Chemistry and Biochemistry

BYU Ph.D. student Callum Flowerday on analytical chemistry and the power of applied learning

Posted: Feb 15, 2023

Callum Flowerday, a first year analytical chemistry PhD student and mentor at Brigham Young University, is a model example of one who thrives off of acquiring knowledge. Were you to walk into his TA office in the BYU Ezra Taft Benson Building, you would be greeted by a massive whiteboard brimming with questions, queries, and concurrent research projects. It’s his love for learning, combined with humility and a desire to provide the world with cutting-edge chemical data, that marks him as one of the university’s leading analytical chemistry students and motivates him to advocate for positive change.

Growing up in England and South Africa, Flowerday has always wanted to study chemistry. Drawn to BYU for its values and accessible student-advisor relationships, he received his undergraduate degree and now anticipates graduating with a Ph.D in April of 2027. After participating in lab groups during his undergraduate years, he clicked best with analytical studies and joined the Hansen Research Group, which specializes in atmospheric analysis. Flowerday spends his hours constructing instruments to effectively measure atmospheric conditions and track their progression, retrieving data that can be given to local lawmakers as they make decisions regarding air quality and pollution legislation.

“We have a few little calibration projects, but our big project is we’re designing a new instrument that can detect molecules in the atmosphere. It’s got a broadband cavity and high absorption spectrometer, so a broadband cavity-enhanced absorption spectroscopy. It has two highly reflective mirrors, and we have a light source that permeates through the back of the first mirror and bounces back and forth…that increases our path length, and the longer the path length, the lower your detection limit by Beer’s law.” Flowerday says this kind of technology is particularly useful in recognizing OH and hydroxyl radicals, also serving as a pollutant - particularly ozone precursor - detector. 

According to Flowerday, this kind of instrument is a rarity. “Other instruments often draw in a sample and measure what’s in it, but in drawing in a sample, it’s longer than the life of the molecule. So, it’s usually reacted out by the time [the instrument] gets to it.” 

In comparison, Flowerday’s in situ technique allows the machine to rapidly process atmospheric samples to quickly and accurately measure pollutants before they expire. “No one else in the world has done this yet. There’ve been two other groups who have been able to measure it, [but] they’re not exactly portable. So, they don’t really use them, can’t really use them for field campaigns. And so, mine is two little tripods. I put them five meters apart and there’s a pretty powerful little light source, and my collection optics are just a little bit bigger than [a] microwave. It’s pretty portable, you could pack that into a truck. So, that’s really exciting, because once we’ve done that, we can actually do site-specific measurements rather than back calculation.” 

This kind of research has limitless applications. “We have a pretty bad ozone problem along the Wasatch Front,” Flowerday says. “I have several projects right now, and we’re going to apply [this technique] to other species, like formaldehyde…and glyoxal. Those are two of the volatile organic compounds that get oxidized [and] end up making ozone.” Using his instrument, Flowerday can collect ratios of atmospheric formaldehyde and glyoxal to determine their source. “So, for example, Louisiana and Alabama have pretty high glyoxal standards because they’re luscious, green areas, right? Usually in Utah, we tend to have higher formaldehyde levels, which is more of the industrial stuff. Knowing those two ratios to each other, we could give this information to legislature, for example, which we hope to do after this project.”  Flowerday and his colleagues have used this information to investigate claims of increased arsenic dust in the Great Salt Lake, detect large refinery sources of excess pollution, and predict potential ozone development in the atmosphere.

However, Flowerday knows that issues of atmospheric, environment, and pollution are complicated territory. “It gets a little controversial, that’s what I’m learning. If you go tell some oil refinery, ‘You’re polluting the environment,’ well, you’re kind of taking away some of their money, right? Obviously refineries and pollution are the one extreme, and scientists are the other extreme.” As an analytical chemist, though, Flowerday recognizes the importance of his role in helping find middle ground in polarized issues. “There has to be someone in the middle who makes the decisions. Fortunately, I’m not that guy! I just have to provide the data…But, I think there is a middle ground, and there should be a middle ground.” This technology, aside from helping activists, corporations, and legislature find balance in pollutant regulation, will help scientists and industrialists better cultivate environmental welfare, mending rifts and providing healing relief to compromised ecosystems. 

These instruments don’t just affect communities and nations; it’s also had a personal effect on Flowerday himself. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Flowerday says that the combination of scientific inquiry and religious faith provide unique opportunities for him to make a difference in his family, community, and on an international scale.“There’s some kind of…behavior, the way we conduct ourselves as religious scientists…science means something. It’s not just as much as, ‘Oh yeah, respect me. I’ve done something pretty cool.’ There’s always an application to humankind. It’s not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake; sometimes it’s nice to think about where the knowledge is coming from, and to take those principles and apply them in our families and when we talk to non-members or people at conferences, other scientists. It’s pretty cool to have the perspective of religion and science together, rather than just having them one by one.” 

With this background and his desire to learn, Flowerday hopes to continue in academia after he graduates with his Ph.D. “I would be a research professor if I can. Something that’s really nice about academia is that…you choose how you want to research, you choose what you’re going to research. I like the open mentoring; everyone talks to each other rather than ‘I’m going to hide my trade secrets.’ I like teaching, so I think [the role of] academic professor would be pretty good for me.” 

His discoveries, though, are not limited to the academic. Flowerday states that his time at BYU has helped him foster his love of writing, research, and taught him about the importance of collaboration. “That’s a pretty big thing, non-competitive collaboration, and that’s a nice principle that I’ve learned here, to not always step on the toes of those that you work with. I guess that’s a principle that follows into life. You get a bit further when you make friends with people rather than trying to get ahead, and that, in itself, sometimes slingshots you ahead more than stepping on other people.” 

Despite the frustrations of equipment malfunction and a slew of headache-inducing problems to solve, Flowerday encourages undergraduates to persist. “Definitely join an undergraduate research group,” he says. “There were times when [my] chemistry classes were pretty bad, but at least I had my research group excitement about chemistry to buoy me up through that.” He also emphasizes the convenience of meeting with advisors at BYU, a luxury he says few other universities can claim. “Go round and visit some labs in other places besides BYU, too. You get used to this environment and you don’t really realize, sometimes, how relaxed and good of an environment it is compared to some possibly higher through-put but bad work environment labs at other universities.” 

Flowerday hopes that, as he continues his educational pursuits and continues to his career, he can continue to “enter to learn [and] go forth to serve” not only his future students, but his family, the scientific community, and the world at large. 

And, with the direction he’s going, we’re confident that he will.