At the U.S. Department of Energy’s Center for Bioenergy Innovation, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), scientists are working to accelerate the development of biofuels. These are fuels made from organic materials.

Brittany Hicks, an engineering graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology, recently joined those research efforts as a summer participant in the GEM Fellowship Program.

ORNL Success Story: Brittany Hicks
Brittany Hicks studied microbial interactions in poplar tree soil samples as a participant in the GEM Fellowship Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Under the guidance of Melissa Cregger, Ph.D., a staff scientist in ORNL’s Biosciences Division, Hicks investigated microbial interactions in soil samples of poplar trees, a potential feedstock for biofuels.

“The reason we’re interested in biofuels is because they are a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels,” Hicks said. “Biofuels reduce our dependence on foreign oil, generate jobs and revitalize rural economies.”

The overall goal of the research is to engineer a microbial community that can support a higher yield of biofuel derived from poplars while limiting the need for fertilizers.

“Prior to my arrival, a greenhouse experiment was set up involving two species of poplar grown in two different soils with different starting microbial communities,” Hicks explained. “We treated half of the total soil samples with nitrogen in order to better understand how treatment impacts the soil microbial community.”

As part of her internship, Hicks used a Python™-based software to analyze the soil samples and identify which microbes are present in the community. Through this aspect of her research, Hicks learned more about bioinformatics and the intricacies of processing large amounts of data.

At the end of the summer, GEM participants shared their research findings during a Technical Presentation Competition, and Hicks was honored as one of three winners of the competition. She and the other finalists gave their presentations at the National GEM Consortium’s annual conference in Chicago.

ORNL Success Story: Brittany Hicks

Brittany Hicks delivers a presentation on her research findings. (Credit: Megan Jamerson/ORNL)

“My overall impression of this experience (at ORNL) has been positive,” said Hicks. “I’ve been able to connect with students at various levels in a meaningful way, I’ve gained knowledge and broadened my own perceptions of my specific field, and I’ve received resources and skills that will continue to serve me throughout my career.”

After her internship, Hicks will pursue a doctoral degree in environmental engineering at the University of Michigan.

The GEM Fellowship Program is a partnership between the National GEM Consortium and ORNL. The National GEM Consortium is a network of leading corporations, research institutions and universities that enables qualified students from underrepresented communities to pursue graduate education in STEM fields. The program at ORNL is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.