Professor and Chair of Chemistry Steven Petrovic (by Rory N. Finney)
With twenty-two presentations, sixteen publications, and seven grants to his name, Steven Petrovic has established a firm presence in the analytical chemistry field since earning his PhD from Ohio University over a decade ago. But chemistry isn’t all he’s known for. Thanks to his expertise in wine phenolics, Petrovic brought home the blue ribbon for his 2008 Pinot Gris at the Jackson County Harvest Fair in 2009. His sabbatical working as an assistant winemaker at RoxyAnn Winery inspired the creation of a new SOU course on The Chemistry and Analysis of Wine. Petrovic applied his understanding of cyclic voltammetry—honed while writing his dissertation, “Application of Ultramicroelectrodes for the Detection of Metallic Analytes Using Thin Layer Chromatography—Square Wave Anodic Stripping Voltammetry”—to the viticulture field, attempting to develop a reliable chemical assay of the astringency of red wines. This electrochemical method helped in the determination of flavan-3-ols and resulted in striking correlations with professional tasters’ sensory evaluations of the wines.
Petrovic has had his steel-toed boots in the industrial chemistry world as well, working as a chemist at Rhône-Poulenc Basic Chemicals Company and Amoco Oil Company in Indiana. He also served as a visiting scientist at Procter & Gamble Company.
His master’s thesis at Purdue University is only slightly less of a mouthful than his PhD dissertation: “Evaluation of a Continuous-Mode Microarc Coupled to a Charge-Injection Device for Multielement Atomic Emission Spectroscopy.” In both corporate and academic spheres, Petrovic has found practical applications for his specializations in electroanalytical chemistry, chronoamperometry in novel media, and stripping voltammetry on bare and modified electrodes.
He currently serves as a member of the Analytical Sciences Digital Library Advisory Board. Prior to that appointment, Petrovic chaired the Web Committee for the American Chemical Society’s Division of Analytical Chemistry, where he had previously held a post as secretary. Other hats include associate editor for the Analytical Sciences Digital Library and symposium organizer and presider for “Electrochemical Frontiers: An Undergraduate Perspective,” the twenty-eighth Annual Conference of the Federation of Analytical Chemistry and Spectroscopy Societies.
Petrovic has delighted in the process of scientific discovery since childhood. Leading by example, he inspires his students to pursue research they are passionate about—and to put that research to use in the community.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in December 2010
SP: Growing up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, I was always intrigued by the natural sciences. During my childhood, I loved exploring my local environment. My brother and I used to hike through the local watershed with some of the neighborhood kids. I had a weather station, I assembled crystal radio and shortwave radio kits from Radio Shack, I had a small microscope, I loved collecting minerals and fossils, and yes, I had a chemistry kit. In the 1970s, a curious kid could easily stock their own chemistry kit with glassware and equipment from a local hobby store and chemicals from the hardware store, the hobby store and the neighborhood drugstore.
My interest in minerals persisted throughout my teenage years. I would frequently go to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in University Circle and marvel at the gem and mineral collection on display there. The beauty and diversity of minerals initially attracted me to the geological sciences, and I actually started out as a geology major in college.
When I realized I was more interested in the chemical composition of minerals than in the geological sciences as a whole, I became a chemistry major. As I pursued my bachelor’s degree, I realized my childhood interest in learning about the natural world using microscopes, thermometers, electronic circuits, and other related equipment really had prepared me for a career as an analytical chemist.
Sign in the Chemistry office (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What are some of the most intriguing questions in your field?
SP: The field of analytical chemistry focuses on the development of methods and instruments specific to chemical measurements. One of the most intriguing questions in analytical chemistry is an ongoing one: how do we perform chemical analyses faster, cheaper, and with greater sensitivity or specificity? Answers to these questions have paralleled the electronics revolution, and by extension, the computer revolution. As computers have become smaller, more powerful and cheaper, the ability to acquire and process chemical information has also increased.
Analytical chemists play key roles in developing instruments that were used to map the human genome, investigate the generation and fate of neurotransmitters within a single cell, follow petrochemical plumes after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and monitor extreme marine environments for evidence of changes due to global warming. Analytical chemistry plays a key role in the quality of consumer products from toothpaste to toys and in the regulatory and investigative function of governmental agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Department of Agriculture, the Center for Disease Control, and the US Department Of Energy.
Working a problem (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Your PhD thesis is titled “Application of Ultramicroelectrodes for the Detection of Metallic Analytes Using Thin Layer Chromatography—Square Wave Anodic Stripping Voltammetry.” What does that mean, exactly?
SP: When you asked about intriguing questions in my field of study, I mentioned that analytical chemists are always interested in faster, cheaper, and more powerful methods to test for chemical substances. One class of chemical substances of interest to environmental researchers is metal ions. My dissertation research focused on the measurement of metal ions in water samples using an electrochemical technique called anodic stripping voltammetry (ASV). ASV pre-concentrates trace concentrations of metal ions at conductive solid surfaces called electrodes. I used a very tiny electrode called an ultramicroelectrode. Since metal ions tend to bind to several classes of organic compounds that are ubiquitous in natural waters, and organic compounds tend to interfere with these measurements by coating the electrode surface, researchers need the ability to separate these metal ions from organic compounds present in natural waters. The use of a cheap separation technique called thin-layer chromatography allows the researcher to measure the concentration of such metal ions in the field while removing the interferences from these organic compounds.
Amoco Oil Company (photograph by J. Crocker and logo courtesy of Amoco)
MM: You spent a brief stint working as a chemist for the Amoco Oil Company in the early nineties. Did you find pretty quickly that your calling was to teach rather than work in private industry?
SP: I’ve always preferred the academic environment over government or private industry. However, I firmly believe that my experience as an analytical chemist in the Chicago area, both in the oil industry (AMOCO) and the basic chemical industry (Rhône-Poulenc), enabled me to develop skills I might have lacked had I spent my entire career in academia.
As an industrial chemist, I was given the opportunity to teach quality control courses to employees with wide range of ages, academic experiences, and job responsibilities. I participated in hazardous materials response training workshops. I attended routine safety training and learned how to use a fire extinguisher properly. I wore steel-toed boots. I investigated and recommended the purchase of expensive chemical instrumentation based on criteria such as vendor response time, cost of yearly maintenance contracts, and the location of the nearest technician—criteria that are critical to the proper functioning of an industrial facility but that might be overlooked in academia.
In the classroom (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Tell me about your work with the Analytical Sciences Digital Library, where you’ve been a board member since 2007 and associate editor since 2005.
SP: In 2004, I was elected to serve as secretary of the Analytical Division of the American Chemical Society. Serving as an elected official of the division provided me with the opportunity to meet analytical chemists from industry, government, and academia I would not have had the chance to interact with otherwise. Two of those colleagues were Dr. Cindy Larive from UC-Riverside and Dr. Ted Kuwana from the University of Kansas. They had recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create and maintain the Analytical Sciences Digital Library (ASDL). As part of the NSF-funded National Sciences Digital Library (NSDL) collection, the impetus behind ASDL was to create a peer-reviewed collection of web-based resources of interest to the analytical chemistry community. A group of analytical chemists from teaching and research institutions across the US locate and peer-review these web resources, which can range from e-texts to videos to java-based animations and tutorials. Once these resources have been peer-reviewed, they are cataloged and become part of the ASDL.
The ASDL also creates material of interest to the analytical community through the peer-reviewed online Journal of the Analytical Sciences Digital Library (JASDL) and through curriculum development workshops, which identify and create pedagogical approaches for the teaching of analytical chemistry. Recently, a freely accessible e-textbook on analytical chemistry was added to the ASDL collection. I’m hoping I will have the chance to evaluate and implement this and other freely available resources in the classroom!
At the RoxyAnn vineyard and winery (courtesy of Steven Petrovic)
MM: Describe the relationship you’ve helped establish between SOU’s Chemistry Program and the local wine industry, specifically regarding your work with RoxyAnn Winery.
SP: An owner of a Rogue Valley winery once said they prefer to hire workers with a strong background in the sciences. Workers who can bring a scientific background to the winery environment—in addition to the ability to do general tasks such as cleaning barrels in the winery or pruning vines in the vineyard—possess a set of skills that make them extremely valuable to the wine industry.
The management at RoxyAnn Winery were quite generous when they accepted my request to work the 2006 harvest as an assistant winemaker during the first part of my sabbatical leave. The winery was able to take advantage of my chemistry background for the in-house testing of their wines, and I was able to learn about and contribute to most aspects of the commercial winemaking process.
Working with a student in the lab (by Rory N. Finney)
This experience enabled me to develop a course at SOU titled The Chemistry and Analysis of Wine, where I cover chemical fundamentals as they pertain to winemaking. During the three years in which I have taught the course, I have developed several working relationships and friendships with local winemakers who have taken the course. Such experiences have enabled me to establish and strengthen relationships with members of the local wine industry, which in turn can lead to potential internships or employment opportunities for students who have a desire to learn about wine production.
Blue Ledge Mine; Bill Elliott, Chair and Associate Professor of Geology, University of Southern Indiana; and Gold Ray Dam (mine and dam images by Bill Elliott; center portrait by Rory N. Finney)
MM: Have you had an opportunity to collaborate with SOU faculty from other disciplines? How does that multidisciplinary approach strengthen your research?
SP: Several years ago, I had the privilege to collaborate with Dr. Bill Elliott, a former SOU professor, on a research project that focused on acid mine drainage from the Blue Ledge Mine, an old, abandoned copper mine in the Siskiyou Mountains. We were able to secure grant funding from the National Science Foundation for an inductively coupled plasma optical emission spectrometer (ICP-OES). The ICP-OES was used to monitor concentrations of metals that were leached from the Blue Ledge Mine to determine their fate as they entered the Little Applegate watershed. Although the ICP-OES is housed and maintained by the SOU Chemistry Program, several geology students—and even a local high school science teacher summer intern—have been able to obtain useful data about the metal ions being leached from the old mine. Since then, the ICP-OES has been incorporated into the Chemistry Program’s curriculum, and it has been used in projects such as the geographical sourcing of caviar by trace metal fingerprinting.
The ICP-OES has also been of service to Jackson County when metal concentrations in sediments from the old Gold Ray Dam needed to be determined prior to demolition. Since the ICP-OES is capable of determining the presence of metals at part per billion (microgram per liter) levels, this instrument has enhanced our capability to perform research on a wide range of projects compared to previous technology available to the SOU sciences.
Conducting research at RoxyAnn Winery (courtesy of Steven Petrovic)
MM: Can you describe the feeling you get as you embark on the process of scientific discovery? What keeps you motivated when you hit obstacles along the way?
SP: The idea of applicability is an appealing one. Whenever I start a new research project, I think about how my background and experience can help those who benefit most from the hypothesis being addressed. Thinking about my audience always provides me with perspective and helps me maintain interest in such projects.
For example, when I was preparing for my sabbatical research at Oregon State, my collaborator was very interested in the development of a straightforward and reliable chemical assay that could provide winemakers with information about the astringency of their red wines. The hope was that such an assay would complement the winemaker’s palate in order to craft wines with a consistent flavor profile. I was able to propose the use of an electrochemical method, cyclic voltammetry, to the determination of flavan-3-ols, a class of chemical substances that are most closely related to wine astringency. Applying this method to a set of red wines that had previously been evaluated by a trained panel of tasters, the experimental results were strongly correlated to the sensory evaluations of the wines.
At the end of the day, here was a method that could potentially benefit my audience, the wine industry. However, successful research projects eventually provide you with more questions than answers. It was true there was a strong correlation between the wine-tasting panel and the analytical results, but the correlation wasn’t perfect. Did the uncertainty represent a limitation in the tasting panel, a limitation in the analytical method, or both? Can this analytical method be applied to other red wines regardless of grape, geography, soil type, etcetera? These initial successes are extremely satisfying, but the questions such successes generate may be even more intriguing!