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Detroit Mercy Chemistry student will be a voice at United Nations Climate Change Conference in Germany

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August 23, 2017

For most college students, being part of a United Nations conference seems like a dream, but for one University of Detroit Mercy student, that dream is coming true.

Chemistry major Justin Pothoof was selected through a national search to report on climate change at the 2017 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, in November. The conference will focus on the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

The American Chemical Society's (ACS) Committee on Environmental Improvement is sponsoring eight university students from across the United States to attend the conference and report about it via blog.

"This is really big," said Pothoof, whose interest is in renewable solar energy.

At the conference, he will have access to political leaders, scientists and policymakers from more than 190 countries to help him share stories and educate his peers around the world on the effects of climate change.

“I was stunned,” he said.  “I was surprised and humbled when I received the email of my acceptance. I was in the lab, about to extract pesticides from spinach, when I saw the message. I took off my gloves and picked up my phone. I stumbled into Dr. Evans' office, shaking — almost crying — trying to tell her, but I couldn’t. I handed her my phone.”

Pothoof, who is entering his senior year also serves as president of the Chemistry Club, first learned about this opportunity from a friend of Chemistry Chair Mark Benvenuto, during the ACS conference in San Francisco earlier this year. In his time at Detroit Mercy, Pothoof has attended five ACS conferences nationwide and will be attending his sixth this month.

The application process required an essay and sample blog. “I went above and beyond the requirement,” Pothoof recalled.  “I created a website and video. In the essay, I described how this opportunity was made for me.”

He credits his Detroit Mercy education and experience for this opportunity.  “What’s special about Detroit Mercy is the opportunities we present to our students," he explained. "You’re not going to get this elsewhere. I am able to pursue something that I really care about, and I get to try to make a change in the world.”

“Essentially, I’m going to be a news reporter,” he said.  “The whole idea about this is to spread awareness and education about climate change, especially to university students. A lot of people don’t receive this information or, due to the current political climate, it’s pushed away.”

Pothoof’s academic interest is inorganic chemistry with a focus on renewable energy.

“That’s where we have to go [renewable energy]," he said. "We don’t have a choice. At our current rate of consumption, we’ll run out of oil in the next 40 years. If we don’t find something soon, we’ll all be dirt poor trying to pay for gasoline.” 

“Everything centers around a good education,” he continued.  “We need to make sure all students, not just in our country, are educated on climate change so that they feel like they are in a position to make a change in the world.”

Pothoof will continue to blog following the conference until the national ACS meeting in New Orleans in March 2018.  At the meeting, he will present a poster, possibly run a symposium or present an oral presentation to spread awareness of climate change.

All of this comes at a cost.  The ACS covers the cost of the conference and handles the diplomatic arrangements. However, Pothoof is responsible for his travel, lodging and meals.  He has set up a GoFund Me page to support his expenses.

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