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Johnathan Culpepper

College: Medgar Evers College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship,

Trapping Greenhouse Gasses

Scientists agree that greenhouse gases are changing Earth's climate. Carbon dioxide is expelled when creatures breathe, vegetation rots and Arctic soils defrost. Nitrogen, more than three-quarters of our air, pollutes when oxidized by combustion and other processes.

But what if carbon and nitrogen could be pulled out of the atmosphere and locked up as minerals? Johnathan Culpepper (Medgar Evers College, A.A., Mass Communications,'06; B.S., Environmental Science '09) will explore that idea with a 2015 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Working with civil and environmental engineering professor Michelle Scherer at the University of Iowa College of Engineering, Culpepper intends to research iron's potential to sequester carbon and nitrogen. Iron is the fourth most abundant element on Earth, after oxygen, silicon and aluminum. It easily reacts with other elements, forming stable compounds both on land and in the oceans.

"I hypothesize that there is a unique iron pathway that influences and is interdependent on the better understood carbon and nitrogen cycles," Culpepper says. ("Cycles" refers to the natural exchange of elements among living things, soils, rocks, oceans and atmosphere.) "There is limited understanding of how iron minerals interact with carbon and nitrogen," he explains. He questions why the surfaces of iron oxide minerals can lock up organic carbon; how iron oxide interactions preserve carbon in water and soil; and how carbon and nitrogen compounds can rapidly attach to iron surfaces.

Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Culpepper worked his way through Medgar Evers as an international student by selling his art, from paintings to logo designs. As an undergraduate, he mentored high school chemistry and physics students in the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry program (CSTEP), guiding teams to first- and second-prize victories in statewide competitions. He worked as a chemistry lab technician and interned in a NASA-funded atmospheric research project; his job was to prepare all apparatus and chemicals used to detect ozone using helium-filled balloons.

After earning his bachelor's, Culpepper "wanted to give back" to the Medgar Evers community. For three years he taught English writing, mathematics and general science to adults in POISED for Success, which is funded by CUNY's Research Foundation. He also taught 100- to 200-level undergraduate courses in English composition and writing, algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus, art history, physics and general and organic chemistry.

Now married, the father of two daughters and becoming a U.S. citizen, Culpepper says he "wants to become a professor of environmental engineering in a research-intensive institution." His target is "elemental cycles and interactions within our soil, water and atmospheric systems."

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship is the most prestigious award for graduate studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The federal grant provides $138,000 over three years for doctoral-level research.