In the Biology Department at Spelman College, Mentewab Ayalew, Ph.D., shares her passion for science with her students. To complement the quantitative and computational aspects of her research and teaching, she searched for opportunities related to biological big data.

A colleague introduced her to the Visiting Faculty Program (VFP) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), a program designed to increase the research competitiveness of faculty members at institutions historically underrepresented in the research community. Shortly after, Ayalew began a 10-week research appointment with guidance from ORNL’s David Weston, Ph.D.

ORNL Faculty Research Visiting Faculty Program Profile: Mentewab Ayalew

Mentewab Ayalew, Ph.D., a biology professor at Spelman College, studied peat mosses and bacteria in the Visiting Faculty Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 

The pair contributed to a collaborative project with Chongle Pan, Ph.D., a staff scientist in the Computer Science and Mathematics Division, and Dale Pelletier, Ph.D., a senior staff scientist in the Biosciences Division. Ayalew’s task involved examining metabolic capabilities and activity of bacteria associated with peat mosses using metagenomics and metatranscriptomic approaches.  

“Mosses generate large amounts of biomass, despite the harsh and cold environments they inhabit. We believe that the bacteria associated with moss have an important role in supporting that high productivity,” Ayalew said. “Our research will identify some of the important bacteria and their contributions, especially related to supplying plants with nitrogen.”

Her activities included analyzing data, troubleshooting complex problems with laboratory staff and evaluating the results.

“ORNL provided computing and data resources, but it was Ayalew who learned and provided those analytical techniques to our plant-microbiome project,” Weston said. “She certainly had a very positive impact on our science, and more broadly as a visiting mentor to our summer interns, graduate students and post-doctoral students.

Stepping away from teaching for the summer allowed Ayalew to focus solely on her research. With access to experts in the field and resources such as the supercomputers, she became more versed in data analysis using a variety of programs and tools.  

“It has been a very productive and rewarding experience,” Ayalew said. “Being in a new environment and learning something new every day made it all the more gratifying.”

Ayalew describes the skills and expertise she developed as “synergistic” with her research and teaching at Spelman College. She hopes to maintain her collaboration with ORNL scientists and share her knowledge with her university colleagues and students.

The VFP program is sponsored by the Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) and administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE).