Innovative PRL research impresses at international workshop

Image of the cyanobacteria workshop attendees.
2016 Cyanobacteria workshop attendees. By Samantha Lloyd, VisLab


PRL members captivated attendees at the 12th Workshop on Cyanobacteria at Arizona State University, winning two out of six possible prizes for best poster presentation.

The workshop is targeted towards graduate student and post doc research on cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, which has great potential in creating renewable energy and other useful biotechnological compounds.

This year’s event attracted 200 faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and industry members from around the world. Six poster sessions were held, and judges selected one winning poster per session.

Our two winners, Derek Fedeson, a 4th year PhD candidate in the Genetics Program in the Ducat lab and Aiko Turmo, a lab assistant in the Kerfeld lab with a BS in Genetics, shared their reflections in the following interview.


What got you into this field?

Derek: One of my earliest memories of a movie theater was going to see Godzilla with my father, when I was seven. In the film, the military recruits a scientist who studied the effects of radiation on earthworms near Chernobyl, documenting their increasing size. The theory was that radiation from the nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean had led to the creation of Godzilla. And I thought that was AWESOME. Later on I watched Jurassic Park on VHS with my family and learned that genetics were something that could be manipulated. These works of science fiction really got me interested in genetics and DNA and how we could use genetics to benefit society, or at least build something really cool.

Aiko: I got an undergrad degree in genetics, but I came first from premed. I actually went into genetics because my sister had a genetic disorder and my brother has type 1 diabetes, so I wanted to know more about these disorders. When I graduated, I found a job as a lab technician at the Kerfeld lab, and the more I worked here, the more I enjoyed the synthetic biology.


Image of Derek Fedeson in the lab.
Derek Fedeson. By Harley J Seeley Photography


What’s your research on?

Aiko: We’re trying to reengineer a protein structure, found in many bacteria, to turn it into a nanoreactor (a miniature factory) that could sustainably create useful chemicals. For example, I’ve worked with isoprene, a smaller chemical that is easy to work with and is popular because it is used to create synthetic rubber. And the only way to create rubber right now is through trees and petroleum. So, our research is pretty innovative.

Derek: For my project, I am working to engineer cyanobacterial cells to produce proteins on their outermost surfaces, where these proteins can then interact with the cell’s environment. Cyanobacteria are relatively easy to grow and simple to work with, which is what allows us to do this work. We’re the first group to successfully modify a strain of cyanobacteria to express an engineered surface protein that is definitively available to interact with the environment. Down the road, we can imagine applications where this technology would allow for such proteins to break down heavy metals in the environment or enhance the harvesting of biomass as a source of renewable energy.


What motivated you to attend the workshop?

Derek: It was a great opportunity for networking and sharing my research with people who have a vested interest in what I’m doing. I was excited to present my work to fellow scientists who understood the importance and implications of my research.

Aiko: I agree with Derek. We are trying to get our work out there, and I was also looking for positive criticism.


Why do you think you won?

Aiko: What we are doing is cutting edge. The application of my research, if it works out, is very exciting. There are other chemicals that could be produced with this nanoreactor system for bio technology purposes.

Derek: I’ll agree with Aiko that the projects coming out of the PRL are novel and I believe this had a great deal to do with why we received these awards. Honestly, I didn’t actually know that there were going to be awards. It was the end of the last presentation of the workshop when they announced, “…and now it’s time for awards!”. I was not expecting to receive an award and I was entirely unprepared, having changed into casual khaki shorts and a t-shirt. And, of course, I was the last person called…


 Image of Aiko Turmo. 
Aiko Turmo


What advice would you give other students presenting for the first time?

Aiko: I wish I were more confident. This was my first conference, and I felt intimidated. I didn’t realize that most people were graduate students who were attending for the first time too. It is ok to make a couple of mistakes, because it is a friendly environment.

Derek: Practice your talk with someone who might know a little bit about what you are doing but doesn’t have the inside scoop on your research. That’ll bring to surface any topics that need clarification. During the conference presentation, I realized it would have been great to have an additional figure at the bottom of the poster to explain why I changed an experimental protocol. I had practiced my presentation with my fellow lab members who already knew the reasons behind that change. However, a first timer-would not, and would have raised questions about this change. Although I was able to explain my logic during the presentation, it would have been much better to have that figure to back up my statements.


How did your lab mentors support you?

Aiko: Dr. Kerfeld always motivates her lab to give 100% and pushes for a high standard. She also is very patient and very good at explaining things. I actually worked directly with Raul, a post doc in the lab, and he reflected that attitude, especially helping me out whenever I made a mistake. It’s a quick way to learn.

Derek: I think that Danny Ducat is a spectacular mentor. He has a critical eye and will work through things with you. In general, if you have a question that you have to ask right now, his door is always open. He really wants students to be excited about their work, and he is passionate about the research in the lab.


Related Content

How to build an artificial nano-factory to power our futures
How to build an artificial nano-factory to power our futures

The Kerfeld lab has analyzed over 200 sets of cyanobacteria DNA. This knowledge is getting us closer to understanding how to build synthetic factories that will someday produce green fuels or products used to diagnose diseases.

Unpacking a new bacterial mini-factory
Unpacking a new bacterial mini-factory

The new compartment, widely spread among different kinds of bacteria, might be reassembled to someday sustainably produce “green” chemicals, medicines, and renewable energy.