A group of students poses with ORNL staff
Some of the GEM Fellows who interned at ORNL over the summer, along with their mentors. First row, from left: Kristopher Hawkins, Riley Harrison, Stella Belony, and Center for Bioenergy Innovation Chief Scientist Brian Davison. Second row, from left: Gavin Hough, CBI Director and CEO Jerry Tuskan, mentor Tomas Rush, and mentor John Field. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

GEM Fellows gain experience in biofuels research at Center for Bioenergy Innovation

The Center for Bioenergy Innovation hosted four students as part of the GEM Consortium Fellowship Program this summer, broadening the experiences and skills of young scientists while bringing fresh perspectives to CBI’s headquarters at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The CBI interns joined a total of 32 GEM Fellows of diverse backgrounds from top-tier universities for practical research and development experiences this summer across ORNL, the largest multidisciplinary lab in the Department of Energy national laboratory system.

“We were thrilled to host these exceptional young scientists from diverse backgrounds at the lab this summer,” said Brian Davison, ORNL’s chief scientist for systems biology and biotechnology. “The experience helps affirm and shape students’ view of a STEM career, introducing them to an area like DOE’s mission science in bioenergy, plant biology and synthetic biology that they might not have considered previously. The excitement and unique perspectives that younger people bring to the lab help support our mission today and in the future.”

Riley Harrison is a GEM Fellow and Brown University doctoral student who worked with mentor William Alexander on the efficacy of automated genome editing. The program broadened what had been limited experience so far for her in microbiology, Harrison said. “Hearing about all the work on different types of bacteria at ORNL really opened my eyes to the potential of synthetic biology. The most important takeaway from this experience is the skills and techniques that I’ve learned. I think that with every new thing that I learn this summer, I get one step closer to being an independent scientist who can be adaptable to different lab environments.”

Julianne Buggs is a GEM fellowship student from the University of Miami who will be pursuing a Ph.D. in biology beginning this fall. Buggs worked with ORNL’s Melissa Cregger on a project for CBI exploring the development of better biomass crops. She used computational methods to explore the link between the genotypes of poplar trees, a key species of interest as a biofuel crop, and their ability to influence soil carbon storage. “Up to this point, I had very little computational experience in my biology studies, so it’s been great to learn at my own pace at ORNL,” Buggs said.

Kristopher Hawkins, a GEM Fellow pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame, explored with mentor Tomas Rush the relationship between the biomass tree poplar and beneficial fungi. Hawkins worked on characterizing ectomycorrhizal fungi metabolites and identifying which bio-stimulants influence poplar growth and development. He learned how to extract the metabolites and use an advanced characterization capability — liquid chromatography mass spectrometry — to identify which are being produced by the fungi.

“Spending time with my advisor, other staff scientists and the GEM cohort have been my favorite part of being at ORNL. The number of passionate people I have met during my time here is unprecedented and the greatest surprise when coming to the lab,” Hawkins said. “I have gained remarkable confidence, critical thinking skills and professional skills that are transferable to any field I pursue. My personal experience here will change how I am able to teach others on the benefits of pursing higher education and STEM-driven programs.”

Other GEM Fellows working on bioenergy-focused research this summer include Gavin Hough, a recent graduate of Tennessee State University who studied models of carbon capture and sequestration related to poplar trees with ORNL’s Erin Webb and John Field, and Stella Belony, a graduate of the University of Florida who worked with ORNL’s Davison and mentor Yunqiao “Joseph” Pu on a DOE Biofuels Scientific Focus Area program on solvents for biomass conversion to biofuels and bioproducts.

The GEM Fellows were supported by the DOE Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research Program as well as laboratory funding. CBI, a DOE Bioenergy Research Center, is composed of multiple partner institutions focused on the development of sustainable aviation fuel and other bioproducts to support a robust bioeconomy. CBI has a center-wide commitment to diversity and inclusion and strives to create a research environment that values all staff for the uniqueness they bring.

ORNL hosted 700 students all told this summer under a variety of programs, including the GEM Fellow Internships. For more information on the many student programs available at ORNL, please visit the lab’s Educational Programs portal.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science—Stephanie Seay

Media contact: Kim Askey, 865.576.2841, askeyka@ornl.gov