Venkat Tirumala | Assistant Editor of Natural Sciences
Caitlin Spofford graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in chemical engineering on December 5th, 2015. Throughout her undergraduate career, Caitlin has played an active role in many organizations, such as serving as the President of Omega Chi Epsilon (the chemical engineering honor society), playing in UT’s marching band, and working as an undergraduate researcher in Dr. Hal Alper’s lab.
Caitlin began working in the Alper lab her second semester of freshman year. Unlike many of the chemical engineering labs at UT focusing on synthetic polymers, nanotechnology, or separation processes, the Alper lab focuses on “engineering biology to produce organic molecules of interest such as biofuels, commodity and specialty chemicals, and protein pharmaceuticals.”1
“I got involved with research because I thought it sounded like a very good experience. In particular, Dr. Alper came and spoke in our Introduction to Chemical Engineering course about his research, and I found it very fascinating! I always have had an interest in biology and I thought this would be a great way to gain valuable experience in a field I otherwise wouldn’t get exposure to. I especially liked that it was related to energy and biofuel production.”
Caitlin has made many significant contributions to the Alper lab work over the past several years. She has worked under two different graduate students in the Alper lab, Eric Young and Leqian Liu. While working with Eric, Caitlin investigated methods of improving the xylose transporter in yeast, which is critical to unlocking the microorganism’s potential for efficiently converting biomass (lignocellulose) to fuels and chemicals. The project’s results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 2014, which included Caitlin as one of the main authors.
Caitlin’s most recent research project was her work with Leqian Liu, which aimed to engineer a strain of yeast that efficiently produced higher levels of lipids compared to wild strains. Lipids are very versatile; they can be combined with various alcohols to produce biodiesels, which are safer alternatives to diesel fuel2, or can be used to produce oleochemicals, which are widely used to produce a variety of household items, such as toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and detergents3. One of the key results in the early stage of the project was the discovery of a link between the rate of riboflavin production and the rate of lipid production in yeast. This critical breakthrough influenced Caitlin’s research and played a primary role in helping her and Liu develop a strain of yeast that produced higher levels of riboflavin.
“Most of my role involved day to day cloning, and collecting data on the amount of riboflavin produced. I would also support Leqian’s project on increased lipid production when the need arose. I think the most rewarding thing about this project was that the study regarding riboflavin production arose merely out of curiosity toward its interconnection to lipid production – I think it is awesome that rather than just complete the research necessary for a paper, the lab decided to go above and beyond and use its resources to investigate a related project.”
Alper Lab Research: Yeast cells with high lipid production float to the top of the solution, while the others sink to the bottom. By selecting for the most effective organisms, the lab created a strain that produced produced a large amount of biofuels.
Caitlin and Leqian’s work was published in Metabolic Engineering in March 2015. After the publication, Caitlin has left the Alper lab in order to pursue other interests. Caitlin considers a career in research, but for the time being she is actively seeking industry experience.
“I haven’t ruled out graduate school, but I will be going straight into industry at least for a few years. If I discover something that I am truly passionate about, I would love to go back to get a higher degree to investigate that subject!”
When asked to reflect upon her research experience, Caitlin states that it was definitely the most valuable opportunity of her undergraduate career.
“I did like doing research. My favorite part was the thought that no one had ever done what I was doing before – I loved talking to the grad students about how the work I was doing fit into the big picture. I loved that I was learning something new every day. I think the people who enjoy research the most are very patient people. You have to be ready to wait for interesting results, and understand that many days in lab are not very exciting! Researchers need to be persistent and passionately curious. I constantly developed these qualities throughout my work, and seeing my hard work payoff through exciting, innovative discoveries sweetened the entire experience that much more.”
Caitlin recommends research to anyone looking to experience something new, fascinating, and rewarding. She believes that being proactive, patient, and creative are some of the most important qualities of a future researcher. She recommends rotating in a several labs for a couple of months each, which will allows students to make a more informed decision about what lab to dedicate significant time to.
“The only tip I have for people looking to do research is to just ask around! There are so many resources to look up the types of research being conducted at UT. I would suggest looking through those databases, and then contacting professors. It never hurts to ask. The biggest thing that will help in ensuring your involvement in research is developing a passion for that subject.”
- “Alper Lab Research.” Alper Lab Research. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
- Tai, Mitchell, and Gregory Stephanopoulos. “Engineering the Push and Pull of Lipid Biosynthesis in Oleaginous Yeast Yarrowia Lipolytica for Biofuel Production.” Metabolic Engineering 15 (2013): 1-9. Web.
- Revellame, Emmanuel D., Rafael Hernandez, William French, William E. Holmes, Tracy J. Benson, Patrisha J. Pham, Allison Forks, and Robert Callahan Ii. “Lipid Storage Compounds in Raw Activated Sludge Microorganisms for Biofuels and Oleochemicals Production.” RSC Advances RSC Adv. 2.5 (2012): 2015. Web.