For David Rivera-Kohr, applying for graduate school was about more than continuing his education — he wanted his training to lead him to a career where he could make positive impacts on pressing environmental issues.
Rivera-Kohr explains, “Sustainability is my passion, both in my science and in my life outside of science. I want to leverage my knowledge of science to work towards sustainable practices.” That’s why he chose to work with biochemistry professor and Biotechnology Training Program (BTP) director Brian Fox, whose lab has a strong focus on sustainability.
In the Fox Lab, Rivera-Kohr focuses on biodegradation of small molecules that leach out of nylon, known as nylon extractables, and which can accumulate as pollutants. His thesis work involves isolating bacteria that eat these molecules and learning more about the biochemical mechanisms behind the bacteria’s ability to biodegrade the extractables.
Rivera-Kohr still wasn’t sure whether there were options in industry that would satisfy his ambitions for the creative freedom he enjoyed in his academic research; nor was he sure that an academic career would allow for his work to have the real-world impact he desired. He joined BTP hoping that, between his academic thesis research in the Fox Lab and the program’s requisite industry-based internship, his path would be clear. Through BTP, doctoral students gain training in biotechnology-related fields through coursework and internship.
Now, after completing a 2023 summer internship with LanzaTech, Rivera-Kohr says he is working toward a clear career goal in industry. “I didn’t know going into BTP whether I wanted to stick with academia or go into industry or governmental work. But now, I’m fairly certain that I want to go into industry.”
LanzaTech, located in Skokie, Illinois, has developed carbon-recycling technology to convert polluting wastes into sustainable raw materials. The company’s primary focus is harnessing bacteria to convert carbon-based pollutants such as carbon monoxide (gleaned mostly from steel mills) into ethanol for use in sustainable aviation fuel, textiles, packaging, and more. The work diverged from Rivera-Kohr’s thesis work while still focusing on remediation of pollutants.
At LanzaTech, Rivera-Kohr worked with a team of scientists using synthetic biology techniques to improve efficiency of the group’s protocol for inserting desired genes into a species of Clostridium, the bacterium used by the company to convert waste into ethanol. Through a process known as bacterial transformation, Clostridium is able to incorporate genetic material from its environment. This can be exploited by scientists to encourage bacteria to incorporate genes that induce desired behaviors.
During his internship, Rivera-Kohr worked on bacterial transformation protocols to improve the bacteria’s efficiency at converting carbon dioxide — a pollutant associated with climate change — into ethanol. Converting carbon dioxide to ethanol is more efficient than current options for producing plant-based ethanol, which results in its own carbon emissions because it requires growing and harvesting the plants and has its own waste and byproducts to contend with.
“The company really fit the bill of what I was looking for in an internship,” says Rivera-Kohr. “My main motivation in science is to make a positive impact on the world. At LanzaTech, I could see firsthand the applications of biochemical research at a company that shares my values.”
But the work itself was only one of the reasons that Rivera-Kohr left his internship looking forward towards a career in industry. “It’s a very employee-driven company,” explains Rivera-Kohr. “So, a lot of the projects were conceived by people who work there. I saw that there could be different avenues for scientific creativity in industry — that’s not something that is only found in academia.”
And, Rivera-Kohr says, he does not believe his experience at LanzaTech is entirely unique. “As grad students are applying to their internships, I think it’s important to keep their options open. I was lucky to be able to intern at a company that is very much aligned with my professional and personal interests. But there are so many companies doing incredibly interesting work that has a real impact.”
Written by Renata Solan.