Eagle Scout researcher turning trash into treasure … and sharing his knowledge with Scouts

Two things have guided Eagle Scout Travis Williams throughout most of his life: science and Scouting.

Now, as both a professor of chemistry at USC and a Scouting volunteer, Williams is combining the best of those worlds, doing ground-breaking work on the recycling of plastic waste, and letting Scouts at a nearby council camp participate in and learn more about the process.

A paper published in Angewandte Chemie, a top chemistry journal, details how Williams and his team collected plastic waste from the shores of Catalina Island, treated it with a catalyst and ended up with materials that can be used in pharmaceuticals.

You can read the paper yourself, but the core is this: They’ve figured out how to convert trash into medicine.

In this case, the trash came from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of litter that floats around the ocean and occasionally washes up on Catalina Island off the coast of California, southwest of Los Angeles.

The acknowledgements section of the paper includes a shoutout to the Boy Scouts of America.

That’s because also on Catalina Island is Camp Cherry Valley, a BSA camp operated by the Greater Los Angeles Area Council. Members of Williams’ research team teach science-related merit badge classes at Cherry Valley’s summer camp. And the Scouts collect trash from the beach for Williams’ lab.

Campers at Cherry Valley collected and contributed more than 20 pounds of ocean-sourced plastic waste to make the research project possible.

“We have reaped some really good scientific benefits from our relationship with Scouting,” says Williams.

Longtime Scouter and scientist

Williams earned his Eagle in 1994 when he lived in Houston. Four years later, he earned a Bachelor of Science from the California Institute of Technology. Six years after that, he earned a Ph.D. from Stanford.

Everywhere he moved, all along the way, he stayed involved with Scouting, holding positions such as Scoutmaster, council commissioner and district chair. He once ran an astronomy program at summer camp.

Now, he teaches organic and organometallic chemistry and operates the Travis J. Williams Research Group, dedicated to using chemistry to solve everyday problems.

“If we want to change the way the world works, we need new chemical reactions to do things that we are not currently able to do,” he says.

Williams works regularly with the National Science Foundation, an agency that works hard to engage young people in science and engineering.

“Where are the young people?” Williams says. “Well, they’re at summer camp. And Scouting has a wonderful curriculum we can utilize.”

Last summer, Williams paid two of his students to teach STEM-related badges at Cherry Valley with grant money from National Science Foundation under the category of public outreach.

Each week, Scouts from camp hiked around 4 miles to take a tour of the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island.

“We have a great working relationship with the Wrigley facility out on Catalina,” says Cherry Valley camp director Matt Thornton. “All of those STEM merit badges became big, in-demand classes.”

Changing the world

One of the camp staffers was Alexa Cueva, a USC undergrad student who took one of Williams’ classes. Cueva taught the Sustainability, Inventing and Entrepreneurship merit badges.

(An accomplished college archer, she also helped out as needed at the archery range.)

“We’d walk them out (to the marine science center) as part of hike day,” Cueva says. “They’d tour the facilities, and we’d show them some experiments.

“And on the way back, we’d do some trash pickup.”

(Thornton says they tried to get Cueva to come back and work at the camp next summer, but she already has a job: She’s currently on the district staff of the Western Los Angeles Council.)

“We show them the hyperbaric chamber … take them down 30 feet and pop their ears and show them how we do emergency medicine on dive accidents,” says Williams. “We show them how we deal with water preservation, how we treat endangered marine species, and how we work with hazardous materials.”

The trash collected by the Scouts got hauled back to Williams’ office, where he and his colleagues converted it into materials that can be used to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and resistant infections.

Williams’ daughter is just a few months away from being old enough to be a Lion Cub Scout. When that happens, he says he’s leaning toward taking a break from his other Scouting duties and becoming a full-time Cubmaster.

In the meantime, he’ll have more camp staffers at Cherry Valley next summer … and beyond.

“I have a strong motivation to show young people what modern chemistry does,” Williams says. “It’s easily understood – it was trash on the beach, now it’s medicine. But you can’t just do a flyby. It has to be immersive.

“Philmont is a 10-day immersive experience. Summer camp is a 5-day immersive experience. This is an immersive experience with someone who’s deeply knowledgeable.”

Dr. Williams collects trash from the shores of Catalina Island. Photo courtesy of USC

About Aaron Derr 421 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.