My Lab, My Canvas

April 7, 2016

by Shianne Fisher

Johnathan Culpepper stands in a lab wearing purple gloves and a lab coat

Johnathan Culpepper working in the lab. –Photo by Tim Schoon

Johnathan Culpepper, along with most of his family, was born with a love for art. And he’s quite good at it, even selling paintings to fund his undergraduate education at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York (MEC-CUNY). However, growing up on the coast in Trinidad and Tobago also helped nurture a love for the environment—and for science.

“All my life, I have heard, ‘You’re a very good artist. Why are you in science?’” says Culpepper. “And I’m like, what do you mean? If you know your own history, if you know the history of what we do—artists and scientists—there’s an overlap. There has always been an overlap. It’s just that in today’s society, it’s not necessarily embraced as much.”

Culpepper, who attributes his passion for science to his parents, remembers being interested in soil at a young age. “I would always tell my mom, ‘I’m investigating the dirt.’ It just so happens that I’m in a geochemistry lab after all of these years.”

A graduate research assistant at IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, he studies the contamination of groundwater aquifers by chlorinated solvents, which have been used in dry cleaning and degreasing since the 1930s. The investigation is led by IIHR researcher Michelle Scherer and funded through the Department of Defense Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP), which aims to clean up current and historical military areas.

“It’s not necessarily going to clean it up,” he says, “but it will be bringing our understanding closer to the pieces that may be needed to actually solve this problem.” Culpepper’s work, which focuses on the transformation of these chemicals into benign products in the soil and water, was recently featured in the National Science Foundation’s spotlight on its graduate research fellows during Black History Month.

While he doesn’t paint as much as he used to, Culpepper says he’s interested in data visualization, which to him is a form of art. “I really believe in getting a good marriage between scientific illustrations and engineering and that type of stuff,” he says. “I think some of the concepts that are very abstract can be very difficult for people to visualize, but I cannot learn them if I do not visualize them.”

Eventually, Culpepper also wishes to become a professor and illustrate his own textbooks. For now, though, he’s been writing and illustrating books on ethics and manners for his two daughters, with the help of his wife, Ruth.

He has also been invited by Deanne Wortman, the director of the University of Iowa College of Engineering’s NEXUS program, to prepare an art show in the future. He says the plan is to create images that start a conversation about the price of water, which to him is a family business of sorts. “So my father, a plumber, is making sure that the water reaches into somebody’s home, and I’m there in the laboratory insuring that we can clean up some of the mistakes that we have made.” His grandfather also works closely with water as a shed manager in the Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

Culpepper even bred fish and tended his own garden as a kid on the island. He says the connection between life and water is grossly apparent to him. “We have been devaluing this very precious commodity, and it’s going to get to the point that we’re starting to ration water until we get serious about how we are distributing it and how we are valuing it.”

View Culpepper’s second place painting “A Busy Day on the Moon,” which won NASA’s first Life and Work on the Moon art contest in 2008.