By Dianna Douglas
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Samuel Greene is not the kind of scientist who’s afraid to get his hands dirty.

In his quest to devise studies on the environment and climate change, the fourth-year chemistry student has tracked methane emissions from lakes in Alaska, sought catalysts for converting biomass to biofuel, and developed statistical methods for analyzing radioactive materials.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to do research related to the environment,” Greene says. “I think one of the reasons I chose the University of Chicago was because there are so many opportunities to be involved in research as an undergraduate.”

His interest in using chemistry to answer tough questions about the natural environment and climate change got a big boost on Nov. 23, when Greene was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to continue his studies at the University of Oxford next fall. He is one of 32 American students to win the Rhodes scholarship this year, and the 49th winner from the University of Chicago.

“We are enormously proud of the intellectual leadership and creativity of students in the College, and Sam’s outstanding achievement is a testament to those qualities,” says John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “I am extremely happy that Sam will have the chance to continue developing the innovative and highly original scientific work that he began at the College.”

Putting environment in international context

Greene says the opportunity to study with the chemists at Oxford will be of great benefit to his own environmental interests. He will graduate from UChicago next spring with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s in physical chemistry. The Rhodes Trust will pay all his expenses at Oxford to pursue a research-based master’s degree in physical and theoretical chemistry.

“They are conducting fundamental research at Oxford with applications to my interest in developing renewable energy technologies,” he says. Greene, who also won a prestigious Goldwater Fellowship last April for students in the sciences, hopes to not only work on scientific solutions to environmental issues, but also to engage in public outreach and education about climate change.

He will be addressing an issue that has implications far beyond the borders of the United States. “I’m very excited to have the opportunity to study these issues in an international context,” he says.

Numerous faculty members have worked with Greene on this research, including David Archer, professor of geophysical sciences. “Sam is a self-directed and self-motivated student, in addition to being very smart,” Archer says. Greene has worked as a teaching assistant this quarter for Archer's online course on climate change, which currently serves 12,000 students.

Odyssey Scholarship supported studies

Greene attended UChicago with the help of an Odyssey Scholarship for students from families with modest income. Outside the classroom, he spent many hours in Zen meditation—an interest he picked up from his parents, who run a Zen training facility in Greene’s hometown of Spring Green, Wis.

The spiritual practice has been especially beneficial to Greene as he contends with the effects of cerebral palsy. Having this disability as a university student “has not been an issue for me,” he says. “I’ve gotten accommodations when necessary, and my professors have been fine.”

This year’s list of Rhodes Scholars was announced late Saturday, Nov. 23. Greene didn’t have much time to let the impact of his win sink in—the following morning, he was back at work, analyzing data on how Alaskan lakes will change in a warmer world. 

Originally published on November 25, 2013.