News and Media
Catherine Oertel '99 Awarded NSF Early Career Grant
Jan. 11, 2012
Oertel, who studies the corrosion of historic Baroque organ pipes, received a five-year grant of nearly $475,000 to study the corrosion mechanism using laboratory exposure experiments, analyses of authentic organ pipe samples, and the synthesis of corrosion products and related compounds. The grant will support the work of Oberlin undergraduate researchers, who will collaborate with Oertel in each stage of the project.
Pipe organs of the Baroque age are “endangered species” of the musical world and are noted for their ties to significant composers and pre-industrial technologies. Corrosion of organ pipes threatens the ability of these historic instruments to produce sound. Oertel’s findings on how materials and conditions affect corrosion rates could eventually shape strategies for protecting pipe organs. More generally, Oertel’s research will contribute to the understanding of corrosion of lead-tin alloys, not just those used to make pipe organs.
Oertel’s fascination with the organ developed when she was an undergraduate at Oberlin, where students regularly have the opportunity to listen to recitals on the conservatory’s concert organs. A chemistry major, Oertel decided to take organ lessons for fun — and she was hooked on the Baroque sounds and complexity of the instrument. During graduate school and her postdoctoral work, her interest in playing the organ developed into scientific inquiry of the chemical process that has been destroying pipes in organs from the 17th and 18th centuries. After completing her PhD at Cornell University, Oertel was awarded a National Science Foundation Discovery Corps fellowship to work with a corrosion chemistry group at the Göteborg Organ Art Center (GOArt) in Sweden, where organ builders collaborate with scientists at the Chalmers University of Technology to answer questions about compositions, physical properties, and corrosion of organ pipe metal.
Since joining the Oberlin chemistry and biochemistry faculty in 2006, Oertel has initiated new synthetically oriented research projects in her lab, all the while continuing her pursuit to connect science, art, and conservation through her work with organ pipe corrosion.
“My research brings something new to the chemistry department because there’s an emphasis on materials research, which is at the interface of chemistry and engineering,” says Oertel. “This work is a different than pure chemistry. There’s a growing interest among Oberlin students to engage in multidisciplinary study.”
The NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) funds teacher-scholars who integrate research and education in their work. Oberlin counts a growing list of past and current CAREER grant recipients, most recently Mike Moore, assistant professor of biology, who is on the second year of his grant. Other recipients include Taylor Allen, associate professor and chair of biology; Matthew Elrod, professor of chemistry and biochemistry; Manish Mehta, associate professor and chair of chemistry; and Sean Decatur, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry.
The main strategy within Oertel’s project proposal involves building a laboratory exposure apparatus within which metal samples will be exposed to controlled humidity and atmosphere. These conditions will be designed to simulate those found in organ cases, allowing the researchers to study the initial stages of corrosion. The exposed samples, as well as authentic organ pipe samples, will be examined using high-powered microscopes at Oberlin and at the Swagelok Center for Surface Analysis of Materials at Case Western Reserve University. The goal of this work is to reach a more complete understanding of interactions of lead-tin alloys with their environment and the chemistry of their corrosion products. Oertel will also use methods from her synthetic experience to prepare and characterize samples of corrosion products and related compounds.
Perhaps the most famous example of an organ that is affected by pipe corrosion is a 1637 organ in the St. Jakobi Church in Lubeck, Germany, Oertel says. The organ contains pipework that is actually two centuries older than the organ itself, and the instrument is an example of pre-industrial organ building. While her project includes no plans to work directly with this instrument, it is a prominent example of an affected organ. Oertel plans to share her findings with organ builders and researchers in the field of art conservation. In the past, she has presented work at conferences of the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative and at an interdisciplinary conference in conservation science at Northwestern University.
A second component of Oertel’s project includes educational outreach with the Allen Memorial Art Museum. She plans to offer a new first-year seminar for Oberlin students on the topic of chemistry and cultural objects that makes the connection between science and art conservation.
Secondly, Oertel will partner with the museum’s existing programs for K-12 students by designing a “materials tour” of the museum, which will involve written and audio tools to help students observe materials (for example, copper or marble) that are used in art objects. A portable “touching kit” will allow students to touch and observe samples of these materials firsthand.
Oertel has inspired her students to find a way to combine their diverse interests. One of her first student researchers, Katie Mauck ’09, is on a Fulbright fellowship in Paris, where she is studying the chemistry of iron gall ink manuscripts at the Centre de recherche sur la conservation des collections at the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle.
Mauck says she had always loved art, but felt drawn to the sciences, too. During her senior year, Oertel encouraged her to explore a collaboration with the Allen Memorial Art Musem and a group of local conservators at the Intermuseum Conservation Association in Cleveland. “I’m deeply grateful for the support that Professor Oertel has shown for my interest in conservation science and my desire to pursue all of the things I've been interested in,” Mauck says. “The possibility to do research on conservation science as an undergrad has lead me to further opportunities to work with people at the Art Institute of Chicago and now the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. Indeed, I believe that it’s because of the opportunities I had at Oberlin that I’m here.”
Oertel says the NSF’s recognition of her work is transformative. “It’s an honor to be endorsed by peers in my field.”