Molding Young Researchers: Undergraduates Unlock Potential of Fungus as Future of Sustainable Energy

Deval Jhaveri (left) and Joshua Waters

By Tom McLaughlin

Ugh, moldy bread.

Few things can make you lose your appetite quicker than the sight of a few unwelcome spots on your sandwich.

But these spores just might hold the key to something greater – as in the future of sustainable energy – thanks to a study being conducted in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Computational Biology Summer Program at Rutgers University–Camden.

“We are working with a model fungus, commonly known as red bread mold, which can break down cellulose into glucose from local waste such as grass clippings and fallen leaves, as well as ferment glucose into ethanol,” explains Deval Jhaveri, a sophomore at The College of New Jersey.

Jhaveri is currently among 10 undergraduate students participating in the distinguished 10-week summer program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and run under the auspices of the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology (CCIB) at Rutgers University–Camden. The program is one of only 16 programs focusing on computational biology out of 652 REU programs nationwide.

In the spirit and mission of the CCIB, students are paired with Rutgers–Camden faculty and postgraduate mentors from different disciplines and immersed in integrative research that includes both experimental and computational components, and incorporates the biological sciences, mathematics, computer science, chemistry, and physics.

Working in state-of-the-art labs at the Waterfront Technology Center, Jhaveri has been collaborating primarily with Joshua Waters, a graduate biology student, under the guidance of Kwangwon Lee, an associate professor of biology and director of the undergraduate biology program. The students are aiming to identify an optimum strain of Neurospora crassa that can most efficiently convert cellulose to glucose and then ferment the glucose into ethanol.

Benedetto Piccoli, associate provost for research and the Joseph and Loretta Lopez Chair of Mathematics, serves as the principal investigator of the Neurospora crassa project, and Joseph Martin, associate dean for science, mathematics, technology, and health sciences, serves as the co-principal investigator. Morgan Dwyer, a junior biology major at Rutgers–Camden, is also assisting the students with the project.

compbiology2“What’s most innovative about our project is the focus on finding one strain that accomplishes both of these goals well,” says Waters, a Haddon Heights resident and 2015 graduate of Rutgers–Camden with a bachelor’s degree in biology. “Using cellulose-based waste products is becoming increasingly important in order to produce a viable, alternative energy source without cutting into food supplies, such as corn.”

Jhaveri notes that their research project – as well as those of their fellow participants – is only made possible through the interdisciplinary approach and well-structured nature of the Computational Biology Summer Program.

“They teach you from the basics and you really learn the correct techniques to pursue the project that you have in mind,” says Jhaveri, an Edison resident.

Participants also learn early on that scientific research isn’t always cut-and-dried as the topics presented in a textbook, says one of his faculty advisers, Sunil Shende.

“By making mistakes and recovering from them, they learn that fixing problems are very much a part of the scientific process,” explains Shende, an associate professor of computer science at Rutgers–Camden, who worked with Jhaveri to use Python software-based tools to curate and analyze genotype data.

Ultimately, one of the primary goals of the Computational Biology Summer Program is for participants to achieve a high level of confidence with regards to scientific research, as well as a sense of belonging in the scientific community, says Karen Taylor, manager of the Rutgers Center for Computational and Integrative Biology.

“We aim to give students a positive experience on several levels, which we hope will ultimately help them decide to pursue a career in the sciences,” says Taylor. “It has been documented that if an individual can identify with a specific professional group, they tend to make career choices involving that group. In other words, if they can see themselves as scientists, chances are better that they may become scientists.”

Participating students receive support for research materials, food and housing, and a variety of group activities. As the program also includes a budget for travel to and from campus, applicants are not limited by geographical area.

“In this way,” says Taylor, “the program hopes to essentially negate income disparities for non-traditional students and under-represented groups, and spark an interest for a future in research sciences.”

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