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Abigail Giarrosso

Abigail Giarrosso, Chemistry

“UMass Lowell offers a great science education for the best price. And there are better opportunities to do research than at most other schools.”

Abigail Giarrosso knew she wanted to major in chemistry when she arrived on campus as an Honors College student two years ago. The Methuen resident also needed a work-study job – and spotted an ad for a lab assistant at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute, or TURI.

“When I saw that I thought, ‘That’s probably too good to be true; that’s probably not for me as an incoming freshman,’ but I applied and lab director Jason Marshall said I could have the job if I wanted it,” she says. “They let me do everything. Nothing was off-limits. If I wanted to learn something, they would teach me. I’d had no idea about any type of green chemistry or any environmental hazards that were in products we use. It was pretty eye-opening.”

Her work-study job continued through summer 2015, when she began focusing on a project to develop a better paint-stripper, working with Gregory Morose, research professor in the College of Health Sciences and research manager at TURI. TURI is a state initiative that is headquartered on campus and uses lab space in Pinanski Hall.

Right now, the most effective and top-selling paint strippers contain high concentrations of methylene chloride, a suspected carcinogen and highly toxic chemical. The less-toxic alternatives on the market do a poor job under the rigorous testing she and Morose developed, Giarrosso says.

Starting with two commercial software databases that included 33,800 widely available chemicals used to formulate solvents, Giarrosso and Morose eliminated all those known to be highly toxic or destructive to the environment. In the process, Giarrosso had to investigate about 1,500 chemicals whose toxicity wasn’t described in any major database.

Eventually, they came up with about 6,500 low-toxicity liquids and began testing promising combinations of solvents. They’ve already come up with less-toxic formulas that strip paint almost as well as methylene chloride – and TURI just won a $15,000 EPA grant to pay for more paint, chemicals and toxicity tests.

The Balasubramanian Honors Research Fellowship allowed Giarrosso to put in more lab hours during the school year and then TURI hired her directly this summer. The experience has more than fulfilled her expectations of the university – and is preparing her for the Ph.D. in chemistry she plans to earn after graduation.

“UMass Lowell offers a great science education for the best price,” she says. “I knew it was a place that, if I did well on my bachelor’s with an honors core, that would really help me later in my career. And there are better opportunities to do research than at most other schools.”

The Honors College also offered another unique opportunity: The chance to study in Cuba for two weeks. The study-abroad trip was offered during winter term, which didn’t cut into her lab work or put her behind in her chemistry requirements, as a regular semester abroad would have.

“I’d always wanted to travel and look at another culture,” she says. “Winter term was perfect – the stars aligned.”

Giarrosso, a rising junior, is already training newer students to help with the paint-stripper project. And the low-toxicity data set that she and Morose developed is now included in the latest version of the Hansen Solubility Parameters in Practice database, one of the two they began with. That makes it much easier for industrial chemists to search for less-toxic chemicals when formulating solvents.

“We got it installed with the program globally, so everyone has the option to make safer alternatives from the beginning,” she says.