Krystal Vasquez is a disabled Ph.D. candidate at Caltech studying atmospheric chemistry. Her research interests include the use and development of analytical techniques that can measure highly reactive atmospheric compounds in order to study the chemical processes they undergo in the atmosphere. 

Krystal is also passionate about improving diversity, inclusion, and equity in the sciences. She aims to combine her expertise in laboratory settings with her advocacy work in order to increase access to STEM careers for marginalized students, especially disabled people of color.  

Read on to learn more about Krystal, in her own words.

My name is Krystal Vasquez and I’m a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). I received my Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California, Riverside. Though I originally planned on going to medical school, I decided on a whim to take an environmental science course to fulfill a graduation requirement. The rest is history. Now I combine both chemistry and environmental science in my doctoral research which sits in the interdisciplinary field of atmospheric chemistry. 

The atmosphere, it turns out, is actually made up of a complicated soup of compounds. Some compounds make up a large fraction of the atmosphere, such as nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane. Other compounds like volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, make up a significantly smaller fraction of the atmosphere — on the order of one part per billion or even one part per trillion. But their small numbers shouldn’t fool you. They readily react in the atmosphere and undergo chemical transformations fueled by factors such as sunlight and temperature. Their reaction products can then take the form of aerosols (known as secondary organic aerosols, or SOA) or gases (such as ozone or oxygenated volatile organic compounds, or OVOCs).

SOA, ozone, and OVOCs all contribute to the smog that is an all too common sight in many of our cities. 

My research focuses specifically on OVOCs, which are even less abundant and more reactive than their VOC counterparts. Unfortunately, because of these characteristics, OVOCs are also an extremely frustrating class of compounds to measure!

One way atmospheric chemists get around their scarcity is by creating large enough concentrations of them in the laboratory. However, because these experimental setups don’t properly represent the real atmosphere, it’s important to be able to also measure these compounds in situ.

That’s what the majority of my research has focused on developing and improving analytical techniques that can be used to study different OVOCs.  


  • According to the WHO, air quality can significantly affect your cardiovascular and respiratory health, and also leads to higher rates of asthma in children. 
  • People of color and people living in poverty are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality. This is predominantly because polluters (such as factories, auto body shops, etc) tend to be concentrated in poor and minority neighborhoods. 
  • Pollution can also occur indoors, which is a whole new field of research in atmospheric chemistry. According to the EPA, sources of indoor air pollution can be personal care products, building materials, household cleaning products, dust mites, mold, and even the infiltration of outdoor air pollution.  


When I’m not doing research, I spend a lot of time on Twitter. But I promise it’s for a good cause! Many of my tweets focus on advocating for increased representation in STEM.

I am the first person in my family to earn a college degree. I am also a woman of color and disabled. Grad school is hard, but often being the only disabled person of color in the room has just made it that much harder. I am especially interested in disability advocacy. Disability is just as underrepresented in STEM as any other marginalized group, yet it’s rarely included in diversity initiatives. Over the past year, I’ve been working to create a website, Chronically Invisible. When it officially launches (soon!!) I want to use it to highlight disabled scientists and engineers, past and present, and talk about issues surrounding ableism in STEM and academia. 

Connect with Krystal

Photos courtesy of Krystal Vasquez.