Cindy Bither
Administrative Assistant
P: (540) 464-7207
F: (540) 464-7443

111 Smith Hall
Lexington, VA 24450

Biology Research Riding Wave of Support


LEXINGTON, Va., Feb. 18, 2013 – VMI’s robust undergraduate research program doesn’t just happen.

It thrives, and thrives only because at VMI we get a whole lot of help from our friends.

Case in point: Maj. Anne Alerding’s project to develop clean-burning biofuel from stem residues of prolific soybean plants whose beans have already been harvested for food. Alerding’s is one of few biofuel projects that use a common agricultural plant yet do not compete with the plant’s use for food – and two cadets are benefitting from extensive work in the lab this year, with many more to benefit in the future as this long-range, many faceted project continues.

Making it all happen are grants from sources both public and private totaling $150,776.

“This is beyond my dreams. … This is a world class lab now; it’s competitive with any you’d find at U.Va. or Virginia Tech,” said Alerding. “We’re well equipped.”

Located in a recently renovated portion of Maury-Brooke Hall, a renovation project still under way, Alerding’s lab has benefitted first from funding for the renovation, which included $66,500 for an ultra performance liquid chromatography system (UPLC), enabling Alerding, and Cadet Garrett Parsons ’15, to measure cell wall chemicals in soybean stems.

For biology major Parsons, the project has introduced a whole new way of thinking about plants.

“The combination of biology – the cellulose, the hemicellulose – [and] the breakdown through acid hydrolysis … was an introduction for me from biology into chemistry.” He entered his first chemistry class this fall a few steps ahead of his classmates after a summer working in Alerding’s lab on a stipend funded by a $20,000 renewable grant from the Jeffress Memorial Trust.

That grant funded Alerding’s own salary over the summer, as well as travel for her and Cadet Matthew Waalkes ’13 to several conferences; a $1,300 muffle furnace for measuring cell wall chemistry in soybean powder; a $1,700 column heater and computer for the UPLC machine; $6,500 for consumable lab supplies; and salaries and stipends for research this summer.

Waalkes, too, has learned to think a whole new way about science.

“In a textbook there are a lot of certainties,” said Waalkes, a biology major with minors in chemistry and writing. “But in a research lab, you start to realize that science is full of uncertainties. It becomes much more interesting, it becomes much more exciting.”

Waalkes has been studying the tissues of the soybean stem through digital microscopy using the biology department’s Nikon Eclipse 80i research microscope. He analyzes the tissues using ImageJ software developed by the National Institutes of Health. He analyzes those results using Mathematica, with advice from math department head Col. Troy Siemers.

Waalkes’ work on the project includes a Summer Undergraduate Research Institute – SURI – project and travel to present in the graduate student division at the American Society of Plant Biologists Southern Section Regional meeting, both through the Jackson-Hope Fund; study of soybean slides prepared through a contract funded by a Jackson-Hope New Directions in Teaching and Research Grant; and a Swope summer research stipend funded by the VMI Foundation’s Watkins-Southard Fund.

Alerding’s research began two years ago with the selection and planting of five soybean cultivars. It will continue this summer with the bioengineering of the best of these to produce the cleanest possible fuel and with extensive testing and development by Maj. Tim Moore ’97 and his cadets in his lab.

Both studies are part of VMI’s Clean Energy and Air Resources – CLEAR – Program, a project that received a $40,000 Dominion Resources Higher Education Partnership Grant last year.

Alerding’s work has been supported by a Wetmore Fund grant to Parsons, VMI Foundation Grants-in-Aid of Research funding, Virginia Equipment Trust Fund money, the Carroll Fund, and funding provided by the dean’s office, all of which is supporting work that is cutting-edge both in its procedures and in the interdisciplinary nature of its subject.

It all started for Alerding, after all, when she was approached by Moore, an assistant professor of civil engineering who studies pollutants, looking for a collaborator to work with him on a submission in response to a call for proposals on biofuel research.
“I was approached by a civil engineer on a problem – he didn’t know much about plants, and I didn’t know much about making biofuel,” said Alerding. “We put it together from there.”

Alerding continued, “There’s a new wave in research for interdisciplinary problem solving.”

And, thanks to a lot of help from sources both public and private, VMI’s riding the crest.

–Sherri Tombarge