Biologists' Value Grows

November 9, 2007
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A few short years ago, whenever a student asked Michigan State University Professor Bruce Dale if there was sufficient opportunity for a career in bio-based fuels and materials, his honest response was “no.”

“I would have had to say that this is a place for a few stubborn people like myself who are going to stick with it no matter what,” explained Dale, a scientist specializing in the conversion of cellulosic materials such as grass, straw and waste into liquid fuel. “There really wasn’t any commercial potential or career potential for them to do this unless they were totally motivated — and willing to be stubborn for a long period of time.”

When asked today, he has a much different answer. As a matter of fact, he could use the help.

Dale was last year named associate director of the school’s new Office of Biobased Technologies and is now a principal in the $125 million Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. He met with President George W. Bush in February to discuss the potential of cellulosic ethanol and is one of only a handful of scientists who have devoted any sustained attention to the subject, which is believed to be the logical progression from corn- and sugar-based ethanol.

“At the research level, there are just not enough people qualified in my area,” said Dale, estimating that the country’s knowledge base in this field is limited to no more than 10 scientists.

“There are only a few people qualified to really lead work in this area, and it’s stretching us. I think it’s very easy to see how you could have careers in both research and implementation today.”

Dale no longer has to convince students and assistants to work in his research lab — some compete for unpaid positions. With oversight of 15 post-graduate and student researchers, Dale’s ability to manage the lab and lead research is at its limit. He will need to implement a new management structure for his lab to grow and meet the current demand.

Plant biologists of all sorts have become a sought-after commodity. Chemical and material engineers have for generations concentrated on petroleum as fuel and plastics. Specialists such as molecular biologists, agronomists and geneticists were more likely to seek careers in pharmaceuticals or associated medical research.

Now, companies from General Motors to energy giant BP PLC have begun pouring money into universities. Michigan State University recently received a combined $4.7 million from Ford Motor Co. and Visteon Corp. There was a $50 million federal grant for the Bioenergy Research Center — a five-year partnership with the University of Wisconsin. In Holland, MSU is working with economic development group Lakeshore Advantage to convert a former Pfizer research facility into an estimated $50 million bio-economy research and development center.

Elsewhere, BP awarded a $500 million grant to the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to develop fuels made from plant materials. Chevron Corp. has given more than $60 million to various schools, and ConocoPhillips established a $22.5 million biofuels research program at Iowa State University.

“The whole intersection of biology and energy is unexplored territory,” said Steven Koonin, chief scientist at the London-based BP, in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal. “Universities are the best places for that research.”

BP currently has only four biologists on its staff of 97,000, according to Koonin, but it expects to hire 50 more in the next two years.

Dale said that the general education that is provided to engineers at the undergraduate level should be flexible enough to implement alternative energies, materials and related sustainable business practices. With that said, MSU and other colleges are making these topics a larger part of curriculums. Several local schools operate research centers of their own, including Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon and Calvin College’s Vincent and Helen Bunker Interpretive Center in Grand Rapids.

Matt Tueth, chair of the sustainable business program at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids — the only undergraduate program of its kind — believes that a shortage of experienced researchers in bio-energy is only a small part of a much larger problem.

“The educational system from top to bottom has failed us in this regard,” Tueth said. “It has failed us in terms of understanding how the natural world works, how community works — and even how business works.”

In essence, the shortage of plant biologists in the energy industry is a matter of students being discouraged from interdisciplinary studies — in this case, an intersection of chemical engineering and agriculture or forestry. In a more general sense, the problem manifests as an inability of business leaders, researchers and even consumers to understand complex environmental systems.

“One of the largest barriers to sustainable business is ignorance,” Tueth said. “You can’t do the right thing if you don’t know what it is, and even the people involved in sustainable business really don’t understand the issues.

“From K-12 and beyond, we teach compartmentalized disciplines, so people don’t understand how chemistry, for instance, relates to business, or to history, physics — even biology.”

Sustainable business is not as much a study of the environmental impacts of business as it is of the relationships between business, biology, chemistry, sociology and other factors affecting commerce and the natural environment. Tueth believes that students are discouraged from such comprehensive studies prior to undergraduate school by compartmentalized education throughout the K-12 system. He is currently writing a grade-school textbook with the hope of addressing some of these issues.

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