Stamps Scholar uses chemistry, math to address environmental issues 

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A male student dressed in a gray suit jacket and white button-down shirt stands on the Mercer campus.
Nuren Lara. Mercer University photo

At Mercer University, Nuren Lara has been able to develop and apply his love of environmental science. The Stamps Scholar is dedicated to research that addresses environmental issues and hopes to one day become a college professor.

When it came to deciding on a college, Lara narrowed down his choices to Mercer and another top Georgia school. But after participating in Heritage Scholars Weekend, he knew Mercer was the right fit. He was drawn to the University’s warm atmosphere, kind professors, and the wide range of classes that would be available to him. 

“I’ve always had an interest in environmental science as a whole,” said Lara, a senior chemistry major and mathematics minor from Cartersville. “l came into Mercer wanting to be a doctor, and when I started doing research here and taking more chemistry classes, I found that my passion lied more in chemistry, and I switched my major and career goals.”

Lara has done research with chemistry professors Dr. Caryn Seney and Dr. Adam Kiefer that mainly focuses on lixiviants, which are chemicals used to extract certain elements from ores or minerals. 

“Here, we study how different chemical mixtures that are used in gold mining leach out other heavy metals, like lead or mercury,” Lara said. 

He has been involved in the ongoing project to monitor the release of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, both in the Mercer lab and abroad during Mercer On Mission trips to Guyana in 2022 and 2023. In Guyana, he was instrumental in quantifying and mapping the mercury pollution from gold shops and verifying that the University’s patented Mercury Capture System was working as intended, Dr. Kiefer said. 

“Nuren is brilliant; he is truly a deep thinker and a polymath,” Dr. Kiefer said. “His ability to view a scientific problem through multiple lenses, not only using his training in chemistry and math but also through the social sciences and humanities makes him an invaluable asset to any research team.”

A group of students talks with a man as they walk down a dirt path.
Nuren Lara (front of group) and other Mercer students are shown during the 2023 Mercer On Mission trip to Guyana. Photo by Dr. Adaline Buerck.

Lara has also assisted Dr. Kiefer and Dr. Seney in their research to develop faster, lower-cost methods for measuring lead levels in new paint, Dr. Kiefer said. This academic year, Lara is expanding upon the lixiviant research, Dr. Seney said. 

“Nuren has been an invaluable student because his devotion and commitment are irreplaceable,” Dr. Seney said. “He is dedicated to understanding the science he studies; collaborates well, cares for others’ ability to learn difficult concepts, and is a genuinely kind, hard-working and naturally curious person. I must admit I am ever so thankful I have him in the research lab with me. He thinks in sophisticated ways — well beyond his years.”

In addition, Lara participated in the WAVE research program in summer 2022 and the Amgen Scholars program last summer, both at California Institute of Technology. He studied corrosion of electrodes used in solar water splitting cells during the WAVE research program and the application of electrochemistry to turn carbon dioxide into valuable chemicals as an Amgen scholar.

“My goal now is to meld together the two things, lixiviants and leaching of heavy metals and seeing how I can study that with the more electrochemical techniques I’ve learned over the past two summers,” Lara said. 

Outside his classes, Lara is vice president of the Math Club and Mercer’s American Chemical Society chapter, which was restarted last semester and plans to offer science outreach activities for kids in the community, he said. 

“One of my favorite things about Nuren is that he truly will be a lifelong learner,” Dr. Seney said. “He doesn’t take his abilities, talents or learning for granted; he possesses a natural drive and propensity for learning. In essence, he takes courses and does research for the desire and excitement of learning.”

After graduation, Lara plans to go to graduate school to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry, with the long-term goal of becoming a professor at a research-focused liberal arts school. 

“Nuren will be successful in whatever field he chooses to pursue and has the capacity and potential to be a leader in that field,” Dr. Kiefer said. “I believe he has the knowledge and drive to go on and do great things but (with) the wisdom to apply this knowledge in addressing some of the bigger problems that the world faces today.”

 

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