Usha Rao, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Chemistry

Areas Taught: Chemical Biology, Chemistry, Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Environmental Science

Expertise: Water Quality and Pollution, Nuclear Contamination, Energy Use and Marcellus Shale Drilling, Women in Science and Math

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Analyzing Environmental Pollutants

Environmental chemist Usha Rao, Ph.D., focuses on pollution and its impact on the environment, whether a cemetery in Lower Merion or the sediment at the bottom of the Great Lakes.

Most recently, Rao is looking at the impact of acid rain on limestone grave markers at St. Paul’s Cemetery that dates back to the American Revolutionary times. She is comparing headstones from the 1700s to those from the 1800s through modern times. Her work could help understand acid rain’s effect on Philadelphia’s historic buildings, many of them made of the same type of stone.

Rao also has studied pollution from nuclear facilities, an expertise she used to help a U.S. multi-national company decide whether to evacuate its workers from Tokyo after the massive 2011 earthquake. (She advised they stay put.)

One of her research projects looks at the bottom sediment in Lake Ontario near Buffalo, where a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant had discharged waste water that eventually entered the water shed. Her analysis found the presence of iodine radionuclides in sediment, though the plant was closed in 1972, a story that was featured in the Buffalo News. “We still see the impact of that facility in rivers and lakes in Western New York,” she says.

Another research project explores the coal mining industry’s impact on the state’s waterways. “Many streams in Pennsylvania are acidified due to coal mining,” says Rao, whose research tracks metals such as copper, zinc and nickel in 11 different rivers. She has found iron levels in the water to be elevated, though not at toxic levels. She plans to expand the project to Southeastern Pennsylvania – comparing rivers in coal-mining areas to the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, far from the mines.

In a course on “Environmental Theory and Ethics,” Rao and her students consider the pros and cons of front-page issues: Are green house gases a threat? Should oil drilling in the Arctic take place? Are so-called endangered species overprotected?

Rao has published in journals that include Environmental Science and Technology and Chemical Geology. Her research has been funded through grants from the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund and the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation. She is associate director of the McNulty Scholars Program for Excellence in Science and Math.