SRI gave me the invaluable opportunity to explore my passion for sustainability, gain research skills, and join a vibrant community of women in STEM.
Last summer, when Shivani Tripathi ’24 first joined the Summer Research Institute (SRI), she was already passionate about climate and sustainability.
“I spent my childhood living in developing countries due to my parents’ career in international development,” said Tripathi. “Be it Asia, Eastern Europe, or Africa, I grew up seeing the multidimensional impact of climate change in marginalized communities.” Today, her focus is to understand environmental changes through an array of lenses and disciplines.
Throughout SRI’s multiweek program, Tripathi conducted research in the Austin Laboratory at Barnard alongside mentor Rachel Narehood Austin, Diana T. and P. Roy Vagelos Professor of Chemistry. As a result, Tripathi learned that she can combine all of her interests — sustainability, climate, and chemistry — by majoring in economics and math, with a minor in chemistry.
Under the guidance of Austin, who has mentored many Barnard and Columbia students and alums in her lab, Tripathi worked to purify the enzyme UndB, which can be used to produce sustainable, efficient biofuels. This lab work gave her a window into the role chemistry can play in mitigating environmental changes, while also offering her the opportunity to improve her collaboration skills, which Tripathi did alongside Tierani Green ’24. SRI’s culminating project, the Lida Orzeck ’68 Poster Session, required learning how to communicate her research to nonscience audiences. “[Tierani] and I would adjust our pitch depending on who we were talking to,” said Tripathi.
In addition to the countless opportunities to problem-solve, work with data, and learn by trial and error, being in an all-women STEM program was very inspiring for Tripathi. “Standing among a cohort of female researchers was an empowering moment,” she said. In the future, she aims to use the skills learned from SRI and Austin for a career in sustainability and developmental economics.
To learn more about Tripathi’s inspirations and SRI experience, read her “Research Reflections” in the Q&A below.
What led you to want to study economics, mathematics, and chemistry?
Majoring in economics and math, with a minor in chemistry, will enable me to understand climate change from multiple perspectives. One particularly impactful moment for me was when Cyclone Idai struck Mozambique in 2019. The extreme weather event was exacerbated by climate change. At the time, I was living in Mozambique. I saw firsthand the extent of the multilevel damage that the natural disaster inflicted upon the country. Over 100,000 homes were damaged and destroyed, and 2.2 million people were displaced.
International development organizations pulled together to provide developmental aid to mitigate the effects of the disaster on the disenfranchised population. Seeing this inspired me to increase my understanding of developmental economics, in order to address developmental issues on the ground, such as financing disaster relief, water supply, and infrastructure.
At Barnard, I found that chemistry was also a vital component of sustainability efforts. During my freshman year, I took courses in general chemistry and organic chemistry. It was fascinating to learn the science behind fundamental, natural processes. Even more, I was intrigued by how chemistry can be used to mitigate human impact on the environment. I was drawn to Professor Rachel Austin’s lab for this reason, as much of her research is centered around sustainability.
What was your SRI project?
My research focused on the enzyme UndB, which could be used to produce sustainable, efficient fuels from biomass. UndB removes a carbon dioxide molecule from fatty acids, producing an alkene that is a lighter and more efficient energy source. Coupled with carbon dioxide capture, this process could minimize the impact of biofuel production on the environment. Our goal this summer was to purify the protein UndB, which is unprecedented. We also aimed to characterize the scope of the reaction between UndB and fatty acids.
How did you contribute?
To purify UndB, under the guidance of Professor Austin and Juliet Lee ’20, my lab partner and I performed a slow growth of E. coli cells that expressed the protein. The three-day process entailed growing a colony of E. coli cells in nutritionally rich media. After collecting large volumes of cell pellets, we isolated the protein, then ran an activity assay of the sample to ensure that UndB was active. The final step was to purify the protein by running a strep column. We performed this entire procedure multiple times throughout the summer. Although we were not completely successful in purifying UndB, our research laid important groundwork for the future. We gained greater insight into how to modify the methods and procedure for purification.
Our second goal was to analyze the reaction between UndB and fatty acids. We performed autoinduction experiments that gently expressed the protein in the presence of fatty acids of varying lengths. In the successful trials, the reaction produced an alkene with one less carbon than the original fatty acid. My lab partner and I performed weekly data analyses on the results of the experiments. Based on our data, we hypothesized that UndB preferred medium-length fatty acid chains with an even number of carbons.
Why is your research important?
The enzyme UndB has the potential to generate efficient biofuels. Biofuels are a type of renewable energy created from biomass, such as corn. However, there is controversy surrounding the environmental impact of the production process. When generating biofuels, it is important to account for the carbon expended in producing plants and fertilizers. Otherwise, the carbon byproducts decompose, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Paired with carbon dioxide capture, producing biofuels with UndB could be an environmentally sustainable solution.
How did SRI help you to approach research differently?
SRI gave me the invaluable opportunity to explore my passion for sustainability, gain research skills, and join a vibrant community of women in STEM. Every day, I felt incredibly inspired by how knowledgeable and hardworking my mentor Professor Austin is. She fostered a supportive, comfortable lab atmosphere.
It was exciting to apply what I had learned from chemistry courses in a real-world setting. I now have a better understanding of the research methods we employed and feel more confident about my ability to approach challenging tasks. Furthermore, conducting research taught me the importance of patience and dedication. Trials may not produce the intended results; it is imperative to reexamine a procedure to identify changes to make in future attempts. There were many opportunities to problem-solve throughout the summer. For example, while executing the slow growth, we experimented with incubating the cell membrane at different temperatures.
At the end of the summer, my lab partner and I created a poster that summarized our findings. We then showcased our research to the Chemistry Department and to members of the wider community, at the poster session. Presenting to both scientific and nonscientific audiences improved my ability to communicate effectively. Especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is vital to present science in an approachable manner.
I finished SRI having gained experiences in research, chemistry, and teamwork that I will carry for the rest of my life. I am thankful for the strong support Barnard has provided me and look forward to further pursuing my passion for environmental sustainability.