Curiosity and nanotechnology in environmental chemistry: meet Professor Jamie Lead

August 26th, 2020

In 2020 Professor Jamie Lead joined Environmental Chemistry as it's new Editor-in-Chief. We spoke to him about what inspires him in his work, and how an understanding of nanomaterials is supporting environmental chemistry research.

Professor Jamie Lead sitting at his computer and looking at the camera.


2020 has brought a lot of changes and one exciting change for us has been a new Editor-in-Chief for Environmental Chemistry, Professor Jamie Lead. Prof. Lead is currently Professor in Environmental Nanoscience and Risk and Director of the SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience at the University of South Carolina, USA. He has worked in the field of environmental chemistry all over the world, but it’s his work on nanomaterials in the environment that is proving to be very important for our approaches to climate change and pollution. For this blog we spoke to Prof. Lead about his philosophy on the importance of environmental science, and the role of an Editor-in-Chief in journals publishing.


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your research area?

I have always been interested in asking questions, even more than getting the answers. I came relatively late to an interest in environmental chemistry specifically, but the combination of system complexity, relatively low levels of study and its obvious importance drew me in. There were, and still are, many important questions and relatively few satisfying answers.

I undertook doctoral and postdoctoral work at Lancaster University, UK and the University of Geneva, Switzerland, mainly looking at metal speciation in relation to naturally occurring nanoparticles and colloids. That area went along with an interest in the physico-chemical structure and function of these materials.  I further developed this research at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Nanotechnology was becoming increasingly important and this, in relation to environmental behaviour and effects, became a larger part of my research interests. It was a natural progression into a related discipline and this area still interests me. However, just before and after my move to the University of South Carolina, US, I started researching applications of nanotechnology in the environment, including sensing and particularly remediation. I’m now developing commercial applications for oil, metal and other remediation.


Professor Jamie Lead standing in a lap wearing a white lab coat

Professor Jamie Lead in his lab (photo: author supplied)


Your research is helping to increase our understanding of nanomaterials. Why is this important for the field of environmental chemistry?

My current research has two main foci. First, the effects and behaviour of manufactured nanoparticles in the environment.  Nanotechnology has become a huge industry with potential hazard and risk issues for environmental (and human) health. This drives much of the research in the discipline, but there is another more interesting unknown related to why nanomaterials are so special: they are used largely because of their novel physico-chemical properties. So a related question is: does this novelty transfer to environmental behaviour and effects? One of the main environmental chemistry challenges here is to understand the physico-chemical transformations of as-produced nanomaterials in the environment. What do they change to and how do these transformed materials behave? There are some interesting answers coming through and much work still to do.

Secondly, manufactured nanomaterials are useful tools in the environment. My focus has been on developing them for use in ‘environmentally friendly’ remediation of oil, metals and other pollutants. I’ve also done work on sensing and I think nanomaterials will have roles in other areas such as helping to provide a fundamental understanding the biotic-abiotic interactions for non-dissolved chemical species.


You’ve been involved as an editor in journals for some time now. How do you see the role of the Editor changing in the future?

In short, there should not be a fundamental change. The editor is similar to the head chef in a kitchen: setting the menu; ensuring quality control; and setting the ‘tone’. Similarly, the editor should set the parameters and strategic direction of the journal and, most importantly, ensure that the scientific quality of the journal is the highest it could possibly be. There are quantitative measures, but equally important are qualitative indicators related to the scientific importance, rigour and other difficult to define parameters. The means by which this is achieved is partly changing, though. Some things continue to be important including having and working with an excellent editorial team and communicating with publishers, authors, and guest editors. Of course, technology has already changed access to journals, while the changing environment around payment models (subscriptions and open access etc) impinges on the way an editor works. However, the fundamental goals remain the same.


What do you hope to achieve in your new role?

First, I’d like to pay a tribute to Kevin Francesconi, the former Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Chemistry. He has done an excellent job over the past several years in guiding the journal and ensuring it has great quality and a tremendous reputation in this area. It occupies a unique niche area and is very well positioned. He has had great help from the editorial team and publishers, but the majority of the credit goes to Kevin. I want to ensure this work is continued and developed. I would like to use the well-established ‘Research Fronts’ to investigate important and emerging areas in environmental chemistry. I would also like to move into more interdisciplinary areas without losing the unique position we have in environmental chemistry. I also want to continue the development of a more diverse editorial team, which is intrinsically important but also essential to ensure the highest quality of the journal.


What inspires you in your work?

Curiosity, in a word. How and why does the world (in a general sense) work? Trying to better understand these processes and mechanisms is really the inspiration for my work. Science to me is no more than the natural curiosity every child has, formalised to ensure we can self-correct and reach unbiased answers. Discovering something new, even on the smallest scale, is a great pleasure and joy.


Professor Jamie Lead sitting in a lab conducting tests.

Professor Jamie Lead in his lab. (photo: author supplied)


Why is environmental chemistry research important?

Importance has two meanings here. First, research about the natural world, as a type of formalised curiosity, is a basic human behaviour. It is something that is innate, I suspect, and a fundamental part of human nature. As such, the action of discovery is essential in its own right and this is justification enough of its importance. However, secondly, there is a pragmatic importance. There are a range of major environmental problems facing us including climate change and pollution. The possibility of overcoming these is social, political and economic, but in order to act appropriately we must have an accurate understanding of environment processes. These are all underpinned by the chemistry of the environment.



Current cover of Environmental Chemistry, featuring illustrations of molecules on a blue and white gradient background.

Environmental Chemistry journal

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