Montana State University

Engineering student works to inspire a new generation to save the world

February 25, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service

Trevor Zuroff teaches middle school students about the powers of liquid nitrogen during an Engineers Week event at MSU on Feb. 19, 2007. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Chemical engineering student Trevor Zuroff has always had a desire to help other people, but that desire became a passion when he came to Montana State University.

"It really exploded when I came to college and found all these opportunities get involved," said the 20-year-old MSU junior. "I really want to help people, and now I feel that it's my duty to help people."

In addition to his regular classes, preparing for graduation and the business of applying for graduate school, the Glendive native volunteers for so many activities around MSU and Bozeman that he needs a list to remember them all.

Zuroff involves himself with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Wellness Community, a cancer support group. On campus, he's the vice president of the MSU chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a member of the Engineering Ambassadors.

He's also a tutor for the Montana Apprenticeship Program and for the Learning Engineering by Application Program. Those summer programs invite Montana middle and high school students to MSU for hands-on research experiences with science and engineering.

That's just to name a few, and bear in mind that Zuroff has been piling on the volunteerism since he was a sophomore.

"I have a tendency to take on too much responsibility," Zuroff admitted.

He traces some of that tendency to a childhood with cancer. In 2002 when he was in eighth grade, Zuroff was diagnosed with AML, a form of leukemia. He spent months in hospital beds enduring harsh chemotherapy.

"I matured exponentially during that time," he said, showing off a tattoo he -- and the rest of his family -- got to commemorate the end of his cancer treatments. The tattoo shows an orange cancer ribbon and the date he entered remission: Dec. 3, 2007. "I feel the need to appreciate life more, and I've found in the last few years that I can really help other people and make their lives better too."

Alongside his studies and volunteering, Zuroff works in two laboratories, one in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and another at the Center for Biofilm Engineering.

The lab was a change from the years Zuroff spent working in auto body shops before coming to MSU. He loved working on the cars, but Zuroff said that at the end of his freshman year, he wanted to get some experience that would help him toward his goal of becoming an engineering professor. Shop work was out; lab work was in.

Now Zuroff studies quorum sensing, the tendency of bacteria living together in colonies -- called biofilms -- to communicate with each other and act as a unit.

Ross Carlson, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, said Zuroff has been one of the most dedicated workers in both labs over the past two years.

"His productivity is as good as a master's graduate student, and he's more organized than just about any professor I know," Carlson said.

Zuroff is interested in how biofilm bacteria can be used to create things like biofuel and bio-plastics. Using bacteria to create these products can be more efficient than the traditional methods, which use fossil fuels. But to use bacteria effectively, engineers need to understand how biofilms communicate and work together.

Zuroff knows that the alternative energy and manufacturing processes he's studying will be important to the future of the U.S. and the world, which is all the more reason to pass those lessons on to younger students today, he said.

"Everybody talks about global warming and climate change, and to solve these problems we're going to need engineers, scientists and mathematicians," he said. "We need to instill the desire to solve these problems into the younger generation."

Finding every opportunity he can to reach out to younger students makes him feel like he's making a difference and taking a step toward solving those problems, Zuroff said.

"You feel like you make an impact in maybe two out of 10 kids," he said. "Maybe they won't grow up to be engineers, but when the time comes to apply for college, they might remember that they learned about engineering once and that it was kind of cool."

Related Stories

"Saving the world one engineering student at a time," Sept. 18, 2008 --

"MSU chemical engineering student chooses different path," Dec. 4, 2007 --

"MSU wins millions to find treatments for slow-healing wounds," July 19, 2006 --

Contact: Michael Becker at 406-994-5140 or