CSU, Chico News

Students Take First Place in CSU Student Research Competition; Microbial Biochemistry Project Uses Industrial Waste to Make Biodegradable Plastic

Date: 05-08-2008

Joe Wills
Public Affairs

Two California State University, Chico biology students won first place in the 22nd annual California State University Student Research Competition, held at CSU, East Bay May 2 and 3.

CSU, Chico seniors Christopher Paul Morris and Kevin Roy Parsons topped 18 other entrants from other CSU campuses with research in microbial biochemistry that has great potential for creating new uses and sustainable practices for waste products.

Their research project, “Use of Brewery Waste for the Microbial Conversion of Carbohydrates to Lactic Acid,” showed promising results in using industrial or agricultural waste, such as yeast or rice hulls, as a medium for bacteria to produce lactic acid, which can be made into biodegradable plastic.

Morris and Parsons came in first place in the undergraduate competition for biological and agricultural sciences. Other CSU, Chico students that competed were Kristin Bradley (Nutritional Science), Melissa D. Green (Animal Science), Ryan Hake (Mathematics), Nicole Huber (Biology) and Galila Whitmarsh (Teaching International Languages).

Morris and Parsons were supervised by biology professor Larry Hanne and chemistry professor Larry Kirk for over a year while they conducted their research. Mechanical engineering professor Joe Greene, who oversees the University’s Polymers Manufacturing Lab, collaborated on the project and obtained funding from Sierra Nevada Brewery Co. and the California Rice Research Board to support the work.

Hanne said the project likely impressed the competition judges because it was a solid piece of scientific work: carefully controlled, with a good design. He said Morris and Parsons were aided by practicing their presentation before a group of faculty and students in the College of Natural Sciences – the microbial biochemistry research group – which meets on Fridays. “We emphasize to students that they need to be able to talk about their work, and explain and defend what they’re doing,” said Hanne. “I’m sure the practice helped them in their presentation before the judges.”

Kirk said the research was very relevant and timely, given its emphasis on reducing waste products and helping the environment. “It fits in very well with the University’s other efforts in sustainability,” he said. Biodegradable plastics currently available are made from corn, a food product, as opposed to spent yeast or rice hulls, which are waste products.

Hanne said the research project, which used yeast from Sierra Nevada that had already been used in the beer-making process, has spurred the brewery to re-think how it disposes of waste materials. “We are slowly seeing that the world is moving toward valuing waste and seeing it as the beginning of a process, instead of the end,” said Hanne.

Hanne and Kirk will accompany Parsons and Morris to Boston in June to present the research results at the national conference of the American Society for Microbiology.

Three other CSU, Chico students are continuing the research project, Hanne said. Parsons will be graduating in December, and Morris, who graduates this month, is entering a combined MD/PhD program at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Services, in Bethesda, M.D.

The CSU Student Research Competition is held each year following competitions on individual campuses. Student participants make oral presentations before juries of professional experts from major corporations, foundations, public agencies, colleges and universities in California.