MnDRIVE program catapults undergraduate researcher to national stage

Undergraduate researcher Tamirat Ali

By Deirdre Manion-Fischer

Tamirat Ali spent last summer growing fungi in Jonathan Schilling’s lab at the University of Minnesota. He was studying ways to mitigate climate change by measuring the ability of fungi to capture methane. The technique, called biofiltration, relies on fungi to capture pollutants and bacteria to degrade them. While other research has focused on optimizing bacterial degradation, Schilling and Ali suspected they could find a more efficient fungus to optimize methane capture.

Over the course of the summer, Ali injected methane into glass vials containing tiny blocks of wood inoculated with fungi. Twenty-four hours later, he measured the decrease in methane. One type of white-rot fungus (Ganoderma lucidum) used in traditional Chinese medicine worked better at capturing methane than the species widely used in bioremediation (Pleurotus ostreatus). His success earned him a competitive travel award to attend the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference where he presented his results in Washington D.C. earlier this month.

A first-generation college student who grew up in Ethiopia, Ali immigrated to Minnesota three years ago. He joined the Schilling lab through a partnership between MnDRIVE and the NSF-funded North Star STEM Alliance. The partnership, now in its third year, connects minority students with summer research opportunities in bioremediation and neuromodulation.

Schilling, an associate professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering and a member of the BioTechnology Institute, looks for people who are open to learning. “Science is the acknowledgment that we don’t know everything yet,” Schilling said. “We start with questions, not answers.”

A national success in Ali’s undergraduate career created the possibility for future opportunities in clinical research. Ali, who hopes to study medicine, was recently accepted into the 2017 Johns Hopkins Medicine Summer Internship Program. Currently a biology major at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), he plans to continue his studies at the University of Minnesota this fall.

Deirdre Manion-Fischer works as a science writer at the University of Minnesota BioTechnology Institute.

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