UCI Grad Student Aims to Save the Planet One Small Enzyme at a Time

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Converting Greenhouse Gases into Biofuels

UCI’s 2017 GradSlam champion is, chemistry Ph.D. student Megan Newcomb.  Her three minute presentation, “Nature’s climate-saving machines,” earned her a $2,000 check and the opportunity to represent UCI at the system-wide competition in San Francisco on May 4.

Megan studies the enzyme nitrogenase, which she calls a “natural machine,” and tries to understand why it can convert carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into fuels.  She hopes that these same processes will be used to convert excess environmental carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide into biofuels, which are actually beneficial for the planet.

“We grow this natural machine using bacteria and then take it out of the bacteria to learn how it works. This enzyme can turn exhaust fumes from the air into the fuels we use to power machines and cars.”

Megan’s work could have a major impact on energy systems worldwide. The opportunity to convert exhaust pollutants to clean energy could be crucial not only to altering the energy business, but also in reversing current global warming trends.

As a first-generation college student, she hopes to use her communication skills to inspire future generations of scientists.  With the help of her lab mate, Megan has developed an outreach program that focuses on bringing middle school students to labs at UCI and encouraging them to go on to college. 

They are currently working with one school in Santa Ana and primarily work with low-income students, who are poised to become first-generation college students. Working with them and getting them excited about science and college has been one of her favorite things about graduate school so far.

In addition, Megan maintains a work-life balance by playing guitar, spending time outdoors, and overall strives to be positive about life in all aspects. She credits her mother for this attitude, “I was taught from a young age that I could accomplish anything and was told not to let anyone use my age or gender to dictate what I’m capable of,” Megan says.

Megan hopes to publish a few high-impact papers in the near future, and eventually to start a company that uses biotechnology to improve global climate conditions…and ultimately, save the world.



Megan NewComb