Elizabeth Slick and Ammarah Spall

Research in Biofuels

The Hood College Summer Research Institute afforded Elizabeth Slick ’17 and Ammarah Spall ’16 the opportunity to do biological research on proteins this summer.

Slick, a biochemistry major with minors in mathematics and physics, and Spall, a biology major with minors in chemistry and psychology, took on this project under the supervision of Craig Laufer, Ph.D., professor of biology. They were in Laufer’s microbiology class in the spring, and he asked them to help out with a research project. They learned many of the fundamental techniques necessary for the research in that class.

The Summer Research Institute gives students the opportunity to work with faculty advisers on a research project. The projects involve laboratory or field work for eight weeks during the summer. The SRI provides students with a $2,500 stipend and free housing.

The main goal of the summer project was to utilize bacterial proteins to eat waste products of the sugar industry to produce methanol, which can then be used to power cars and houses.

“Our research revolved around biofuels—energy that comes from living things,” said Slick.

The backbone of the research was finding the protein that will produce the most methanol. The project yielded multiple proteins, called pectin methylesterases. In the next few years, a graduate student at Hood College can continue the research by creating a super protein—one that will produce more methanol than the others—and that protein can be patented and put into production.

“This research experience taught me to think critically and hone my problem solving skills,” said Spall. “Most importantly, I learned to value the scientific process and was grateful to be able to conduct research that could be extremely useful in the future.”

Spall said her experience working in the lab and using laboratory techniques will help her in her future classes and in her career.

Slick wants to research immunology in the future, so she was grateful for the lab experience to complement her classroom experience.

Due to their quick and successful work, they were able to try some additional science activities that were not in the original plan, including purifying and characterizing proteins to determine which ones are realistic for production.

Slick added: “Science is much more exciting when it works, so the fact that we had a very productive summer means we had fun!”

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