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Two Cornell graduate students receive DOE grants

Christopher Morrison Pierce, M.S. ’19, a doctoral candidate in the field of physics, and Brennan Hyden, a doctoral candidate in the field of plant breeding, have been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for the Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program.

The SCGSR Program provides supplemental funds for awardees to conduct part of their thesis research at a host DOE laboratory, in collaboration with a DOE laboratory scientist. The research projects are intended to advance awardees’ overall doctoral research and training while providing access to the expertise, resources and capabilities available at the DOE laboratories.

In the award announcement, Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said, “These graduate student awards help prepare new scientists for STEM careers that are vitally important to the DOE mission and the nation’s economy. … They represent the future leadership and innovation that will allow American science and engineering to excel in the 21st century.”

Pierce will work at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on accelerator and detector research and development. His research focuses on ways to capture chemical reactions at the atomic level.

“At the moment, we can only capture ‘molecular movies’ for the simplest compounds, those which are small and only involve a few atoms,” Pierce said. “This is because the electron beam that we shine on a sample is too noisy and blurs out the details of what’s going on. In order to record the chemical reactions that are necessary for life, which involve some of the largest molecules we know of, we need to find a way of creating electron beams that are 100 times more clear than what is available right now.”

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab is uniquely suited to perform this type of research, said Pierce. “The grant has opened the door for me to perform hands-on work at one of the few user facilities for ultrafast electron diffraction in the country.”

At Cornell, Pierce works with Ivan Bazarov, professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, to improve the brightness of electron beams as part of the Center for Bright Beams, a National Science Foundation Science and Technology Center. They are studying different materials to understand which are the best for certain applications and to understand the general rules for designing better electron sources.

Hyden will be investigating the functional genomics of willow shrubs at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which will help advance the plant’s potential for sustainable energy production.

“Willow is a suitable bioenergy crop since it’s fast growing, requires few inputs and can grow on marginal land that is too wet for other crops,” Hyden said. “Shrub willow can actually be a carbon negative energy source too, since carbon is fixed into the roots, which are not harvested.”

He currently works in the lab of Larry Smart, professor of horticulture in the School of Integrative Plant Science, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Hyden’s goal is to identify the genes that control willow sex and the genetic pathways that then lead to differing traits. This knowledge will ultimately inform plant scientists on how to breed willow varieties that have the most desirable characteristics for bioenergy production.

“The ideal willow is fast growing, high yielding, has low ash content and is resistant to pests and diseases,” Hyden said.

Specifically, Hyden is looking at the sexual dimorphism that controls willow biomass and secondary metabolite profiles – such as pest and pollinator attraction. Through work on bioinformatics and genomic sequencing done at Cornell, he has already identified several genes that are likely involved in willow sex determination, and his upcoming work at Oak Ridge will help confirm their precise roles.

Oak Ridge offers advanced biotechnology, computational and laboratory methods for this kind of analysis, as well as the potential to collaborate with other researchers working with willow and poplars, which are closely related.

“I’m looking forward to gaining experience in new research methods and techniques,” Hyden said, “which will be invaluable to building my skillset and preparing me to enter the workforce as a research scientist.”

Linda B. Glaser is the news and media relations manager for the College of Arts and Sciences. Jana Wiegand is the editorial content manager for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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