Picture of William Tarpeh.William Tarpeh is a doctoral candidate in the Civil and Environmental Engineering program at UC Berkeley, where he spends several hours per day in a lab working with urine.

“Urine is pretty special because a lot of the nutrients found in it are the same nutrients found in fertilizers,” he said.

William is researching ways to extract those nutrients and repurpose them. He’s already developed an electrochemical cell that can extract nitrogen from urine, turn it into a gas, and combine it with water to make fertilizer. Next, he wants to develop a large-scale system for urine collection in sub-Saharan African countries. This could help grow crops to feed the hungry, while selling the fertilizer could fund more toilets in countries where sanitation systems are lacking. 

“It’s a really cool project because we’re working on the science side of things, but we also have the real-world application,” he said.

William grew up in Alexandria, Va., and attended CTY’s residential Summer Programs as a seventh and eighth grader, taking courses in mathematical logic and cryptology. “I was in love with code making, and in this course, I learned about code making from the beginning—from Caesar ciphers all the way to Enigma machines in WWII,” he said. “I didn’t know it then, but CTY was expanding my mind beyond the basic subjects I was learning in school. This wasn’t strictly math, science, history, or English, but something I dug that combined the four in a cool way."

Video courtesy of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

In seventh grade, he had the chance to appear on his favorite TV show, Jeopardy!, during Kids Week.

“I used to watch it every night because I loved learning and trying to answer the questions from my couch,” he said. After a series of auditions, he and his family were invited to Hollywood, where William faced off against another middle-school-aged boy and girl on categories including “Broadway” and “Breakfast Cereals.” William missed the Final Jeopardy question, which asked for the English translation of a German word. (The answer: polar bear). But he still won the day, earning $11,200. “I got to keep it and put it away for college,” he said.

The money, along with a scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, helped William pursue his dreams of attending Stanford, where he majored in chemical engineering and minored in African studies, bringing his science training into cultural focus. He said he’s always looking for ways to apply the technical aspects of his research to real-world problems.

“I just finished the Malcolm Gladwell book The Tipping Point, and really liked it—but as a researcher, the whole time I was reading it thinking, How can we do that for sanitation?” He’ll look for answers to that question during a visit to Nairobi, Kenya this summer.  —Katy Bowman