Next Generation: Sam Major

June 30, 2017
Watch as Sam Major, a graduate student at the Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology, talks about his research at the Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology.

Hometown: Richmond, Rhode Island
Adviser: Russell Hill

What are you researching? We are lucky enough to be able to collaborate with a small biofuels company started by Dr. Hill’s graduated Ph.D. student, Dr. Ryan Powell of Manta Biofuels, LLC. Dr. Powell developed a proprietary technology to harvest microalgae for conversion to biofuels.

In the laboratory, we are investigating how the microbial communities associated with algae affect the quality of biofuel derived from these harvested microalgae. We are using next-generation sequencing to track how the microbial communities in treated ponds change over time. As a bloom of microalgae develops and is collected with this new technology, it is subsequently converted into a biofuel.

Why it makes a difference: It has been proposed that microalgal-derived biofuels have several advantages over their land-based counterparts, such as sugarcane and corn. Microalgae can grow in locations that would otherwise be unused for agricultural purposes, such as barren lands or wastewater, and it can be used to treat wastewater. They are also carbon-neutral, meaning any carbon their fuel emits from combustion is taken back up by the next microalgae crop, so there are no new greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere.

We are using next-generation sequencing to track how the microbial communities in treated ponds change over time. As a bloom of microalgae develops and is collected with this new technology, it is subsequently converted into a biofuel.

 

How did you get interested in environmental science? I remember when I was little, there was an oil spill in the Block Island Sound off Rhode Island and my parents drove us out to a point on the beach to see the boat. I have this vivid memory of seeing this vessel being completely static in the water and noticing a faint smell of the oil wafting off the water as the evening breeze blew over the beach. In the coming weeks, as my parents watched the evening news, there were a number of stories covering the environmental impacts of this type of anthropogenic tragedy. Ever since then, it has been like one of those things when you learn about something new and you start to notice this new thing more and more, realizing how common it actually is.

I later majored in microbiology at University of New Hampshire where I became infatuated with the potential uses microbial life forms have for biotechnologies. Then I found the Institute of Marine & Environmental Technology and Dr. Hill when I was looking for a graduate program, and it has been a perfect fit.

When did you come to UMCES and what made you decide to come here? I joined the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science in the fall of 2015 as a Master’s student. I decided to come here because it is not your typical graduate experience. Working with UMCES and IMET allows me to interact with local entrepreneurs, leaders in biotechnology, and professors from all over the University of Maryland System.

Share an experience that stands out most about your time with UMCES. In June 2016, I attended my first American Society of Microbiology conference in Boston. I was completely blown away by the strength of the scientific research presented and the researchers’ ability to communicate their work. That was when it really occurred to me how crucial it is to be able to speak with other people, outside whichever field you study, about the impact and importance of your work.

What do you like to do in your free time? I’ve played a lot of kickball in a couple adult leagues. It is a great way to blow off some steam and laugh at each other.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment? The most obvious thing you can do is recycle when you can, throw your trash away, and walk to something if it is a mile away. I must admit if I see a piece of trash in my walking path, I tend to pick it up and toss it out.

What are your future plans? My plan is to head back north and work in the industry with the eventual goal of starting my own biotechnology start up.