Mom Goes to School
Professor Cherie Geiger was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She received her Bachelor of Science degree from UCF and then decided to do her graduate work at the University of South Florida (USF). “I was a late bloomer; I already had children when I went to graduate school, so I needed to remain local in order to go to school,” says Geiger. Using her creativity, she convinced USF to coordinate with UCF to allow her to conduct her research at UCF, while attending USF. “I worked in the basement of the math and physics building here at UCF,” she adds.
“I drove from Orlando to USF twice a week. I can't believe how much I drove on I-4 to go to school. But, I loved chemistry from my second year in college and just had to continue it. I realized that I would miss the subject of chemistry if I didn't take more of it. Originally I thought about being a high school chemistry and physics teacher (I love physics, too), but one of my professors here at UCF told me right before I graduated with my bachelors that I should go to graduate school. I gave it a shot and received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to attend. After graduating, I also received an NSF grant to conduct post-doctoral research.”
Geiger had offers elsewhere, but felt there was more potential at UCF than the other schools where she had offers. “I also had contacts at NASA and colleagues here at UCF, so I felt I had some good relationships in place to begin working.”
Geiger is cleaning up with her research. Literally. She has developed methods for remediating groundwater contaminated with chlorinated organic compounds. Also, she has devised a solution for removing heavy metals from groundwater and soils. “Methods we developed are much cheaper than the other methods previously being used,” she offers. These are practical methods that either degrade the contaminants or bring them to the surface to more easily be removed.
Geiger and her team were researching how to clean up heavy metals in groundwater and soils contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), when they had a breakthrough. “Our solution is related to liquid membrane technologies. It's a dark mayonnaise-looking substance that we can squirt into the soil below ground level to where the contaminants are located,” says Geiger. Their technology breaks down the PCBs into harmless compounds. “We can now pull PCBs out of paint, which is unique and groundbreaking. The next step will be to go into caulking materials and soils,” Geiger adds. There is much benefit to her work. For example, schools in New York and Massachusetts have caulking that contains PCBs, which have contaminated the concrete blocks. They also developed a method to pull the PCBs out of concrete. “Our technologies are all environmentally friendly – the compounds we use in our remediation technologies can be biodegraded or recycled.” There are other areas where Geiger and her team look to clean things up, such as explosives in various forms and other toxins, such as Dioxins.
Her work has brought in over $2 Million in grants thus far, including research in to education. Geiger explains, “We do education research, as well. We look into new methods to teach labs and teach chemistry – we want to be able to follow students' depth of understanding, not just have them follow a cookbook. We're measuring whether this approach improves the learning of chemistry principles.”
She adds, “Another reason I came to UCF is the level of focus and attention that UCF faculty give their students. I love this area of research to help students learn, period.”
The Ph.D. program in chemistry began at UCF in 2004. Although it is a young program, Geiger is currently advising seven Ph.D. candidates and one undergraduate. Prior to 2004, Geiger achieved all of her results with undergraduate students. She holds five patents, with more on the way.
There is a large cabinet full of awards in the Chemistry building, many bestowed upon Geiger and her team. The ones she is most proud of are the awards that were given to the team, not her as an individual. “I'm most proud of the team award ‘Intel Environmental Laureate for Tech Museum of Innovation'. That award is given for outstanding new technologies that benefit humanity. It was for the whole team, not just me,” says Geiger.
Geiger also participates in the EXCEL program. EXCEL is UCF's innovative program to boost student success in the science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines. Geiger has worked in the program since its inception, as a co-coordinator for the Applications in Calculus I course. “I put it together in the first year, now I share the duties,” she says. Geiger selected faculty members to present; guided the faculty in their lectures and content and worked a small part on the original EXCEL proposal. This takes work; she sits in on each class to monitor students' responses and learning in order to make any necessary changes.
“We put together a program that shows students the usefulness of mathematics and piques their interest. That was our sole purpose – keep them interested in the STEM disciplines.” Not bad, Mom.