Montana State University

MSU doctoral student awarded National Science Foundation fellowship to research in Australia

June 6, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Montana State University doctoral student Jeffrey Simkins has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation to study in Australia. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN – Jeffrey Simkins, a Montana State University doctoral student in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the College of Engineering, has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation that is designed to foster future international scientific collaborations.

The NSF’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes fellowship program introduces graduate students to East Asia and Pacific science and engineering in the context of a research setting to help students initiate scientific relationships that will better enable future collaboration with foreign counterparts. Selected students participate in research experiences at host laboratories in Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore or Taiwan.

Simkins, of Bozeman, received a $5,000 stipend from the NSF and $3,500 (Australian) from the Australian government, to spend the next two months researching at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia. Simkins is working with Michael Johns, professor in the School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering and Einar Fridjonsson, lecturer in the School of Mechanical Engineering, studying whether MRI technology can be used to determine oxygen levels in reverse osmosis membranes.

“A reverse osmosis membrane is a technology used to extract clean water from saltwater or wastewater,” Simkins said. “It can be used in a sewage facility to take out those nasty pollutants before you put the water back into a river. It’s also used to extract drinking water from seawater in places where clean water isn’t accessible.”

Reverse osmosis membranes are going to become more important in the next century, Simkins said, as water scarcity increasingly becomes an issue. He explained that while the membranes work well, they are susceptible to microbial growth -- a process called biofouling -- which clogs the membrane, eventually breaking it down. Because replacing the membranes is expensive, Simkins is looking at MRI technology as a way to identify biofouling of the membranes in the early stages.

Decreased oxygen levels in the membrane are an early signal that biofouling is occurring, Simkins said.

“Ideally, we’re hoping we can identify biofouling early on and flush the microbes out with antibiotics before they become established,” he said. “After a certain point, that’s not possible and the membrane is gone or its efficiency is decreased.”

Simkins earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He returned to Bozeman in 2013 to begin graduate school at MSU. Currently researching under Magnetic Resonance Lab Co-director Joseph Seymour and Chemical and Biological Engineering Professor Philip Stewart, Simkins is looking to pioneer a new technique using magnetic resonance imaging technology to measure oxygen distribution in clinical biofilm, a thick, slimy accumulation of bacteria.

“The biofilms we work with most often are chronic wound biofilms, which are wounds that won’t heal or that keep getting infected and antibiotics don’t seem to work,” Simkins said. “Medical devices like catheters are really easy targets for these bacteria, and if they reach the bloodstream, it’s really bad. Between 10 to 30 percent of patients will die from it.”

In chronic wound biofilms, the bacteria on the top layer of the biofilm respirate rapidly, depleting the oxygen from nearby cells, Simkins said, so when the white blood cells try to fight infection, they have no “energy” to do so. Meanwhile, the cells in the lower level of the biofilm, where oxygen is penetrating, will enter standby mode. This makes them resistant to antibiotics since antibiotics target actively-growing cells.

“As soon as the antibiotic is gone from where it was applied on the top layer of the wound, the bacteria in the lower layer just pop back up and recolonize,” Simkins said. “That’s why people care about oxygen in biofilms.”

Currently, these oxygen levels are measured using a microelectrode, a pointed probe that can only measure one very small area at a time. This process is time-consuming and requires extreme precision, Simkins said. It is also invasive, which leads to questions of whether the measurement includes oxygen let in from the penetration of the microelectrode.

“That’s why we need a better technique,” he said. “With MRI, we can see the whole distribution of oxygen across the biofilm at once and it’s totally non-invasive.”

Seymour said Simkins’ work is at the cutting edge of extending MRI techniques to measure oxygen, and thus, metabolism, in bacterial biofilms.

“It has the potential to impact both clinical diagnostics of wound infections as well as develop a new class of magnetic-resonance-based oxygen sensors for a range of applications from food science to biomedicine,” Seymour said.

In Perth, Simkins will be among scientists at the forefront of low-magnetic-field applications of magnetic resonance for assessing biofouling of reverse osmosis membranes, including MSU alumnus Fridjonsson, who received his doctorate in chemical engineering from MSU’s Magnetic Resonance Lab.

The group's research could have significant scientific impacts and Simkins' fellowship with the group sets the stage for future collaboration, Seymour said.

“The incorporation of oxygen measurements by magnetic resonance to assess membrane biofouling would be a significant scientific advance with potential to impact efficiency of fresh water production,” Seymour said. “Jeff’s visit to UWA on this prestigious and competitive NSF EAPSI Fellowship is priming the pump for long-term collaboration on MR between UWA and MSU.”

Simkins says he feels fortunate to be doing research at MSU.

“We put out really good research here, and I’m fortunate to work at the intersection of the Magnetic Resonance Lab, which has put out some amazing research on soft matter systems, and the Center for Biofilm Engineering, which is one of the world’s foremost facilities for microbial and biofilm research,” he said. “I’ve gotten to hop onto high-profile projects that already have funding and that has been amazing."

“I also love MSU because people seem to have a good appreciation for a work-life balance,” Simkins continued. “It helps me to not burn out and to stay interested and committed.”

After earning his doctorate, Simkins says he plans to apply for industry jobs, possibly with a pharmaceutical or biotechnology company. His ultimate goal is to return to a university setting as a tenure-track professor.

“While I was a teaching assistant here at MSU, I did a lot of lecturing,” he said. “I love it.”

Denise Hoepfner, denise.hoepfner@montana.edu or (406) 994-4542

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