Montana State University

Doctoral student hopes corrosion research will make the world a bit 'greener'

April 20, 2009 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service


MSU doctoral student Jennifer Hornemann poses in the university's Magnetic Resonance Transport Phenomena Lab. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN -- Montana State University doctoral student Jennifer Hornemann didn't start her college career with any intention of studying biofilms. Instead, she started out studying physics because, she said, it sounded hard.

"It was the hardest thing I could think of at the time, and I knew it would be a challenge for me," Hornemann said. "Most people who know me at all would not be surprised by that."

Recently, Hornemann accepted a new challenge. After she finishes her doctorate at MSU, the 32-year-old chemical engineer will take what she's learned at MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering and Magnetic Resonance Transport Phenomena Lab to Houston. There, she hopes to help Exxon Mobil expand its research into the corrosive havoc that microbes can cause to pipelines and other equipment.

"I want to build a bridge between the Center for Biofilm Engineering here at MSU and Exxon Mobil's research division," she said. "That would be a great win-win scenario for Exxon Mobil and MSU."

Microbes, living together in colonies called biofilms, can corrode pipes and other hardware vital to getting oil from one place to another, Hornemann said. That damage can affect the oil supply, which in turn affects the price of gas and diesel fuel.

At MSU, Hornemann uses nuclear magnetic resonance microscopy to study the ways that biofilms absorb and use nutrients and other substances. Understanding how substances move through and around biofilms could lead to better techniques for removing, preventing or killing harmful biofilms.

Better, more efficient techniques would need fewer chemicals to get rid of biofilms, and that would decrease the environmental impact of dealing with biofilms, an outcome that pleases the environmentally conscious Hornemann.

Hornemann, who will defend her dissertation in June, began her college career at Stephen F. Austin University in her hometown of Nacogdoches, Texas. After earning her physics degree, she went on to receive a master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Arkansas.

After earning her master's, Hornemann took a break from school to spend several years working as a mechanical engineer for General Electric's gas and wind turbine division; but the temptation to go back for her doctorate was too hard to resist, despite her engineer's salary, she said.

"I went from earning $80,000 a year to $20,000 a year by choice," she said. "When I think about those figures, I have to remember that I came here for a reason."

Part of that reason is to make the world as clean a place as possible for future generations, including her 3-year-old son. In fact, Hornemann turned down the prestigious Presidential Postdoctorate Fellowship at the University of California to work with Exxon Mobil because she believes the work she'll do in Texas will have a more immediate and farther-reaching impact on the world.

Another part of that reason is that Hornemann wanted to help more women succeed in engineering, a field that isn't exactly rich with women, she said.

Many of the women she met in science and engineering fields throughout college eventually switched to other majors because they didn't have the support, guidance and positive role models they needed to be successful, Hornemann said.

"I've never had any doubt that I could do it, but I've had all the support in the world along the way," she said. Some women aren't as fortunate, which is why mentoring and advising young women is important to Hornemann. "I think that any challenges people face can be overcome, if they're driven and have a support network."

Hornemann said that returning to the deadline-oriented corporate world will be a homecoming of sorts because she had such a hard time adjusting to the academic mindset when she arrived at MSU.

Her adviser, mechanical and industrial engineering assistant professor Sarah Codd, had to remind her that research doesn't usually follow detailed corporate schedules, plans and timelines.

"I think Jennifer has embraced the idea that the research environment is more exploratory than deadline-oriented," Codd said. "And that's earned her a job that will require even more of that exploratory problem-solving ability that she's honed here at MSU."

"I used to be very black and white," Hornemann said. "Now I realize that there are so many variables in everything we do. I have a newfound respect for science, and that was unexpected."

In all, Hornemann is proud of the research, teaching and mentoring she's done at MSU, especially considering that she's an older, non-traditional student and a mother. And while she's heading back to the corporate world for now, she said that after her time at MSU, she now wants to return to teaching someday to share her experience.

"I thought I would just do some research, publish some papers and leave here the same old Jennifer, but MSU has really changed me for the better, I think," she said.

Related Stories

"MSU biofilms research helps set standards for everyday products," Aug. 22, 2008 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=6139

"MSU wins millions to find treatments for slow-healing wounds," July 19, 2006 -- http://www.montana.edu/cpa/news/nwview.php?article=3874

Contact: Jennifer Hornemann at jhornemann@erc.montana.edu; Michael Becker at 406-994-5140 or becker@montana.edu