2021 Hack Graduate Award recipients take on water issues from bacterial gels to biofilms

Written by
Morgan Kelly, for the High Meadows Environmental Institute
June 16, 2021

The High Meadows Environmental Institute (HMEI) has selected 11 Princeton University graduate students as 2021 recipients of the Mary and Randall Hack ’69 Graduate Awards for Water and the Environment. The awardees include three graduate students in chemical and biological engineering: Avery Agles, Samuel Moore and Jenna Ott.

Now in its 10th year, the Hack Award program has provided 61 Princeton Ph.D. candidates with up to $10,000 in research funding to explore water and water-related topics in various disciplines, including climate science, biology, engineering and environmental policy.

Brief descriptions of each recipient’s research proposal are below.

Avery Agles

“Replica Exchange Molecular Dynamics to Uncover the Molecular Architecture of the Biofilm Matrix”

Adviser: Ian Bourg, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and the High Meadows Environmental Institute

Agles will explore the atomistic structure of the biofilm matrix, the complex gel network that microorganisms use to protect themselves. Biofilm structure is poorly understood due to limitations of the tools used to study them. Agles plans to create a simulated model of biofilm using replica exchange molecular dynamics (REMD), a molecular biology technique that captures the atomistic structure and dynamics of biomolecules that make up living systems. He plans to make his model available open-source so that people interested in microorganisms, including oceanographers, soil scientists, agriculturalists, physicians and biological engineers, can freely observe and study biofilms at the atomistic level.

Samuel Moore

“Impact of Light on Aqueous Pollutant Degradation by Iron-based Metal-Organic Frameworks”

Adviser: Michele Sarazen, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering

Moore will investigate how visible light affects the degradation of water pollutants by iron-based metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). Several iron-MOFs are water-stable compounds that have shown promise in efficiently breaking down chemical pollutants. Moore’s doctoral work has focused on synthesizing three iron-MOFs and studying their catalytic degradation of the model organic pollutant methylene blue and the plastics-derived contaminant bisphenol A (BPA) to elucidate material structure-function relationships. Moore will expand his work to study the catalytic degradation of these substances via iron-MOFs in the presence of visible light.

Jenna Ott

“Six Feet Underground: Direct Visualization of P. putida in Degrading Groundwater Contaminants”

Adviser: Sujit Datta, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering

Ott will create a geologically realistic model to observe how the bacterium species Pseudomonas putida could be used to remove the dangerous toxin naphthalene from groundwater. P. putida can degrade naphthalene — a common chemical precursor — making the microbe an ideal candidate for bioremediation. Ott will develop a transparent model mimicking soil so she can study via fluorescence the bacterium’s cellular response to varying amounts of naphthalene and determine its potential for bioremediation.