Montana State University

MSU graduate receives fellowship to study microorganisms in chemical remediation

July 12, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Eric Troyer, a 2016 graduate of MSU's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the College of Engineering, has received an NSF fellowship to research the role of microorganisms in chemical remediation. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham

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BOZEMAN -- Eric Troyer, a 2016 graduate of MSU’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in the College of Engineering, has been awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program Fellowship to study the role of microorganisms in remediating harmful chemicals from groundwater. Troyer is one of 2,000 graduate students chosen from nearly 17,000 applicants to receive the award, which gives recipients at least $34,000 a year for three years to attend graduate school and conduct their research.

Troyer said he is grateful for the fellowship, which will help cover his tuition and cost of living expenses.

“It also gives me more control of what I’m doing and makes it easier on the person I will be working for because they don’t have to cover those expenses,” he said.

Troyer, of Hardin, will pursue his graduate studies in the fall at the University of California, Berkeley, in the lab of Lisa Alvarez-Cohen, Fred and Clair Sauer Professor of Environmental Engineering.

At Berkeley, Troyer will research ways to use microorganisms to remediate trichloroethylene, more commonly known as TCE, from groundwater. Beginning with its widespread production in the 1920s, TCE was used in industrial settings as degreaser for metal parts, as an anesthetic and as a dry cleaning solvent, among other uses, Troyer said. It was later found to cause cancer and is now a known contaminant in some groundwater aquifers.

Research into using microorganisms in this way -- a technology called bioremediation -- has been underway in Alvarez-Cohen’s lab for some time, Troyer said, particularly using a microbe group called Dehaloccoccoides, which has shown promise in breaking down TCE into ethene, a non-toxic organic chemical compound. However, a side-effect of remediation is that it can change the chemistry in groundwater and soil, potentially leading to the release of other harmful compounds.

“If there is something else being released, we have to look at what other microbes we could promote or figure out other strategies so we’re not seeing other contaminants besides TCE in the groundwater,” Troyer said.

As people become more aware of the need for protecting water sources, this type of research becomes increasingly important, he said.

“With only about three percent of the water on Earth considered drinkable, it’s very important to protect what drinking water we have,” Troyer said. “We need to make sure our clean water is protected and develop technologies that, if water were limited, we could use to clean as much water as needed for the ever-increasing population.”

Some of those technologies could include ways to reuse the wastewater from our drinking water for other purposes or converting it back to drinking water quality, Troyer said.

Coming to MSU, Troyer said he didn’t have a plan to go into research, or a clear picture of what a chemical and biological engineering major would entail.

“I thought it sounded interesting,” he said. “Then, when I took a microbiology class and learned about the research opportunities, I knew I wanted to get into research.”

Troyer said the opportunities MSU provides for undergraduate research helped him develop research skills, find confidence in his abilities and contributed to a better understanding of his coursework.

“You’re able to get in the lab and immediately start doing your own projects,” he said. “The advisers are there to help, but the work you do is your own, which is an advantage you get at Montana State. At some bigger institutions, as an undergrad you’d probably just work underneath a graduate student.”

Troyer’s research at MSU involved studying biomineralization, a biological process in which living organisms produce hardened minerals. Specifically, Troyer studied the organisms that make up biocement, calcium carbonate formed by bacteria found in the soil. Biocement can potentially be used to increase the stability of buildings and other structures and in the conservation and restoration of historical projects, Troyer said.

At MSU, Troyer was advised by Robin Gerlach, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Adrienne Phillips, assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and the Center for Biofilm Engineering and Ellen Lauchnor, assistant professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and the Center for Biofilm Engineering.

“They have been my mentors for three years now, and it’s been great,” Troyer said. “They have a lot of projects going on between them, so I’ve been able to work on different applications of this biomineralization. I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for them.”

Gerlach said Troyer’s contribution in the lab over the past three years is an excellent example of how important undergraduate researchers can be to MSU’s research teams.

“His research efforts helped to take the biomineralization work from the laboratory to the field scale,” Gerlach said. “Not only did he contribute significantly to the development of the biomineralization sealing technology, he also used the idea of biomineralization to create artwork, which is now on display in the College of Engineering dean’s office.”

Those art pieces of a bobcat and the Bridger Mountains have helped faculty and administrators in the college “communicate the ‘coolness’ of biomineralization,” Gerlach added.

Along with his research contributions, Gerlach said, Troyer “contributed immensely” to MSU’s education and outreach mission by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and “Shadow an Engineer” days and mentoring other students.

“Eric will become an ambassador for MSU as well as for science and engineering in general,” he said. “He is motivated, dedicated, independent and shows passion for engineering.”

After earning his doctorate, Troyer would like to continue working in research, possibly at a university where he can combine his work with educational outreach.

“I think educational outreach is important for the research and to bring science to schools,” Troyer said. “In a university setting, you can teach and have some flexibility to set up outreach events, and have your research lab. I think that’s an ideal setup, but it’s also very competitive.”

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

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