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Winter 2015

Getting to Know Scientists Undertaking Energy Challenges

How family, teachers, and a young inmate have inspired EFRC scientists

Rhesa Ledbetter

A few of the diverse individuals taking strides to meet the world’s energy challenges. 

Scientists and educators who were inspired to pursue their careers by family, teachers, and even a young inmate recently gathered at the Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) Principal Investigators Meeting in Washington, D.C., to share their research. Their backgrounds ranged from biology and chemistry, to engineering and physics. Each person within an EFRC has taken a different path, which results in unique perspectives and capabilities necessary for overcoming energy challenges. Although the EFRCs encompass a variety of scientific disciplines, a few individuals with a common focus in the biological sciences shared their backgrounds and thoughts on how EFRCs have played a special role in their careers.

Having spent her summer childhood days in the Canadian wilds, Anne-Frances Miller explored all that nature had to offer recalling, "The only rule was to be back by dinner." These experiences cultivated a love for seeking to understand how nature works, and she has used that passion to pursue a scientific career. Miller is a Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Kentucky and a thrust leader within the Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy) EFRC. She has spent her academic life using a variety of spectroscopic methods to individually monitor protein cofactors that unite to produce a given function and is now using that expertise within BETCy. She has found many benefits of working within an EFRC. "It's energizing to know there are complementary studies going on in other laboratories. It's good for group members to have counterparts who will appreciate the results they have obtained, but also whose work can keep a project moving forward even when their own approach is struggling over rough turf," she said. Miller also noted that identifying good problems with depth is critical to the success of an EFRC, and finding solutions to these problems could transform the way people think and pursue science in the future.

Venu Gopal Vandavasi's passion for science goes back as far as he can remember. "It's fascinating to crack basic questions. Most people see a basic phenomenon and don't question it, but I want to know why," he said. Vandavasi's sponsorship from his home country of India allowed him to pursue studies in math, physics, and chemistry. Now, as a postdoctoral research associate at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation (CLSF), he investigates the structural properties of an enzyme, which makes cellulose in plants.

Vandavasi said, "Some basic questions about how cellulose is made have remained challenging and unsolved for years." His recent work addresses fundamental questions of cellulose synthesis to better engineer the protein complex for biofuel research. Vandavasi believes that understanding the basic science is important in developing applications and appreciates the science he sees among the EFRCs. "There often seems to be a missing link between basic understanding and the way it is applied. I can see a good link here," he said.

Raised on a farm in Mexico, Fabiola Muro Villanueva recalls her father inspiring her interest in science. She is currently a third-year graduate student at Purdue University and part of the Center of Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio). Muro Villanueva, who has a background in biochemistry and genetics, spends most of her day at the lab bench studying and modifying cellular pathways to make biomass less recalcitrant to treatment methods for biofuel production. "The best part of working in an EFRC is that you are exposed to so many backgrounds," she said. For example, she works with chemical engineers—people and ideas she likely would have never encountered otherwise. Muro Villanueva also finds it rewarding to watch the progress within her EFRC and have other people excited about what they are doing.

Bob Blankenship, a native of rural Nebraska, recalls his mother, a high school teacher and librarian, initially fostering his love of science. "What I love about science is you are always uncovering new things," he said. Blankenship took his childhood passion for discovery and dedicated his career to understanding photosynthesis. As director of the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC), Blankenship and his team study how light is collected by phototrophs such as plants and how that energy is transferred. He noted that one of his favorite parts of working in an EFRC is the ability to bring in a wide range of people. "Investing in your team really pays off in the amount that gets done," he said. Blankenship finds himself fortunate to have a career he loves and advises early career scientists. "Find something you really enjoy doing that moves you and gets you excited."

Rachel Ruggirello, a native New Yorker, was inspired to pursue a science education career. While finishing her undergraduate degree in biology and sociology at Cornell University, she was working at a local juvenile detention center tutoring inmates for the GED test. One particular inmate could not read, and in an effort to understand why he was dedicating himself to passing the GED, she inquired. His reply was, "I want to learn, so I can be in the world." This was a pivotal moment, as she realized that education IS how we learn to be in the world. "We all need that guidance and motivation. It can change people's lives," said Ruggirello. She went on to pursue graduate studies in science education and currently works for the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC) as their Education and Outreach Specialist. She disseminates PARC research through workshops and resources for educators. The goal is to train teachers, so they can continue training others. She provides workshops and resources for educators to bring science to the classroom. The goal is to train teachers so they can continue training others. Ruggirello sees that scientists have much to share with their communities, and her vision is to provide resources and opportunities for the next generation.

EFRCs are allowing people with a variety of experiences and perspectives to work together for the common good. The people here have taken different paths to be where they are today, but all show dedication and passion for achieving energy solutions in ways that are just as unique as each individual.

Acknowledgments

The Energy Frontier Research Centers are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

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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.