Josephs-Spaulding kneeling in a field holding a plant
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This Pitt-Bradford alum is fighting metal pollution with microbes

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Perched on his grandmother’s porch just north of Kingston, Jamaica, and gazing into the tall grass around him was a summer day well spent for Jonathan Josephs-Spaulding as a child. While his five siblings ran around the property, he locked his vision on the perennials to detect movements from insects. Here, he found small but significant lives and worlds.

“I have fond memories of Jamaica and my grandma, who’s terribly afraid of lizards and moths,” said Josephs-Spaulding (UPB ’16). “As a kid, I was keen on capturing and observing them. I was her little wrangler of tropical creatures.”

Josephs-Spaulding’s early introduction to the outdoors led to an affinity with nature, and in a way, his current role as a post-doctoral fellow with the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability in Denmark. There, he’s tackling “the big problems of tomorrow” by focusing on metal biology.

“Metal pollution is a significant issue in many places,” said Josephs-Spaulding recalling his travels to Jamaica, China, Pennsylvania and the Appalachians, and noting places he’s yet to visit, like Bangladesh, where landfill fires and coal are pressing issues.

“Many people are born into environments with a lot of pollutants,” he said. “I’m interested in them  the people exposed and want to develop microbes that can be applied, perhaps in agriculture or in soil, that basically eat and turn the toxic metal into an energy source to produce something better.”

The native of Henryville, Pennsylvania, moved to Denmark after defending his doctoral dissertation at the University of Kiel in Germany in March 2022. His journey also included a stop at Johns Hopkins for a master’s in environmental health science where he paired environmental studies with medicine and met his future employers as a research assistant developing and collecting microbiome-associated data relating to asthma in urban youth. 

However, Josephs-Spaulding credits his time at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford as a biology and environmental studies major for enabling him to cultivate his interests and discover his calling.

“Our generation didn’t have a Great Depression or civil war, but we have the environmental crisis,” he said. “Climate change and pollution are serious and what we’re facing right now. Investment and commitment to having serious approaches to combat these issues is [my goal and] the ultimate battle of our generation.”

Local education and inspiration

Josephs-Spaulding prioritizes the community values fostered by his family and tight-knit town and, for this reason, said attending college at Pitt-Bradford was ideal.

“I wanted to know the person next to me; I wanted to know my professors because that was my reality as a kid. Pitt-Bradford provided professors and colleagues who were like family.”

The small class sizes made him feel visible, while people like his advisor and associate professor of biology Om Singh, encouraged him to explore the field of applied microbiology with a freedom and flexibility he didn’t think possible at a larger institution.

“Often, if you’re interested in biology, that’s the only topic you’re encouraged to study,” he said. “[At Pitt-Bradford], anything is possible. I was able to talk to professors about my interests in medicine, ecology and being in nature. Once I got my hands on programming, I had the space to combine all of that and develop my education and degree, which was really rewarding.”

[Here’s how Pitt biologists are making fieldwork more equitable and accessible]

The people he encountered both in and outside the classroom continued to fuel his vision of a more interconnected world and opened his eyes to others’ experiences and how he could positively impact them.

As a visa program mentor, he guided international students and met his best friend. As president of the environmental studies club, he enjoyed conversations with like-minded members.

And that childhood intrigue with insects in Jamaica has evolved into a desire to “spend time with different cultures and viewpoints, and appreciate cultures and languages,” he said.

Having lived in Europe since 2017, he’s now fluent in German and spends his time gardening on a friend’s farm in Sweden growing green beans, cucumbers, pumpkins and Jamaican scotch bonnets. The latter offers a taste of home and is a reminder of sacrifices of his ancestors, particularly his mother who was the first of her family to study abroad. More than that, it’s a reminder of the power of education.

After obtaining my education in America, I was able to study and travel the world, which shows that education is quite powerful and opens up limitless opportunities,” said Josephs-Spaulding. And no matter where he is, That’s something I don’t forget.”

 

— Kara Henderson, photo courtesy of Jonathan Josephs-Spaulding