Montana State University

MSU grad receives NSF fellowship to turn waste into product

June 4, 2010 -- Melynda Harrison, MSU News Service

MSU graduate Trevor Zuroff was recently awarded an NSF fellowship to look at efficient ways to break down cellulose in order to turn it into useful products. (MSU photo by Jackson Harris)   High-Res Available

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A Glendive native and Montana State University graduate has been awarded more than $180,000 in fellowships to research how common plant materials can be converted into useful substances such as plastics and fuels.

Trevor Zuroff was recently awarded a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation. He will use the $90,000, three-year graduate research award to research using different organisms to break down cellulose. He will begin working on his doctorate at Penn State in the fall where he was also awarded a McWhirter fellowship granting him $90,000 for two more years after the NSF grant expires, plus $4,000 in research funds and funding to hire an undergraduate assistant.

Zuroff's graduate work will be an extension of a curiosity about chemistry that began as a teenager.

"I really became interested in chemistry in Mr. Rich Lindgren's class at Dawson Country High School in Glendive," Zuroff said. "He gave us hands on opportunities to explore chemistry which made it really exciting for me and caused me to consider a related degree."

That high school spark grew as Zuroff pursued a degree in chemical engineering. He graduated from MSU in May. As an undergraduate he worked at MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering (CBE) and with Ross Carlson, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering.

"I had an incredible experience because I started working in Ross's lab just two years after he began teaching at MSU," Zuroff recalled. "There were three of us and Ross in the lab and I got a lot of individual attention and mentoring. The lab has grown, but there is still a lot of support."

After a couple months of training in Carlson's lab, Zuroff was given his own project to work on.

"It was great. I was figuring out my own problems and working on my own, but I had help when I needed it," Zuroff said. "I was essentially doing the same work as a graduate student."

Zuroff worked in Carlson's lab for three years.

"Trevor has the initiative, drive and eye for detail that you need in a good researcher," Carlson said. "After awhile he was training visiting scientists and graduate students."

In conjunction with the CBE, Zuroff focused on a project to study how microbes communicate with each other within a biofilm. A biofilm is aggregate of microorganisms in which cells are stuck to each other forming a slime layer. Biofilms are often unwanted--such as when they form on medical equipment or form gunky masses that block plumbing or industrial pipelines--and can be difficult to get rid of. Microbial biofilms on surfaces cost the nation billions of dollars yearly in equipment damage, product contamination, energy losses and medical infections.

MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering is one of the world's premier research centers investigating these sticky, troublesome masses of bacteria.

Microbes don't talk to each other like humans do, but they do communicate. If an antibiotic is present, the microbes make each other aware of the antibiotic's presence through chemical signals. They communicate how to protect themselves, often by forming a slime layer, which makes them less susceptible to antibiotics. Zuroff worked on knocking out genes in the microbes that allowed them to communicate, thus making the antibiotic more effective in some instances.

Zuroff also looked at how changing the environment-temperature, the acidity of the fluid the microbes lived in, and other factors-of the biofilm could make it more susceptible to antibiotics. Changing the environment, rather than the genetic make-up, would have more practical applications.

"Being around so many different types of people, going to conferences and doing interesting research at CBE has played a huge part in preparing me for graduate school at a huge university," Zuroff said.

Zuroff wasn't just active with MSU academically; he used his time to help people.

Zuroff involved himself with Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Wellness Community, a cancer support group. On campus, he was the president of the MSU chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and a member of the Engineering Ambassadors. He has served as a captain for an MSU Relay for Life team and volunteered for the Gallatin Valley Food Bank. He has also volunteered for numerous events designed to raise kids' level of interest in the sciences, including Science Saturdays at MSU, the Montana Science Olympiad and the Montana FIRST Robotics Tournament.

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.

"He has a tendency to volunteer for just about everything," said Carlson.

Zuroff traces some of that tendency to a childhood with cancer. In 2002 when he was in eighth grade, he 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

He has been in remission since December 2007.

As a tribute to his volunteer work, Zuroff received the 2010 Torlief Aasheim Community Involvement Awards, the university's top award for student service.

The award, named for the late MSU alumnus Torlief "Torley" Aasheim, recognizes male and female senior students who, in addition to excelling academically, volunteer on campus and in the community.

At Penn State, Zuroff will be researching how to optimize microbes for the conversion of plant cellulose - the stuff that gives plants materials such as straw, corn husks and wood their rigidity - into useful products such as fuels or plastics. Because cellulose is such a cheap and plentiful material, a cost-efficient means of converting it into useful substances could have enormous implications for a wide range of industries.

"Cellulose is very difficult to break down," Zuroff said. "We'll be looking at efficient ways to break down cellulose with biological catalysts so that other researchers can use it to make products like plastics or biofuels. It's a big picture approach."

After graduate school Zuroff hopes to come back to MSU.

"The Center (for Biofilm Engineering) is an amazing place and I want to stay a part of it."

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Ross Carlson at 406-994-3631 or