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Emily Lanier: Bringing synthetic chemistry to the green side

June 5, 2019

Emily Lanier is a doctoral student in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and works in the lab of Bjoern Hamberger. She is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. The program, one of the country's most prestigious and competitive awards for graduate students, directly supports graduate students in various science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

One of the hardest aspects of becoming a good scientist is learning how to present research ideas in successful grant applications. While as graduate students we are not expected to support ourselves, receiving the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is a big step forward in my path to becoming an independent scientist.

This was the second time I applied for this fellowship, and actually winning it this year was the culmination of a lot of time spent figuring out how best to use my skill set. I received my undergraduate degree in chemistry with a focus on the organic synthesis of antibiotics. Afterwards, I spent two years working for a scientific start-up company and thinking about how I wanted to continue in my career.

When I decided to go for a Ph.D., my love for plants and the biological side of chemistry drew me here to MSU’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I walked in last fall looking for a unique project to combine my interests in chemistry, plant science and “synthetic biology,” which applies engineering principles to designing biological systems for useful purposes.

Michaela TerAvest, Emily Lanier and Bjoern Hamberger (left to right). Photo by: Igor Houwat

My mentor, Dr. Bjoern Hamberger, invited me to start a collaboration with Dr. Michaela TerAvest, another professor from BMB, combining two seemingly disparate subjects: plants capable of synthesizing useful chemical compounds and microbes engineered to “eat” electrons. The ultimate goal of this project is to develop methods for sustainable production of chemicals used in wide ranging applications from pharmaceuticals to fragrances to industrial chemicals.

Plants are very good at making valuable compounds for these applications, but these are often non-crop plants that are difficult to harvest sustainably. So, the enzymes necessary to carry out these reactions can be transferred to microbial hosts that are much better at growing rapidly with minimal resources.

The particular species of bacteria that I work with has been engineered by the TerAvest lab to utilize electrons from an electrode to chemically convert simple raw materials into complex molecular scaffolds, which may be a final chemical product or a material for further modification. Providing electrons is a cheaper and more direct way to supply energy than relying on the native bacterial metabolism of carbon sources (such as sugar).

This project stretched me to quickly master areas completely new to me. I had done very little molecular biology in my past research and had never even heard of electricity-producing bacteria. In order to apply for this fellowship, I had just a couple of months to research and write a convincing proposal for the project as well as to write a compelling essay telling my story.


Emily Lanier works in the TerAvest Lab. Photo by: Igor Houwat

With a lot of help from many MSU faculty, especially Dr. Hamberger and Dr. TerAvest, I wrote through several versions of essays and proposals for my application before settling on something I felt ready to submit. Still, waking up to find I had actually won was unexpected and exhilarating.

There’s a lot of uncertainty involved in being a scientist. We have to present our ideas bravely and honestly, even though we’re often unsure about what will turn out to be worthwhile. I spent a lot of time during and after my time as an undergraduate wondering how to use my synthetic chemistry background.

As it turns out, chemistry was the perfect foundation for learning new techniques in plant science and electro-microbiology. Now I’m bringing synthetic chemistry to the green side as I continue working on sustainable methods to produce high value plant-derived chemicals.

Read more about Emily Lanier's fellowship award here.