The Biology of Biofuels: An Interview with Shayan Bhathena

Sonali Arora | Assistant Editor of Social Sciences

Shayan Bhathena
Shayan Bhathena is a senior at The University of Texas at Austin majoring in Plan II and Human Biology. Shayan works as a peer mentor for the Biology of Biofuels stream in the Freshman Research Initiative, and is currently researching the biology of a biofuels species commonly called switchgrass, or Panicum virgatum.

As a freshman, Shayan started out on the pre-medical track, and accordingly, joined a variety of pre-medical organizations. However, she soon became interested in research after learning about the research opportunities available at UT.

“As the year went on and I learned more about the crazy amount of research that happens at UT, I felt like I was missing out on some really cool experiences. I applied to FRI as a sophomore, and joined the Biofuels stream in the spring. Although biofuels research has nothing to do with my career path, I’ve always had an interest for environmental science, and felt that I should use my time as an undergraduate to take advantage of the opportunities that I might not have later.”

Switchgrass is a promising alternative source of biofuel. It demonstrates high productivity across a wide range of environmental conditions, and would not directly compete with food as corn does. During Shayan’s time working with Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at the Juenger Lab this summer, she helped conduct research investigating the effect of drought stress on leaf chlorophyll concentration in a genetic model species of switchgrass called Hall’s Panic Grass (Panicum hallii, pictured above.). This semester, she and an FRI student are conducting similar research.

Hall's Panicgrass

“My favorite part about this lab is that I get to learn something new almost every day! Relatively little research has been conducted on switchgrass, so there’s still a world of information about this plant that still needs to be uncovered.”

As a Human Biology major, Shayan has found that a lot of what she learns in the lab helps her in her classes as well. According to her, one of the most practical skills she’s learned through this lab has been learning to code in R, a statistical program used across many fields of research today. This experience later helped her in her biostatistics class, which also incorporated R into the coursework. More generally, the information she has learned through the FRI class and through research has helped her with a wide range of classes she has taken, including courses on evolution, biochemistry, and microbiology.


Students in this FRI stream work at the Juenger Lab, where they gain hands on experience in laboratory techniques, experimental design, and data analysis.

Regardless of where her career takes her, the skills Shayan has picked up on through research will serve her well in the future. She will be taking a gap year after graduating in the spring and is considering working as a medical assistant part time and assisting with research part time. According to her, working in a lab has taught her to think scientifically, how to ask questions, and how to adapt when things don’t go exactly according to plan. She values these skills the most, since they can be broadly translated across any field.

Her advice to other undergraduate students interested in research is that it’s never too late to get involved.

“Check out Eureka, and if you find something that [piques] your interest, shoot an email to the PI or to a student in the lab that you want to work with. Also, if you didn’t do FRI as a freshman and are unsure of where to start, UT now has a program called the Accelerated Research Initiative for sophomores and juniors. UT is such a huge research institution that if you have a specific interest, then someone’s probably researching it here!”


Picture References

  1. Shayan Bhathena.
  2. Alexander, P. J. (n.d.). Hall’s Panic Grass [Digital image]. Retrieved from
  3. Image from College of Natural Sciences. (2014). Freshman Research Spotlight: Biology of Biofuels. Retrieved October 05, 2016, from

Featured photo from Bio Diesel Basics: A Simple Bio Diesel Handbook by Amar Patel

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