ASU grad has a love of the natural world and chemistry

ASU grad Charles Howell stands outside in front of desert mountains

Charles Howell is graduating with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the School of Molecular Sciences.


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Charles Howell, who hails from Garden City, Michigan, has a love of the natural world and chemistry. Howell is graduating this spring with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences.

“In my undergraduate research I studied the transformations of organic molecules in hot water,” Howell said. “This is a useful analog to hot springs or deep sea hydrothermal vents.”

Howell’s advisor is Everett Shock, a professor in School of Molecular Sciences and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. Shock’s group, GEOPIG (Group Exploring Organic Processes in Geochemistry), explores Earth environments in the field, lab and computer, to better understand how geochemical processes provide the energy and nutrients that support Earth’s microbiomes. They use what they learn to conceptualize how other planets, especially ocean worlds, may support life.

Howell researched a few different processes in hydrothermal organic geochemistry (HOG). He started by assisting a graduate student with their project in studying the hydrothermal decomposition of amino acids and hydroxy acids.

Soon after this he developed his own project aiming at developing a green chemistry way to break down plastics that mimics processes that occur naturally.

“Another project I am working on studies how useful the detection and quantification of organic molecules is at inferring conditions on other worlds like Enceladus or Europa,” says Howell.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: When I was in high school, I had a teacher who really ignited my interest in chemistry; this teacher was very enthusiastic and encouraged my curiosity in the topics. I am currently researching how organic molecules behave in natural settings. This combines my love for the natural world and chemistry. 

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: At ASU one thing that changed my perspective is how complicated the natural world is. Natural systems are incredibly complex and beautiful. At any scale it is without difficulty to spend hours pondering the process that led to this very moment and what will follow. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because I have lived in Arizona since high school. However, ASU is a wonderful school for what I want to study!

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: The professor that taught me more than one important lesson is Everett Shock. He has taught me a lot about how to talk to others about my own research.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: To those still in school I would advise you to really think about what it is you want. Is the path you are going on the correct one for what you desire? Is there an easier path? Is there a more fruitful path? You may not even know what you want yet, which is normal. Just think about why you are doing what you are doing, and try to justify it.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is anywhere there is ample shade, preferably trees.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation I am pursuing my PhD in chemistry.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: There are not many global problems that can be entirely solved with $40 million. I would use this money to build infrastructure for clean drinking water in areas where clean drinking water is inaccessible. Although this is not a solution, it would help with such a vital issue.

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