CWU News

CWU Student Awarded $50,000 EPA Undergraduate Fellowship

Justin Rodriguez, a junior at Central Washington University, received a $50,000 EPA fellowship for his research in environmental chemistry. His mentor, chemistry professor Anne Johansen, encouraged him to apply for the award when he was a sophomore. Rodriguez was the only person in Washington State, and one of only two in the Pacific Northwest to receive this prestigious fellowship.

The award will provide funding for tuition, travel costs to EPA conferences, lab costs and a stipend for living expenses. As part of the fellowship, Rodriguez will attend a 12-week summer internship at an EPA’s Western Ecology Division Laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon. There he will assist in research to determine the potential effects of engineered nanoparticles on terrestrial ecosystem resources. In essence, he will be studying the effects of pollution from manufacturing processes and how they settle into soils.

“The nanoparticles may react with natural organic compounds, such as humic acids, in the presence of light,” he explained. “And in this way, they may be producing radical compounds that have a negative effect on the environment and biological systems.”

A participant in CWU’s Science Talent Expansion Program (STEP), Rodriguez has been working with Johansen on the toxicity of air pollution nanoparticles in cellular environments. For his EPA grant he will be focusing on the reaction of these nanoparticles in soils.

“He thinks carefully of what he is doing, and has excellent communication and organizational skills,” said Johansen. “These characteristics have allowed him to be effective at problem solving when left alone in lab. In 15 years of teaching, I consider him one of the best students I have encountered.”

A 2013 graduate of River Ridge High School near Olympia where he grew up, Rodriguez is from German and Puerto Rican descent. From a young age he was fascinated in the natural world and unlocking its secrets. Coming into college he knew he wanted to pursue a degree in science.

“I didn’t decide to pursue chemistry until I took Chemistry 181. I fell in love with its complexity and it ability to explain the world around us, and I knew it would be a good challenge”

Rodriguez plans to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry, and ultimately plans to work in an EPA facility solving environmental issues. 

“I hope to lead by example and open doors to more minorities getting into science in general.”

“With the help of this funding, undergraduates will be able to explore their passion in environmental science and cultivate their research skills,” said Thomas A. Burke, EPA science advisor and deputy assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Research and Development. “These fellows are the next generation of scientists, who will help lead the way in protecting the environment and public health.”

The EPA Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowships for Undergraduate Environmental Study winners receive fellowships of up to $50,000 for their last two years of undergraduate study and a three-month summer internship at an EPA facility.  By enhancing and supporting quality environmental education for undergraduate students, the GRO Undergraduate Fellowship encourages promising students to pursue careers in environmentally related fields and to continue their education beyond the baccalaureate level. For more information about the GRO fellowships, go to

Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, Public Affairs, 509-963-1518,
June 2, 2016