Two Ohio State scientists got early career awards; now they're trying to save the Earth: BTN LiveBIG

Two Ohio State scientists got early career awards; now they're trying to save the Earth: BTN LiveBIG

Early success in your chosen field is always welcome. When that success has a little money attached to it, it’s even better.

Two Ohio State University assistant professors and researchers were recently awarded 2017 Department of Energy (DOE) Early Career Awards: Kelly Wrighton, for her work in microbiology, and Hannah Shafaat, for her research into biochemistry. Wrighton has been studying methane in soil while Shafaat is examining how CO and CO2 and be converted into fuel.

We spoke to them via e-mail about the future of their work, thanks to the impact of these grants.

BTN LiveBIG: Can you give a layperson’s explanation of the work that you do? What sorts of discoveries or innovation might come from this?

Kelly Wrighton

Kelly Wrighton: Methane is an important greenhouse gas, significantly more potent that carbon dioxide. Our work challenges current assumptions about how microorganisms that produce methane “behave” in natural systems. This newly defined activity has consequences at the global scale, as methane emissions from these wetland systems contribute to about 40% of the methane emitted to the atmosphere. Our research will provide new insights into this microbial catalyzed methane production, and…enable better predictions of greenhouse gas production from this climatically relevant ecosystem.

Hannah Shafaat: The central goal of this project is to develop proteins that can convert CO2, a greenhouse gas and the product of fossil fuel combustion, into energy-rich compounds, with relevance for development of carbon-neutral, sustainable fuels. Two exciting things we could hope to see from this project are 1) reduction of atmospheric CO2, because that would mean our system could be useful under ambient conditions (and not just at the exhaust port of a coal plant) and 2) the formation of new carbon-carbon bonds using our proteins, which would make them useful catalysts.

BTN LiveBIG: How will this grant help your future work?

Wrighton: This research support will allow me to translate the observational work to more mechanistic studies conducted in the laboratory. This research project currently supports two graduate students and will be expanded to a third, as well as allow me to hire a post-doctoral researcher. Included in the grant is summer salary for two undergraduates to conduct authentic microbiology research. Additionally the concepts studied here, and the data generated, will be applied to my environmental microbiology course, thus providing training to around 40 undergraduate students each year.

Hannah Shafaat

Shafaat: This grant allows us to expand our efforts into the chemically rich world of carbon. We are developing proteins that can convert the greenhouse gas CO2—a product of fossil-fuel combustion—into energy-rich compounds. Our research can ultimately lead towards developing carbon-neutral, sustainable fuels.

BTN LiveBIG: How has OSU been a good home for the work you’re doing?

Wrighton: I enjoy working at disciplinary boundaries and find my research is strengthened by interdisciplinary research teams. OSU being a top university brings experts across a range of disciplines together to develop new scientific projects. This project, is one example of those, which was developed by ideas and insights from faculty in microbiology, engineering, and earth science.

Shafaat: Ohio State offers two of the most important elements for an assistant professor who is getting started– great students and excellent resources. The emphasis and support for tenure-track professors to cultivate first-rate research programs, as expected for the state’s flagship land-grant university, was also a huge draw.

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