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From Seattle to Sustainability: One Scholar’s Journey

The Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF) has just concluded its most recent round of new scholar applications. Since 1992, EREF has furthered the education of 139 scholars and funded nearly $3 million in their research. In 2024, EREF received 99 scholarship applications, the largest number of any open application period. One scholar who’s been very involved with EREF is Zachary LaTurner.

Zach’s journey from the green suburbs of Seattle to the forefront of environmental research shows just how far you can go with real drive and the right backing. His story is not just his own but also a reflection of the broader potential within each of us to contribute to sustainability, supported by organizations like EREF. As the proud recipient of the Waste Industries Scholarship Honoring Lonnie C. Poole Jr., Zach’s work exemplifies the profound impact that institutions like EREF can have on the trajectory of budding researchers.

From a young age, Zach recognized sustainability’s impact on his life. “I grew up in a place where I could go for a hike in the forest one morning and go to the lake in the afternoon. I’ve just always cared about the environment, and I feel like it’s tragic how we’re treating it.” That upbringing led him to an undergraduate degree at the University of Washington (UW), where he was actively involved in the UW Biodiesel Cooperative, championing the cause of recycling used cooking oil from the campus into biodiesel. This initiative not only showcased his innovative spirit but also laid the groundwork for his future endeavors. After earning his B.S. in Chemical Engineering in 2014, he delved deeper into the world of materials management at Stericycle, overseeing waste produced by the Allen Institute. His subsequent volunteer work in Dr. Mari Winkler’s lab further honed his expertise in the growth kinetics of Ammonia Oxidizing Bacteria.

Zach’s decision to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering at Rice University, under the mentorship of Dr. Lauren Stadler, marked the beginning of an ambitious research project to address one of the many pressing challenges of our times: food waste. With millions of tons of food waste produced annually in the U.S., the magnitude of the problem is staggering; however, where many see an insurmountable challenge, Zach sees an opportunity.

His research centers on using acid fermenting bacteria, which are a bit like very specialized recycling plants at a microscopic level, to turn our everyday food scraps into something called volatile fatty acids. These aren’t just any acids; they’re the kind that could supplement or, potentially, replace oil and petroleum in making various chemicals. Instead of digging up more oil for products, scientists may one day be able to use yesterday’s lunch leftovers.

This research addresses two problems in one shot. First, it could give scientists a new way to deal with food waste, which can harm the environment when it just sits in landfills. Second, it nudges the chemical industry toward greener practices. By swapping out petroleum with something sustainable, the materials around us — from plastics to perfumes — could come from a much cleaner source. 

As the recipient of the Poole Scholarship, he’s been afforded the freedom to explore, innovate, and push the boundaries of what’s possible. At its core, Zach’s research is about more than just finding sustainable alternatives to current practices; it’s about reimagining the future and paving the way for a world where waste is not just discarded but repurposed. His journey, bolstered by the support of EREF, is an example of what’s possible when passion meets purpose. His work confronts environmental challenges, reminding us we can create a more sustainable and circular economy with dedication, innovation, and the proper support. 

We invite you to support EREF’s Programs Department and dedicated scholars like Zach by participating in our Fund-A-Need initiative. Engage with us in one of two meaningful ways: attend the WasteExpo Auction on May 8, located at Booth #653, at 3:00pm, or choose to make an immediate impact by donating online today. To learn more about EREF’s scholarship program, email scholarships@erefdn.org. Check EREF’s website often for updates about the program.

by Stephen Aber

About EREF

EREF is a 501(c)3 class charity that advances scientific research and creates educational pathways that enable innovation in sustainable waste management practices. For complete information on EREF-funded research, its scholarship program, and how to donate to this great cause, visit erefdn.org.

Media Contact:

Stephen Aber
Communications Manager
Email: saber@erefdn.org