Harnessing microbes for biofuels research Meet Olivia Cannon

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As a participant in the Post-Bachelor’s Research Associate Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Olivia Cannon contributed to microbial research that sought to improve the sustainability and cost of biofuels production. (Photo credit: Dane Cannon)

For Olivia Cannon, the ocean has always been a source of intrigue and mystery. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, when she began college, her intent was to study deep-sea fish and other marine life-forms.

But, as time went on, Cannon’s interests shifted to microbiology. She was largely inspired by courses she took at Roane State Community College, and, later, research she conducted as a student at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina. In December 2017, Cannon graduated with a major in marine science and a minor in biology.

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Cannon attended a virtual career fair hosted by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) that highlighted internships and research opportunities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the nation’s largest science and energy laboratory. Through the fair, Cannon came across a position related to microbiology in the ORISE-administered Post-Bachelor’s Research Associate Program.

The Post-Bachelor’s Research Associate Program at ORNL offers challenging opportunities to recent recipients of bachelor’s degrees to conduct research in areas that support ORNL missions in the basic and applied sciences, energy and environment.

Looking to boost her skills in microbial research ahead of graduate school, Cannon applied to the program and was accepted in spring 2018.

“I learned a great deal during my time in the program, and was encouraged to do learning and exploration of my own, as well as to present my own ideas. There was a lot of freedom in what I was able to do and try, and, as a result of this, I feel that I grew as a scientist and as a person.”

During her two-year research appointment, Cannon was part of the Microbial Ecology and Physiology group within ORNL’s Biosciences Division. Her research largely supported the Center for Bioenergy Innovation (CBI). Under the mentorship of James Elkins, Ph.D., Cannon focused on looking for new microbes that can break down plant matter considered an unusable waste product in biofuel production. She also sought to optimize the growth conditions for microbes that can degrade plant matter.

Overall, such research aims to help improve the cost and sustainability of biofuel production.

“Biofuel production, as it is, is currently lacking in several areas, including the amount of unusable waste products, cost efficiency, and land and water usage for feedstock growth, to name a few,” Cannon explained. “Even if it is optimized, it will not be able to completely replace fossil fuel use, but it has the potential to be an excellent supplement to other non-fossil fuel energy sources.”

Using water and sediment samples collected in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, Cannon contributed to efforts to isolate a novel microorganism that can break down cellulose and survive in acidic, high-temperature conditions. 

“Extreme environments, such as the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, are actually teeming with microbial life,” Cannon noted. “Despite temperatures of roughly 170 degrees Fahrenheit (or higher), a number of microbes are able to not only survive, but thrive.”

In another project, Cannon examined the ability of microbes from Yellowstone water and sediment samples to degrade aromatic compounds in lignin, a substance that is difficult to fully break down for biofuel applications.

Through her time at ORNL, Cannon learned new microbiology and molecular biology techniques, gained experience with laboratory equipment and honed her problem-solving skills.

“I learned a great deal during my time in the program, and was encouraged to do learning and exploration of my own, as well as to present my own ideas,” Cannon said. “There was a lot of freedom in what I was able to do and try, and, as a result of this, I feel that I grew as a scientist and as a person.”

During her appointment, Cannon had the opportunity to attend the CBI’s 2019 Annual Science Meeting, a three-day conference in Asheville, North Carolina. The event included poster sessions, oral presentations and seminars.

“I found this experience to be very valuable, as it allowed me to see the full scope of work done within CBI and to experience how such a conference operated,” Cannon said. “It made me feel as though I was truly part of something bigger, and I was proud to be a part of a group doing such important work.”

Cannon is now applying to graduate programs in marine microbiology. She intends to pursue a career in this field, likely in an academic capacity.

“I am fascinated by the oceans, and there is still so much we do not know about them,” Cannon said. “Microbes are an essential part of every ecosystem, and I believe that if we know more about marine microorganisms, we will have a better understanding of marine environments.”

The Post-Bachelor’s Research Associate Program is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.