As a child, Malaney Abel wanted to understand why and how everything works, from cellular processes in the human body to the impact of microorganisms in the environment. As she grew older her family, as well as educational programs like Bill Nye the Science Guy, and her teachers at school piqued her curiosities for the complex interrelationships of life until they became insatiable. Today, Abel’s postgraduate participation in the Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has fostered her growth as a scientist even further.
Abel’s decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology from Western Illinois University was as effortless a decision as applying to the HERE Recent Bachelor’s program, which is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy. The program presents opportunities for students of all academic levels to study real-world energy and environmental problems in a top-tier federal facility.
Abel knew she wanted to apply to the HERE program after a positive and enriching experience as an intern in another ORISE-administered program, the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program. These programs are designed to deliver an insightful and educational experience in the science, technical, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, and Abel believes they do a good job.
“The SULI and the HERE programs have both offered unique aspects that I have greatly enjoyed,” said Abel. “Both programs have given me great networking opportunities with individuals within and outside of my division. They also have introduced me to what ORNL’s various divisions have accomplished and are continuing to accomplish. By being aware of other research going on at ORNL, it has helped me become a more well-rounded scientist.”
As a continuation of the research she conducted in the SULI program, Abel is part of ORNL’s Biosciences Division and a member of the BioEnergy Science Center (BESC) group. Under the mentorship of Dr. Adam Guss, Abel is studying the bacterium Clostridium thermocellum used to produce cellulosic ethanol, an alternative fuel source derived from biomass like wood and grass.
The goal is to improve ethanol yields of the bacterium to at least 80 percent so it can be used on an industrial scale. Scientists believe the bacterium’s unique profile will help it be a competitive alternative for ethanol production. The bacterium is anaerobic, meaning it requires no oxygen to carry out its functions, and thermophilic, meaning it thrives at high temperatures. Most importantly, the bacterium can easily break down cellulose. Current ethanol production methods that use sugars from food plants are costly, explained Abel, and using cellulose is proving to be a much cheaper method.
“Being able to use cellulose in ethanol production will aide in maximizing biomass efficiency,” explained Abel. “This, in turn, would benefit many aspects of the average American’s life by reducing the escalating environmental impact of greenhouse gases. Our air would be cleaner, thus reducing events such as smog.”
Abel is halfway through the yearlong program and anticipates cultivating her final results into a peer-reviewed paper her team hopes to publish in a biotechnology or engineering journal. For now, she is focused on improving her scientific skills and preparing herself, mentally and intellectually, to obtain a doctorate in microbiology upon completion of the HERE program. Abel’s research project at ORNL falls right in line with her career goal—to develop alternative fuels using microorganisms—and is helping prepare her for her academic journey ahead.
“During my time at ORNL I have acquired many skills that will continue to aide in my development as a scientist,” said Abel. “I feel my experiences will have lasting impacts on my career as well as myself. I highly recommend both the SULI and HERE program to others.”