Caltech faculty member Richard Flagan, the Irma and Ross McCollum—William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemical Engineering and professor of environmental science and engineering, has been elected a member of the 2010 class of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE).
His election brings to 31 the number of Institute faculty who are NAE members.
This year, the NAE elected 68 new members and nine foreign associates, bringing the total U.S. membership to 2,267 and the number of foreign associates to 196.
NAE membership honors those who have made important contributions to engineering theory and practice, and those who have demonstrated unusual accomplishments in the pioneering of new and developing fields of technology. Election to the NAE is one the highest professional distinctions an engineer can receive.
Flagan was elected "for leadership in invention, measurement, production, and technology of aerosols." He received his BSE from the University of Michigan and his master's and PhD from MIT. He joined Caltech in 1975 as an assistant professor.
Flagan's work focuses on aerosols in the atmosphere and in technology. In the past, he has worked on particle formation in combustion processes and translated the understanding gained in those studies to the development of aerosol processes for the production of nanoparticles and nanoparticle-based microeletronic devices. Much of his research revolves around the role of atmospheric particles in climate change, in photochemical smog, and in human health. He has developed novel instruments that enable real-time, high-resolution measurements of particle-size distribution, and that have extended measurements to particles as small as 1 nanometer in diameter.
A relatively new focus for his research is airborne allergens such as pollen. His group has recently discovered mechanisms that explain how allergens housed in large pollen grains can trigger asthma, contrary to previous thinking. The implications of this work are that pollen allergens can be contained in respirable aerosols after moist weather, and that these aerosols might deposit into the lower airways, where they would be a potent asthma trigger.
Flagan is now developing methods to detect whole pollen and fungal spores, as well as pollen and fungal fragments, in the air. He hopes to automate the capture and analysis of these biological aerosols in as close to real time as possible, and to understand how climate change may affect allergic disease.
The fundamental science of aerosols has enticed Flagan to study problems that are literally out of this world. In a project funded under the NASA Astrobiology program, his group is now exploring the formation of clouds in the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan. He is also exploring the extension of the methods of aerosol science to the study of particles in water where measurements are much more difficult than in air.
Founded in 1964, the NAE is an independent, nonprofit institution that advises the federal government on issues of science and technology policy, and conducts studies to articulate the societal implications of rapid technological change. The NAE also initiates programs designed to encourage international cooperation between engineering societies, improve the public's technological awareness and understanding, and enhance the dialogue between scientists, engineers, and policymakers.