Elements of success

At Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, John Ahern ’10 is in his element.

Working as a scientist at this national security-focused lab, he leverages his knowledge around elements to help the U.S. government safely process aging plutonium so it can be suitable for later use. This work also decreases the volume and therefore the cost of disposing of high-activity, residue-laden waste, according to Ahern.

“I am incredibly fortunate and proud to be able to conduct this research in service of the nation. My work has yielded publications and patent filings that have real-world applications, which I believe will improve the safety and security of America and its citizens,” he said.

Ahern, who majored in environmental science at Wheaton, joined Los Alamos National Laboratory in June 2016 some time after obtaining his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Maine. As part of his studies in Maine, he also looked to lessen environmental impacts of toxic substances—but in that work, hazardous pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals in water were the targets. 

“Many of these contaminants, such as synthetic estrogen, can pose a threat to aquatic and amphibious species even at low concentrations,” he said.

After completing his doctorate, Ahern conducted research at the National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) in the Greater Pittsburgh area. There, he studied rare earth elements—a set of 17 chemical elements in the periodic table—that are used in modern electronics, including cell phones, cars and wind turbines.

The People’s Republic of China controls nearly all of the world’s active mines for rare earth elements. As such, the U.S. and other western nations are seeking ways to boost access to domestic sources of rare earth elements by extracting their own from various waste streams, he said.

At NETL, Ahern successfully developed a sensor that can detect parts per billion concentrations of certain rare earth elements in coal waste streams. “The size of these waste streams is so large that even low concentrations would yield a sufficient supply of rare earths to mitigate the risk of China raising the price of their exports.”

At Wheaton, Ahern paved the path for his career as a successful scientist.

“The wide variety of classes I took as part of my environmental science major and chemistry minor helped me address the multi-faceted projects I started with as a graduate student,” he said. 

One course, “Chemistry of Natural Waters,” taught by Associate Professor of Chemistry and Geology Matt Evans, was especially important in sparking his interest in researching water-borne pollutants. Evans recalls Ahern as one of the first students to major in environmental science with an environmental chemistry concentration.

“He was always looking for ways to use the knowledge he had gained in those courses and apply it to environmental issues and problems,” Evans said. “The students in the ‘Chemistry in Natural Waters’ course were charged with weekly river sampling at sites in and around Norton. John was integral to the success of this sampling, organizing his fellow students, and doing the sampling on his own if need be. In the field, if we needed someone to wade into a stream, to climb a tree, or to dig a soil pit, John was always willing.”

A student-athlete, Ahern mastered balancing his coursework with being on Wheaton’s men’s swimming team. “It forced me to learn effective time management, which later proved invaluable during graduate school, when there was less structure in my day,” he said.

Now Ahern is enjoying life in the Southwest, and working for one of the country’s most well-known laboratories.

“I live in the village of Tesuque on the outskirts of Santa Fe, which is great because of its close proximity to work as well as the bustling Santa Fe plaza,” he said. “Also, the abundance of wildlife such as bears and mountain lions is incredible. I am excited to cross-country ski in the nearby mountains and check out the collapsed volcano known as the Valles Caldera.”