In case you need further proof that not all “light bulb moments” happen in a lab or classroom, consider the story of Oliver Jan, a first-year doctoral student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) at the University of Washington.
He remembers one afternoon as a senior in high school when he was driving home from work. As Jan battled an overwhelming need to use the restroom, a different though not entirely unrelated thought elbowed its way into his frantic mind: Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could turn human waste into fuel and energy?
As soon as he got home, Jan jumped online and typed in a few search terms around his idea. Words like “chemistry” and “chemical engineering” kept popping up, and he suddenly knew what he wanted to study at college. “I liked energy,” he says, “and this idea of converting waste into something more productive.”
Jan, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, went on to major in chemical engineering at UC Irvine—where a second moment of serendipity steered his studies.
At a chemical engineering conference in Minneapolis, Jan ended up meeting SEFS Professor Fernando Resende. They struck up a conversation at a reception, and Resende talked about his laboratory and explained some of his research with alternative fuels. Jan later followed up with Resende and ended up becoming one of his first graduate students at SEFS.
One year into his program, Jan’s doctoral research now focuses on thermochemically converting lignin, an organic waste product of the pulp and paper industry, into renewable liquid biofuels that can be used to power cars, airplanes and other forms of transportation.
“It’s not a groundbreaking idea, because a lot of people here are looking at this problem,” he says, but that doesn’t make the research any less urgent or important. Lignin is the glue that helps keep plants and trees limber and protects their structure, and it’s the second-most-abundant source of renewable carbon on the planet. Yet Jan says only 2 percent of 50 million tons of lignin is being used commercially. “There has to be a better way to implement lignin.”
He feels the same about research funding.
One of the biggest challenges facing young researchers, says Jan, is overcoming a huge activation barrier for funding. Depending on your field, you have only a handful of reliable grant sources, such as the U.S. Department of Energy or National Science Foundation, and the application process is hypercompetitive—especially for less-established scientists.
Not one to leave a surface unscratched, though, Jan started exploring different options to help finance and promote his doctoral research. He soon discovered Microryza, a “crowdfunding platform for science research grants” that two former UW researchers, Denny Luan and Cindy Wu, designed and founded in 2012 (the name comes from Mycorrhizae, fungi that live in the roots of plants).
Like Jan, Luan and Wu were frustrated with the traditional research funding model, so they created a grassroots structure of individual public donations. Their site is similar to Kickstarter, except instead of seeking public funding for creative arts—music, design, films, games, technology—Microryza lets viewers browse a range of compelling research projects. Individuals then pool their money in support of a project, pledging various levels as “backers” until the funding goal is reached. These backers are only charged if the project reaches its donation target during a set timeframe. And unlike Kickstarter, the purpose of Microryza isn’t to invest in a tangible product or reward, says Jan. It’s to share in the scientific process and help fund research you believe is important to society.
Research categories on Microryza cover a broad range, from ecology and medicine to economics and engineering. A sampling of current projects on the site includes “How Does Mount Rainier Help Maintain Traditional Tribal Plant Harvesting?” and “Engineering E. Coli to Produce Hydrogen Gas Fuel.” Some have modest goals in the $1,500 to $3,500 range. Others are more ambitious, depending on the nature of the research.
What particularly caught Jan’s eye was how many professors and students were among the people seeking support for their research. And not just the numbers, but their success—even right here at UW.
Dan Jaffe, a professor of Chemistry and Atmospheric Sciences at UW, recently put up a proposal for consideration, “Do coal and diesel trains make for unhealthy air?” He set the target at $18,000. Within a week, he’d surpassed $20,000 in donations and launched the project with 113-percent support.
Jan then set to work on his own Microryza project, “Can we transform waste into clean biofuel?” He knows his target of $20,000 is aggressive, and he plans to spend the summer drumming up excitement and interest through friends and social networks. But he’s not pinning all of his hopes on this fundraising experiment, which he believes has an upside regardless of the outcome. “Even if I don’t get the funding,” he says, “it’s a great way to see how many people are interested in the biofuels work we’re doing here at the UW.”
As of July 1, 2013, his webpage on Microryza is now fully up and ready, so feel free to take a look and see if his research moves you. Who knows, you could be the one who fuels Jan’s next scientific discovery!
Photos © Oliver Jan.