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April 2014

A Legacy of Mentorship and Societal Impact

An interview with Maureen McCann, Director of C3Bio.

Ryan Stolley

As director of the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels, Maureen McCann seeks to create a sustainable carbon economy compatible with today's infrastructure.

Fossil fuels are just that, fossils: ancient remains of biological matter left for millennia decomposing under extreme conditions into a plethora of useful organic compounds. However, utilization of these limited supplies is a one-way street, and this street leads to compounding carbon emissions and subsequent global warming. Burgeoning technologies such as wind and solar attempt to mitigate carbon emission by reducing our need for combustion processes. In a complementary approach, the researchers at the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels, or C3Bio—led by Maureen McCann—seek to create a sustainable carbon economy compatible with current infrastructure. A recent interview with McCann revealed the mission of C3Bio, her thoughts on the future energy landscape, and chocolate.

C3Bio is an Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) composed of researchers from Purdue University, Argonne National Laboratory, University of Tennessee, and Northeastern University that focuses on biomass to biofuel conversion. This is done in two major thrusts: 1) developing synthetic biological systems, namely plants, to fix atmospheric carbon in a controlled manner, and 2) devising chemical methods to convert this biomass into useful chemical feedstocks.

"It's about how to structure molecules within plant cell walls and how to restructure that carbon into the fuels and the chemicals you want," said McCann.

Her parents, civil servants, instilled a sense of wonder and a love of science, albeit with a little help from Sherlock Holmes and Star Trek's Spock. This tradition of instilling wonder is alive in McCann and apparent when discussing her desire to mentor students and other young scientists.

"The lasting legacy of EFRCs is in the nurturing of early career scientists," she insisted.

Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, she began her academic career as an undergraduate in natural sciences at the University of Cambridge. She then completed her Ph.D. in botany at the John Innes Centre, a government-funded research institute in the United Kingdom for plant and microbial sciences, where she stayed for a postdoctoral appointment. During her graduate and post-graduate work, she became fascinated by how plants were able to assemble individual molecules into complex multifunctional systems, namely in cell walls.

Upon receiving a prestigious Royal Society University Research Fellowship, which allowed her to set up her own research group, she began her pursuit of understanding these systems. She later came to realize that these systems, if properly controlled, could be an excellent renewable source of carbon for biofuels and fine chemicals in a greater capacity than the cellulosic ethanol already so heavily pursued.

When asked why she moved to Purdue in 2003, she said it was the obvious choice. While she enjoyed her work at the John Innes Centre, the opportunity to work at an institution with a strong foundation in plant sciences and energy-related fields was too good to pass up, apparent by her move halfway around the world. Once at Purdue, her role in C3Bio came about organically. "With a legacy of plant sciences at a world-renowned engineering school, the biomass to biofuels pipeline makes perfect sense," McCann remarked.

With 24 co-investigators spread over several institutions, McCann has a simple view on managing such a large number of high-profile scientists. "When you assemble a team and you've got very creative individuals within that team, and they buy into the vision of the Center; it becomes self-sustaining. Their energy and the intellectual rigor they bring becomes the fuel for the Center, and it just feeds itself. Although, I do probably stick a poker into the flames occasionally," she said. 

A normal day at work for McCann begins with sorting through a nightmare-inducing amount of emails and organizing the rainbow abyss of a saturated weekly calendar. This is a result of not only directing C3Bio, but also running her own research group focused on synthetic biology with an emphasis on cell-wall biosynthesis and structure. She is also teaching eukaryotic genetics this semester. If that wasn't enough, McCann is also director of Purdue's Energy Center, a one-stop shop for outside investors and stakeholders interested in a variety of energy-related sciences at Purdue. She is quick to note that it is not at all a problem, and she enjoys her career and all its trappings.

Outside of work, she volunteers with high school students and teachers in the summer Energy Academy, inspiring and teaching about all things energy.

How does she find the motivation and energy to accomplish so much? "It's about being engaged in something that is grand-challenge science with societal impact. There is no greater challenge currently than the issue of climate change and the security of our climate and knock-on effects of national and energy security. Being engaged in research that addresses that, I think, is tremendously rewarding."

While she enjoys what she does, managing the minutia day to day can be distracting. In her ideal workday she would start the day with the door closed to focus on a singular scientific problem and to think about it in depth.

"I would have an unlimited supply of very high-quality chocolate and the coffee machine on the bubble." She continued, "The other half of the day would consist of getting together with my colleagues and brainstorming about a new result that had been obtained." This is a day to which most busy scientists would probably aspire.

Of course, even the most dedicated scientist, which definitely describes McCann, cannot work all the time. In a dream day away from work, McCann would hike around in alpine Switzerland; no doubt with another batch of high-quality chocolate.

As we reach a critical point in our world's climate future and as the technologies to address current problems are reaching maturity, McCann forecasts that the energy landscape in the next 25 to 50 years will see renewable energy sources such as wind and solar widely implemented. Further, chemical feedstocks will be provided from synthetic biological systems and subsequent chemical transformations.

She said, "The solutions to these great changes will come from science and technological innovations. I have great faith in the ingenuity of scientists, engineers, and technologists to transform our future."

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Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.