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Creating EXPERTs in Green Technology

It's a long trip from Bear River High School, in the small northern California town of Grass Valley, to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T) in Greensboro, North Carolina. The distance is both geographical and cultural. But, for Geoffrey Bothun (pictured left), 29, a Bear River graduate, it has been a pleasant trip so far. As a postdoctoral fellow, Bothun established, earlier this year, a new research and education program at N.C. A&T. This makes Bothun both a westerner come east and a white scientist at a predominantly African-American university. He relishes both roles.

Interest in Minority Education

The southeast isn't completely new to Bothun, who was able to observe and acclimate to the region while doing his graduate work at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, where he received a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. He likes the people he has met in the southeast, finding them "easy to approach" and "open to close personal relationships."

So far, his first, brief experience as a member of a minority group has been strongly positive. "I'm getting a little perspective on what it might be like for a minority person to be in a predominantly white community. I don't want to suggest that I am beginning to understand what it's like because I don't think I could, but I'm starting to get a little bit of a taste of what it's like to be in an area where you are in the minority." And, he adds, "I haven't had any negative experiences. The students we have in the program are welcoming."

When he first applied for a postdoctoral position, Bothun's primary interests were in research and academia, and he did not have a strong inclination toward minority education. But being at a predominantly African-American university has made him acutely aware of the need for diversity in science and engineering education.

"Now that I've gotten more involved, I realize more than ever that the process of innovation benefits greatly from diversity, in the sense that people with unique backgrounds bring unique solutions to problems. That's one of the real reasons it's so important, beside the social morality of science being representative of our society and not being an exclusive club. ... Diversity is really key to innovation," he says.

Bothun is actively promoting diversity through the program he created at N.C. A&T to recruit incoming freshmen interested in chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, or chemistry. He hopes the program will guide them toward graduate school, research, and careers in academia. Dubbed EXPERT, for Experimental Program for Education in Research and Training, the program focuses on promoting diversity through recruiting and mentoring, and it offers special seminars, advanced research programs, and substantial stipends to participants. Community outreach is another key part of the program and involves EXPERT students in secondary-school classroom demonstrations. This volunteerism is designed to inspire underrepresented minority students to enter careers in the sciences.

Keeping It Clean

The research projects that EXPERT students are involved in focus on environmentally friendly technologies, a thrust that comes from Bothun's interest in environmental issues and the fact that the program was established in conjunction with the National Science Foundation's (NSF's) Science and Technology (S&T) Center for Environmentally Responsible Solvents and Processes, a consortium of five universities that includes N.C. A&T.

Having respect for the environment and all living things is an intrinsic part of Bothun's outlook on life. It was also one of the driving forces behind his choice of an academic research career. "It seems like all the projects I'm involved with have some sort of element of improving a current process, making it safer, more responsible, more friendly to the environment," he says.

Bothun's interest in education is also personal or arises from personal connections. He comes from a family of teachers. His father, formerly a college professor, now teaches high school, while his mother teaches kindergarten through fifth grade. He also has a younger sister who is a high school teacher. When he entered college, Bothun intended to major in secondary education, but he soon switched to chemistry to satisfy his love of math, analytical problem solving, and the environment. He received a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering and chemistry in 1998.

At first blush, chemical engineering may not seem like the right field for someone whose focus is on improving the environment. But Bothun has a different take. "People need goods and services," he says. "Whether we need the amount we have or want is another question." Nonetheless, the use of oil, coal, electricity, and manufacturing is requisite to satisfy those needs. And, he adds, "chemical engineers and chemists who want to reduce emissions from plants can apply their skills toward making these processes more environmentally responsible."

"Taking It Out"

Bothun's Ph.D. research involved the development of technologies to allow supercritical fluids such as carbon dioxide (CO2) to be used as replacements for environmentally damaging liquid solvents in industrial processes. He is continuing this research as part of the postdoctoral fellowship that brought him to N.C. A&T.

This work is based on the fact that every fluid has a temperature and pressure point at which it becomes supercritical, meaning it can no longer be distinguished as a gas or a liquid but has properties of both. Carbon dioxide goes supercritical at about 88 degrees F and 1070 psi, at which point it has liquid densities and low viscosity, making it a good solvent. Although CO2 has developed a bad name as a greenhouse gas, in its supercritical state it can be used as an environmentally benign solvent. Furthermore, as Bothun explains, when it is collected, whether as a byproduct of industrial processes or from the environment, for use in a closed-loop system, "you are taking it out of the environment."

Knowing that he wanted to continue his research and teach following receipt of his doctorate, Bothun began a search for a university-based postdoctoral position. It didn't take him long to learn about the NSF-funded S&T center,' which was looking for postdocs interested in establishing undergraduate research programs. The fit with his interests made it a natural choice.

Another Discovery

Simultaneously, Bothun came across another compatible NSF program. Called the Discovery Corps Fellowship Program, it aims to combine research and educational expertise to address areas of national need, one of which is the need to increase minority representation in the halls of scientific academia. This fell right in line with one of the core goals of the S&T center, so Bothun teamed with people from the center to write an application for a Discovery Corps Fellowship. The application they filed had two aspects: establishment of the EXPERT program at N.C. A&T, and participation (by Bothun) in a collaborative research project. He won the fellowship --"CO2-Based Membrane Technology: Research, Education and Outreach"--and headed for North Carolina.

Supercritical CO2 is used in a number of applications, such as the synthesis of polymers and particles in the pharmaceutical and nanotechnology industries, where CO2 must first be pressurized to reach the critical state, depressurized so the products can be recovered, then repressurized again to repeat the process. The idea is to use membranes in place of the depressurization step now necessary to collect the particles produced in the manufacturing process. This would negate the need to repressurize the CO2 in a closed-loop system and save energy. "It's a batch process that's energy intensive," says Bothun. "Our goal is to employ membranes to make these processes more continuous."

"Pretty Neat" Projects

The education part of Bothun's fellowship is based on the precept that "when you expose undergraduates to research, they generally get interested in graduate school because they see the research can be pretty neat, especially when they are contributing to significant and fundamental projects," said Bothun.

Having just opened EXPERT to student participation during the fall 2004 semester, Bothun already has 21 students enrolled: eight freshmen, nine sophomores, two juniors, and two seniors. All but one are African-American students, with an almost equal division between men and women.

EXPERT freshmen and sophomores attend about 20 meetings and seminars each academic year to discuss their concerns and progress, and to learn about topics such as technical communications--an area that Bothun feels needs special attention--and career opportunities, especially as they relate to graduate education. "Ph.D.s talk about their experiences and try to demystify the graduate process and let everybody know that, 'you can do it too. It is not unattainable,' " says Bothun. When the students reach their junior and senior years, they become deeply involved in specific research projects.

Still in its infancy, EXPERT has already created considerable buzz within the N.C. A&T engineering department, and it is motivating at least some students to improve their grades. Having had to turn some students away for grade-point average issues, Bothun told them, "if you can bring your grades up, we'll see what we can do next year." It is a strong stimulus for students hoping to become EXPERTs.

Victor D. Chase is a freelance writer and may be reached at

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