Major: Biological Sciences
“Overproduction of Fatty Acids in Cellvibrio japonicus”
Current concerns about the environmental impact and increasing cost of petroleum-based fuels have led to an increased interest in fuels produced from renewable technology. A promising approach is that of the consolidated bioprocessor (CBP), a biofuel-producing microorganism that uses plant biomass as a feedstock. To create a CBP, one must find an organism that can natively perform one of the two essential functions of a CBP: degradation of plant biomass or production of biofuels. This project will utilize the saprophytic soil bacterium Cellvibrio japonicus, which has the robust ability to completely depolymerize plant cell wall polysaccharides, making it an ideal platform for the production of valuable chemicals including biofuels. Using synthetic biology, this project aims to create a consolidated bioprocessing form of C. japonicus that will make fatty acid derived biofuels. Capitalizing on this lab’s knowledge of genetic manipulation of C. japonicus, this project aims to eliminate the bottlenecks and competing pathways in C. japonicus in the process of fatty acid production. Using a combination of gene deletions and heterologous gene expression, we will create C. japonicus strains that overproduce fatty acids. Via biochemical and cell growth assays, we will evaluate fatty acid production and compare the success of C. japonicus as a CBP against other fatty acid overproduction strains from the literature.
How did you find your mentor for year research?
I have been an undergraduate student researcher in Dr. Gardner’s lab since Fall 2013.
How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?
When I joined this lab, I was excited to be able to contribute to the development of biofuels as an alternative energy source. The project that I am working on contributes directly to research into biofuels. It focuses on developing the Cellvibrio japonicus bacteria into a consolidated bioprocessor, an organism that can both digest tough cellulosic plant mass and produce fatty acids, which can be used to create biodiesel and other valuable chemical products.
Is this your first independent research project?
Yes, this is my first independent research project.
Do you get course credit for this work?
I do get course credit for this work, as it counts as one of my upper-level Biology lab courses.
How much time do you put into it?
During the school year, I put about 10 hours a week into the project, and during the summer I put around 25 hours a week into the project.
How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award (URA) program?
My mentor, Dr. Gardner, encouraged me to apply for the URA.
What academic background did you have before you applied for the URA?
Before applying for the URA, I had completed all of the Biology core courses, as well as various upper-level Biology courses, including 306L, a lab course that introduces core concepts of molecular biology, and a semester of research in the Gardner lab. I had also begun taking Bio 434 and 414, two classes that focus on analysis of scientific research papers.
Was the application difficult to do?
The application was very straightforward.
How much did your mentor help you with the application?
My mentor provided valuable critiques for each draft of the application I wrote.
What has been the hardest part about your research?
The hardest part about the research is being able to accurately write or talk about it!
How does your research relate to your work in other classes?
I have found that having a foundation of basic laboratory skills makes understanding a wide range of biological concepts much easier, since research papers and discoveries in the field are usually based on work in a laboratory. Having an understanding of how one experiment can lead to a certain result makes it easy to extrapolate and imagine how a similar experiment could lead to another discovery – or to find fault in the methods used or the way the paper was written. The perspective I have gained from working in the lab helps me to appreciate scientific discoveries in a deeper way.
What else are you involved in on campus?
I am a member of Alpha Sigma Kappa, Women in Technical Studies, and a member of UMBC Rockets and More.
What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
Be persistent! There are so many wonderful professors around campus who conduct exciting research, so if you are interested in getting involved in research, the best option is to become familiar with the work of several professors and reach out to them to inquire about doing research in their lab. You can learn so much from doing research that you would never learn in a classroom, and you will be able to work more independently in the lab than you would in a formal classroom setting.
What are your career goals?
I would like to work in a laboratory for a year or so after graduating before deciding on an area of focus and applying to graduate school.