Summer 2017 – GoMRI Researcher Interview

(From Summer 2017 Newsletter) Dr. Vijay John, from Tulane University, is principal investigator of the RFP-V project The Design of Synergistic Dispersant and Herding Systems using Tubular Clay Structures and Gel Phase Materials. His research team involves three other PIs: Dr. Diane Blake (Tulane), Dr. Yuri Lvov (Louisiana Tech), and Dr. Donghui Zhang (LSU), and uniquely includes four GoMRI scholars: Marzhana Omarova, Abhishek Panchal, Lauren Swientoniewski, and Tianyi Yu. Below, Dr. John and his team’s graduate students share more about their research interests and discuss their work on this project.

Dr. Vijay John

The four students collaborate extensively with each other. Tianyi has expertise in polymer synthesis and synthetic organic chemistry. She takes the lead in efforts to attach polymers onto clays. Lauren’s focus is on the biological aspects of the work, and she takes the lead in all aspects related to bacterial growth characteristics and the design of biochemical methods to analyze growth and metabolism. Abhishek and Marzhana are the physical chemists and chemical engineers on the project. They work on stabilizing oil emulsions with functionalized particles and understanding the details of biofilm attachment to particles and to the oil-water interfaces. Detailed electron microscopy is an intrinsic aspect of the research. The group holds a video conference call with all PIs every two weeks. The students communicate with each other on a routine basis, exchanging information and learning techniques from each other, and sending samples to one another for analysis.

Lauren Swientoniewski, Ph.D. Student with Diane Blake (Tulane)

Lauren received her Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology with a minor in chemistry at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 2014. After graduation, she interned in a proteomics laboratory at Oak Ridge National Laboratory before attending Tulane University School of Medicine to pursue her Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. Her current work on the project mainly focuses on the ubiquitous marine bacteria, Alcanivorax borkumensis and Cycloclasticus pugetii, that degrade straight-chain hydrocarbons and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in crude oil, respectively. She studies the results of applying various nanostructures that aid in the emulsification of crude oil on bacterial mechanisms, such as growth, biodegradation, and biosurfactant production. After graduation, Lauren would like to expand her research involving nanostructures to their usage and development in the medical and pharmacological fields.

Abhishek Panchal, Ph.D. Student with Yuri Lvov (Louisiana Tech)

In the small town of Ruston, Louisiana, Abhishek Panchal works on emulsifying crude using silane grafted halloysite tubes, simultaneously working on the proliferation of hydrocarbonoclastic species like Alcanivorax borkumensis and Cycloclasticus pugetti. Abhishek relies on the materials and chemistry expertise of Marzhana and Tianyi and the support of Lauren in biological studies to combine his deftness with halloysite nanotubes into practical and eco-friendly formulations. Abhishek has completed his Bachelor’s Degree in pharmaceutical technology from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai (India). Motivated by the need to create technologies that are feasible to be scaled-up and would be available to the masses, Abhishek came to the United States and joined the lab of Professor Yuri Lvov for his doctoral studies. Professor Lvov’s extensive work with halloysite clay, an inexpensive and widely available material, aligned with Abhishek’s motivation. Currently, Abhishek is working on a bacterial encapsulation technique inspired by the delectable Raffaello candy employing halloysite clay and formation of biofilm by marine bacterial species.

Tianyi Yu, Ph.D. Student with Donghui Zhang (LSU)

Tianyi Yu is currently a third-year graduate student working in Dr. Donghui Zhang’s group at the Department of Chemistry at Louisiana State University. The goal of this research is to investigate whether and how polymer-modified clay nanotubes (halloysites) can enhance the oil remediation effort. The hypothesis is that the polymer-modified halloysites will support the growth and proliferation of oil-degrading bacteria, in addition to serving as an oil-water emulsion stabilizer. Tianyi’s work is focused on making the biocompatible polypeptoids polymer-functionalized halloysites and characterizing their effects as oil-water emulsion stabilizers. She works closely with Marzhana Omarova from Dr. Vijay John’s lab in Tulane’s Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department and Abhishek Panchal from Dr. Yuri Lvov’s lab at Louisiana Technology University to characterize the structure and interfacial behaviors of these polypeptoid-functionalized halloysites. She also collaborates with Lauren Swientoniewski from Dr. Diane Blake’s lab to characterize the cytotoxicity of these new colloidal particles and investigate their effect on the growth and activity of the oil-degrading bacterial.

Marzhana Omarova, Ph.D. Student with Vijay John (Tulane)

Marzhana is a second-year graduate student from Kazakhstan pursuing a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Research in her lab aims at understanding the role of particle stabilized emulsions as a surfactant-free method for oil spill remediation, specifically interactions between particle armored oil droplets and oil degrading bacteria in the context of oil spills. They want to investigate particle stabilized emulsions from the aspects of not only emulsion stability, but its role in biodegradation and oil transport. Their approach is based on visually resolving microbial attachment to oil droplets, formation of microbial biofilm, and the structure of the produced exopolymer. Experimental techniques available such as cryo-SEM (scanning electron microscopy) and cryo-TEM (transmission electron microscopy) yield high resolution images of biofilm and bacterial attachment to oil droplets, thus contributing to and complementing the information obtained by their collaborators. Marzhana’s interest lies in pursuing an academic career, and being involved in a GoMRI project is a perfect position to be in for an aspiring academic researcher. The collaboration provides her with great mentorship from several experienced academics, and interaction with fellow graduate students is an excellent opportunity for brainstorming and fruitful discussion.

Learn more about Dr. John and his team’s research here. Learn more about the GoMRI Scholars program here.

[Back to the Summer 2017 Newsletter]