The Center for Bioenergy Innovation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory offers a unique opportunity for early career scientists to conduct groundbreaking research while learning what it takes to manage a large collaborative science center. Eight talented scientists from CBI’s partnering institutions have participated in the Early Career Development program, benefitting their career, their science and the center.
CBI is one of four Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers focused on advancing biofuel and bioproduct production processes to grow a vibrant domestic bioeconomy. CBI is accelerating the development of bioenergy-relevant plants and microbes to enable production of sustainable aviation fuel, bioproducts that sequester carbon and renewable replacements for plastics and other environmentally harmful products.
“When we started the early career program, we envisioned it as an opportunity to mentor junior scientists in the complexities of managing a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary research project,” said Jerry Tuskan, ORNL corporate fellow and lead for CBI. “What I’ve learned is that these scientists bring a lot of enthusiasm and new perspectives to the science and science management we’re doing.”
As part of the program, appointees spend at least three months at ORNL, with half of their time devoted to research alongside an ORNL mentor and the other half working with the CBI management team on activities such as planning for the annual CBI science meeting or the DOE Biological and Environmental Research, or BER, program annual review.
The diverse group of appointees each tailored their experience to their unique interests. Four of them have landed permanent positions at their home institutions, and two have secured Early Career Awards from the DOE Office of Science. All are enthusiastic about the program and their experiences.
Learn more about some of these young scientists, their experiences as Early Career Development, or ECD, participants and how they are shaping the future of bioenergy.
Jaime Barros is a postdoctoral research associate at The University of North Texas BioDiscovery Institute. His research interests focus on the biology of wood formation in higher plants. He has been pioneering work on the biochemical reactions leading to lignin synthesis in bioenergy crops.
Within CBI, Barros is working with ORNL’s Robert Hettich to identify proteins in a set of multiple RNAi-lines in the model plant Brachypodium to provide a deeper understanding of the lignification process in monocot grasses.
He honed his skills in leadership, gained confidence and learned effective teamwork and task delegation through the ECD experience. As part of a DOE annual review, he examined research performed by different CBI teams. “(The experience) helped me to be more open to listen and read science beyond my field of expertise and to embrace and incorporate new ideas into my current research projects,” Barros said.
He also enjoyed his time onsite in East Tennessee, fishing in Melton Hill Lake, visiting Clingmans Dome in the Smoky Mountains and attending events in downtown Knoxville’s Market Square.
His advice for young scientists in bioenergy? “Find a project to link your research with an industrial partner. This has the potential to make lignocellulosic biofuels a reality that benefits people and the environment.”
Melissa Cregger is a research scientist in the Biosciences Division at ORNL, specializing in plant-microbe interactions. Last year, she received a DOE Early Career Award to conduct research for the BER Genomic Sciences program. She was a Liane Russell Distinguished Fellow at ORNL from 2015-2018.
In addition to typical ECD activities, Cregger prepared CBI presentations for the DOE Genomic Sciences Annual Meeting. She also drafted the summary report for the fiscal year 2020 DOE Performance Metrics. She is working with Rich Giannone at ORNL on a CBI project regarding plant-microbe interactions.
“Interacting with CBI management gave me a broad understanding of how my work fits within the larger scope of the project,” Cregger said. “Helping draft the annual report, I now have a better grasp on the various research focuses within the project and what each contributing scientist is working on. This experience highlighted all of the various plant and microbial resources CBI has produced and provided opportunities to leverage these unique resources.”
Cregger enjoyed pulling together the annual report and interacting with new researchers across the project outside her field of expertise.
Her advice for other young scientists interested in bioenergy? “There are a variety of topics to study within the field of bioenergy. Find one you are passionate about before beginning your research.”
David Kainer is a staff computational systems biologist at ORNL, specializing in the integration of diverse biological datasets with machine learning for functional gene exploration and genomic prediction. As a postdoc in the lab’s Computational Systems Biology group, Kainer was a member of the 2018 Gordon Bell prize-winning team that developed a new algorithm allowing supercomputers to process vast amounts of genetic data and identify genes and potential treatments related to opioid addition.
On the research side at CBI, he applies machine learning approaches for integrating heterogeneous multi-omic data with the goal of informing genetic improvement of bioenergy feedstocks like poplar and switchgrass.
“Having spent time at CBI’s headquarters, I now think more deeply about how my work may influence the whole of CBI, rather than just my computational biology team,” Kainer said. “Learning how such a large research team and budget is managed effectively were also key to the experience,” he said. “This is not something that can easily be picked up at the postdoc level. Hard decisions have to be made regularly, and it was very valuable to observe how those happen.”
His favorite part of the ECD program was chairing a committee for a new round of internal CBI grants for renewable jet fuel projects. “Every application we received was excellent, and I enjoyed being a major part of the decision-making process,” Kainer said.
His advice for other young scientists in the space? “There are so many approaches to producing various forms of bioenergy, and it is hard to predict which ones will be ‘winners.’ So cast a wide net.”
Davinia Salvachua has been a staff microbiologist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory since July 2014. Her research is focused on understanding biological lignin depolymerization and catabolism by fungi and bacteria. She is also leading the development of bioreactor cultivation processes for the production of fuels and chemical precursors by a diversity of organisms. She received a DOE Early Career Award from BER in 2019 to elucidate aromatic catabolic pathways in white-rot fungi.
“My time in CBI was invaluable to get to know a lot of scientists in the center and continue collaborations with some of them in different projects,” Salvachua said, adding that she also learned more about the DOE Office of Science and the BER program.
“Successful CBI stewardship promotes a successful center,” she said. “It was really satisfying to see how the leadership team organizes so many moving parts (i.e., science, logistics and administrative work) to elevate the center to the next level.” She also enjoyed working with Bob Hettich’s team on the research side, learning new techniques and how other groups work in the laboratory.
Her advice for other young scientists interested in the field? “Go ahead, follow your heart and open your mind to the very diverse subjects in bioenergy. We all are working for the same goal, and only together, we will have a lasting positive impact on our planet.”
Breeanna Urbanowicz is an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and lead of the Plant Biopolymers Group at the University of Georgia. She is also a faculty member of both the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and New Materials Institute at UGA. Her core research is centered on the structure, synthesis and biological function of the plant cell wall, a cellular component that is integral to many facets of plant biology.
Within CBI, she is working with ORNL’s Wellington Muchero and NREL’s Yannick Bomble to identify and characterize proteins and pathways that are crucial to complex carbohydrate synthesis in Populus.
Urbanowicz credits her CBI ECD experience as “the driving force that encouraged me to pursue a tenure track faculty position. As an early career scientist, the funding from CBI has helped me immensely as I built my independent research group, allowing me to pursue scientific questions that are larger than the capabilities of a single lab, or even an institution,” she said. “It has helped me establish a vast and incredibly supportive scientific network of both peers and mentors that I will value throughout my career.
“It's quite amazing when you see and take part in CBI at 'multiple length scales' — essentially going from bench-level research to team-level design to large-scale management,” Urbanowicz said. Within the appointee program, she learned about the time, teamwork and organization it takes to develop, advance and run large-scale, cross-disciplinary research efforts that are by design able to function as more than just the sum of their individual parts.
She also enjoyed being onsite at ORNL, building connections and collaborating and having access to state-of-the-art equipment and expertise. “I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work closely with [ORNL’s] Brian Davison to assemble a CBI annual review report and plan the onsite meeting. Brian was a fantastic professional mentor, and I was privileged to work with him on a daily basis to advance my scientific writing, which is one of the critical, but often underappreciated aspects of professional science.”
Her advice for other young scientists? “Bioenergy science is still in its infancy and the discovery space is quite vast. It is also necessary as we face a growing population and decreasing petroleum resources that we have relied on for so long. We are the Wright Brothers building airplanes from wood and fabric and flying tens of feet off the ground. But we know we need to develop technology to get to the moon, or even Mars, pretty fast.”
Liz Ware has been a staff research chemist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory since 2016. Her research is focused on understanding lignocellulosic biomass cell wall composition and thermochemical conversion of biomass. She also specializes in the development of high-throughput analytical platforms.
During her ECD participation, she enjoyed seeing how the leadership and management teams within CBI plan and prioritize work from a high level. “That experience has been extremely helpful in understanding how our teams and science are integrated and has helped me to better formulate new ideas for future scientific endeavors,” Ware said. “I feel more comfortable communicating with leadership now because I got the chance to talk to them on a regular basis in small group settings.”
On the research side, CBI has influenced the direction of her research, encouraging her to be more comprehensive in biomass analysis and deliberate towards understanding the origin of changes and trends seen in the data.
Her advice for young scientists in the bioenergy field? “It helps to understand a little bit about everything from biology to plants to chemistry, engineering, economics, ecology and more, so that you have a big picture idea of what it will take to make bioenergy feasible.”
Allison Werner has been a staff molecular biologist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory since 2021, following a three-year postdoctoral appointment at NREL. Her research uses synthetic and systems biology to understand and engineer microbial utilization of underused substrates, such as lignin and plastic wastes, towards biological valorization.
On the research side at CBI, she works with ORNL’s Bob Hettich to determine the proteomic and lipidomic differences between small and large outer membrane vesicles and to quantify key aromatic catabolic enzymes during P. putida cultivation in lignin-rich streams.
Werner performed research onsite at ORNL developing a new method for spatially fractionated multi-omic analysis of P. putida cultivations. The outcome was a series of protocols that enable analysis of both lipids and proteins from diverse and complex samples.
“Observing and engaging with the DOE yearly review process was especially educational, and an opportunity I wouldn’t have had until much later in my career without the program,” she said of her time as an ECD participant.
“Seeing more clearly the connections between research groups within CBI, between CBI and other DOE Bioenergy Research Centers, and between CBI and our sponsors gave me more big-picture perspective. Seeing Jerry, Brian, Renae [Speck] and the headquarters team at work introduced me to the strategies they use for operations, strategic guidance and administration, which is truly no small feat for the highly dispersed and interdisciplinary teams,” Werner said.
“I also learned a tremendous amount from Brian about the skills and practices used to effectively communicate with sponsors, both with written reports and oral presentations,” she added.
Werner’s advice for young scientists interested in bioenergy? “Follow what excites you, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the scientific community engaged in that research.”
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.