sure what my specific interests were beyond that. When I started my PhD, I joined Drew Gentner’s lab at Yale for what I think was supposed to be a semester-long rotation, but I was totally captivated when I started to learn about the field of atmospheric chemistry and aerosol research.

What ideas and people have influenced you?

When I started my PhD, I had pretty much no background in air quality. My time in Drew Gentner’s group really introduced me to the field and all its complex questions, unique analytical chemistry methods, collaborative field campaigns, and great people. The approaches I learned to study atmospheric composition – looking at the entire complex mixture and its evolution through time and space – fascinated me and really shaped how I currently think about answering new research questions. In Drew’s group, I also learned a ton about fieldwork. We participated in a few different field campaigns during my PhD that taught me what it’s like to work with others on a large team and answer questions bigger than any single research group could tackle on their own.

During my PhD, I mostly focused on chemically speciating outdoor aerosols from different environments. For my postdoctoral research, I took a leap towards studying indoor air. I was co-advised by Arthur Chan and Jonathan Abbatt at the University of Toronto. During my postdoc, I learned new analytical tools and dove into indoor atmospheric chemistry from a lab experiment perspective, which was a really valuable new experience given that most of my PhD work was fieldwork-based. Working with Arthur and Jon taught me to think like a chemist and strategically design experiments in the lab to simulate the complexity of indoor environmental processes. By the time I started my postdoc, I had figured out that I wanted to apply for faculty jobs. I am so grateful to have had Arthur and Jon to learn from when I was thinking about how to build and manage a research group, mentor students, and establish myself as an independent scientist.

What is the most interesting research contribution you’ve made so far?

The work I’m most proud of involves using non-targeted mass spectrometry to investigate complex mixture behavior in big data sets across both indoor and outdoor environments. For example, during my PhD, we collected a variety of aerosol samples from different urban, suburban, and remote locations in the U.S. and Canada and we analyzed their functional group compositions from this non-targeted perspective. Instead of focusing on a few key target species, we tallied up all the functional groups we could confidently detect with our instrumentation across the entire set of samples. This allowed us to gain a fairly comprehensive picture of atmospheric aerosol composition and how similar/different it was in the different environments we studied.


During my postdoc, we collaborated on an indoor field campaign in a commercial kitchen, and while we used a totally different instrument to measure indoor air composition this time, we used a similar non-targeted approach to think about the relative compositional changes in the kitchen’s air as a function of the cooking and cleaning activities occurring. I really enjoy exploring the chemical complexity of indoor and outdoor air mixtures from this non-targeted lens!


What’s the biggest challenge right now as you grow your own research group?

Right now, my biggest challenge is learning how to manage my time while wearing multiple hats – I’m learning to balance teaching, grant writing, mentoring, and helping in the lab as we build our team.

What questions do you think will be interesting in the near future?

Having transitioned to indoor air quality-focused research as a new faculty member, I’m really fascinated by the work that’s come out of the HOMEChem and CASA campaigns over the last few years. Both campaigns have allowed the field to make huge strides in our understanding of indoor chemistry through the implementation of controlled “lab style” experiments in realistic indoor environments. The collaborative nature of these campaigns is super exciting – the level of problem-solving that’s possible when a large team of research groups works together is really incredible. I’m very interested to see how the field grows as we build capacity to do more experiments like this in the future.

Jenna Ditto’s focus at Yale was non-targeted analysis. Photo: Jenna Ditto.













This Issue’s Newsletter Committee:

Editor | Dong Gao, Yale UniversitySenior Assistant Editor | Sarah Petters, University of California, RiversideJunior Assistant Editor | Lindsay Yee, University of California, BerkeleyGuest Contributor | Qian Zhang, UL Research Institute