Assistant Professor and Coors Developmental Chair, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Briefly describe your research for campus community who may not be familiar with your work.
The main focus of my research is to engineer cells to produce chemicals that either traditionally come from petroleum products (biofuels) or are found in dilute concentrations in nature, like plant secondary metabolites used for pharmaceuticals or nutrient supplements. The majority of my work focuses on the use of cyanobacteria or algae to do this because they can convert carbon dioxide from the environment directly, which makes them a much more sustainable source of these products. We also develop mathematical models of metabolism to help us rationally engineer the cell; these models allow us to run simulations to model the impact of genetic changes in the cell instead of having to do it all in the lab, saving hundreds of hours of lab time.
How and when did you get interested in pursuing research?
I grew up on a dairy in Arizona and my summer job was to weigh the trucks of corn silage (a feed for the cows) as we harvested it. I also had to track yields for each field so we had a record of how each crop performed. The year we grew Bt corn, a genetically modified strain which is resistant to worms, our yields increased substantially. It was right then that I became fascinated with genetic engineering and how we can use it to increase yields and nutrient contents and design crops that can handle environmental stressed better. This is why my research is still mainly focused on photosynthetic organisms, I want my research to have some tie to what sparked my initial interest in genetic engineering.
What role did undergraduate research experience play in shaping your career?
When I was an undergraduate student at Arizona State University, there was not many opportunities to do undergraduate research in labs on campus, so I sought out opportunities elsewhere. I was an undergraduate intern at the USDA water and soil research laboratory in Phoenix where I studied irrigation of date palms and how the soil type affected irrigation. The project involved travel to California to take water and soil samples in 120F heat and from 5 AM-5PM; thankfully I was used to those conditions from my farm background but it helped me to understand that research is demanding and you can’t always plan experiments to fit into normal working conditions. I also participated in an REU at Colorado State University and that is where I really fell in love with research; I was in a lab setting, my project was something I had ownership of and it was really fun.
What are the most rewarding aspects of doing research and how you sustain them?
For me, there are two main reasons I like research. The first is that I like to mentor students and see the ‘aha moment’ when they finally grasp a difficult subject or when an experiment they have been struggling with finally works. The second is I really like answering questions nobody has answered before and learning something new every day; part of the thrill (and sometimes it is the challenge) is never knowing what you are going to encounter that day.
What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they would not learn by just taking classes?
Resilience! In my group we try to engineer biology, and unfortunately sometimes biology fights back. As chemical engineers, we are used to turning a valve and having it stay where we put it, but when we try to engineer biology we are turning valves by changing expression of enzymes but more often than not the cell finds a way to return the ‘valve’ to the original position.
My students also learn how to integrate their knowledge of biology and engineering – I think not a lot of Mines students understand that this is a possibility but we can use the same types of models we apply to chemical plants to redesign cellular metabolism to make products we want.
What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?
For any student interested in doing undergraduate research, I would tell them not to give up. It can be difficult to find a position in a lab, but just keep trying; when your experiments don’t work, don’t give up. For those specifically interested in metabolic engineering and synthetic biology, I would suggest that they take courses in biochemistry, microbiology and genetics. Find a research position (even if it isn’t in the field you want to pursue in graduate school). Join the Mines iGEM (international genetically engineered machine) team!
What kind of academic training, if any, will help the undergraduates that are interested in pursuing research with you?
A lot of students think they need to have extensive knowledge of biology, but that isn’t the case. Most of the time, students learn everything they need to know while in the lab. That being said, students who have taken CBEN 321 Genetics have a major advantage because they have already learned a lot of the skills necessary to be successful in my lab. Professor Ramey does a fantastic job embedding real research questions into the class.
Share with us any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?
Research is hard. No matter how good you are, you will face a lot of rejection and failures. Thankfully, my parents taught me not to be afraid of failure. One of my mom’s favorite sayings was “you have a no, why not try for yes?” Having this mindset helps because I don’t feel like I lost anything by trying and if it does work, it is just icing on the cake.
Also, I have a quote on my wall from Theodore Roosevelt “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” I look at this every time I get a rejection letter about a grant to keep me optimistic.
What skills do undergraduate students develop in the process of conducting research in your lab?
My lab has two main types of projects: experimental and computational. Students working in the lab learn either molecular biology skills (DNA extraction, PCR, cloning, screening and selection of mutants, etc) or analytical chemistry (GC/MS and LC/MS/MS). Computational projects require the students to learn about bioinformatics and computer programming (R, python, Matlab).
What advice do you have for students to overcome failures and setbacks in research?
I remember vividly as a graduate student I had a hard time just getting my algae to grow. I called home one day and was telling my dad about how frustrated I was and he said “If it was easy it would be called search, not research.” To this day, I think about that every time I have a setback or am facing a challenge. We are doing something that is difficult, but part of the reason we are interested in doing it is because it is difficult.