Five Questions with Jason Surratt

Jason Surratt sees the forest through the trees.

Name: Jason Surratt
Position: Associate professor, Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering
Years at Gillings: 6.5


Dr. Jason Surratt.

Dr. Jason Surratt

What I do at Gillings (and why I love it): I study how plant emissions (especially from trees) interact with man-made pollution to create smog. Yes, trees can produce pollutants too if the combine with man-made pollutants! For example, the Smokey Mountains are named for the smog that naturally rises from trees in that area. As an atmospheric chemist, I want to learn more about the human health effects that occur when, for example, coal emissions join up with natural plant emissions in the air to form new compounds in fine particulate matter. That’s my primary focus, but I also do research on e-cigarettes and the composition of wildfire smoke. Basically, it all falls under the category of “atmospheric chemistry and aerosol science.”

My favorite part of my job is interacting with students. I work mostly with graduate students but also teach an environmental chemistry class to undergraduates.


I got into my field because: I was intending to get a meteorology degree. After hating chemistry in high school, though, I took chemistry in college with a fantastic professor and became fascinated by the precise reactions. I realized that the connection between meteorology and chemistry was atmospheric chemistry. What really cemented my choice was an internship that had me spend a summer examining NASA satellite data over the Amazon rainforest to determine how deforestation impacts local rainfall patterns. I hated it, and did another internship in Colorado that centered on atmospheric particulate chemistry. That’s how I realized where I needed to be. Now, I always tell my students how important it is to intern and learn about the field you think you want to enter and find out what you truly love.


I’m originally from: Memphis, Tennessee. Well, I was born there, but my dad was in the Air Force so we moved early on. I spent most of my childhood in Charlotte, North Carolina. I went to school at N.C. State University, then lived in California for seven years to attend Caltech for my Ph.D. in chemistry, and then came to Chapel Hill because I wanted to be closer to the bulk of my family. I love Chapel Hill, because it has a big city personality in a small town body.


To get me talking, ask about: tennis or – of course – the weather! I am the big weather geek who always tells friends and family when something special is about to blow through. With tennis, I love to watch it, and Rafal Nadal is my favorite player. He always tries his hardest, which is highly inspiring.


If I could know the whole truth about one thing, I’d want to find out: what’s beyond this life. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of what might happen when we pass on. I’m agnostic – science tends to do that to people – but I do believe there’s more in the world than what we understand. There are so many religious concepts of the afterlife, and then physics and chemistry constantly show me that everything is connected… I suppose I’m hopeful that there’s something else that comes next. Of course, if I knew, then I’d want to tell everybody!