Principal Mentors  

Dr. Susan Pfiffner of the University of Tennessee  oversaw the Biogeochemical Educational Experiences - South Africa (BEE-SA) administration, recruitment and selection of students, working with mentors on the research and lecture agenda, coordinating activities with the UOFS, Princeton University and the mining companies, and participating as a faculty mentor.  Dr. Pfiffner is a Co-P.I. for the Witwatersrand Deep Microbiology Project and was a participant in the 2000 U.S./S.A. Biotechnology workshop that helped establish the 2001-2002 undergraduate workshops that led to the 2003-2004 Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.  Dr. Pfiffner has been an integral member of interdisciplinary teams composed of academia, industry and national laboratory members involved in the field investigations of deep subsurface microbiology and bioremediation demonstrations.  Her research interests include the microbial evaluation of subsurface environments to determine which physiological types of microorganisms, as well as, which metabolic or degradative capabilities exist in sediments and groundwater from field sites. Her National Science Foundation (NSF) Life in Extreme Environments (LExEn) funded research is targeted at determining microbial community structure by cultivation of microorganisms under different physiological conditions and by analyzing the environmental samples for membrane lipids as a non-cultivation method. Her previous educational involvement has included organizing and participating in SHared ADventures in Engineering and Science (SHADES), Science-In Action workshops, the Women In Science conference and mentoring 12 graduate and 5 undergraduate students.

Kimberly L. Davis, P.E., also of the University of Tennessee, assisted Dr. Pfiffner with the coordination, travel arrangements, and administrative operations for the REU. She currently serves Director of Programs and Outreach at the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE), which works closely with the UT Center for Environmental Biotechnology.  She is a chemical/environmental engineer with 20 years of experience in cost analysis of treatment technologies, regulatory compliance, contaminated site characterization and remedial action feasibility studies. Since 1998, she has been chair of the ISSE Fellowship Program, which offers graduate fellowships, undergraduate scholarships, and undergraduate internships (totaling over $154,000 in the past six years).  Since 1994, she has mentored two graduate students on their M.S. thesis research, and worked with five undergraduate and four graduate students on research projects and internships. For the past several years, she has overseen the Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers (TSPE) regional program for awarding undergraduate scholarships to high school seniors planning to major in engineering, and coordinated the annual TSPE educational program Discover-E, which sends volunteer engineers to talk to area middle school students.  She has also participated for the past ten years in SHADES, a biannual hands-on science workshop to mentor 12-13 year old girls and encourage them to consider science and engineering careers.   

Drs. Esta van Heerden and Derek Litthauer are from the University of the Free State (UOFS) and served as mentors in the 2003-2004 REU.  They have been mentors to numerous undergraduates as well as graduate students during their tenure as faculty members, and generally have two to six undergraduate researchers working in the Biochemistry and Molecular laboratories.  This has given undergraduates an opportunity to design and to perform experiments, and to present the results of their research at scientific meetings and in research publications.  Most students who have worked as undergraduate researchers in the labs are continuing postgraduate studies mainly at UOFS or sometimes elsewhere in South Africa and even some aboard.  Currently, three undergraduate students are active in the labs of which one will be using molecular techniques for characterization of uncultivated microorganisms from various environments.  She is extracting DNA, amplifying 16S rRNA genes by PCR and cloning of these PCR products with the subsequent sequencing of these products.  The second student is screening the deep subsurface samples for enzymatic activity and trying to characterize the protein product's stability and exploiting the possible biotechnological applications.  The third student is determining the levels of the expression profile of various enzymes in microorganisms.  These genes for some of these enzymes have been cloned by this student and are currently being characterized.  All undergraduate students are introduced to computer programs and given the opportunity to develop and direct their research to suit their interests.  They also have to present at least two seminars in the department with external evaluation that is a great aid in the development of their scientific skills.

Dr. T.C. Onstott, of Princeton University, is the senior PI overseeing the administration and field operations of the NSF LExEn research project "Collaborative Research:  South African Ultradeep Mines - Long-Term Sites for Interdisciplinary Studies (LSLIS) into the Extreme Environment of the Deep Subsurface NSF" (EAR-9978267).  Dr. Onstott also organized the first U.S./S.A. Biotechnology workshop in 2000, which led to the organization of an education working group that had helped forge the subsequent week-long workshops in 2001 and 2002.  Dr. Onstott has been an integral member of interdisciplinary teams composed of academia, industry and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) national laboratory members involved in the field investigations of deep subsurface microbiology and bioremediation demonstrations.  His research interests focus on the origin and evolution of subsurface microbial communities and how those communities change by migration during groundwater flow.  His NSF-LExEn funded research is focused on developments of techniques to acquire representative, uncontaminated microbial and geochemical samples of the deep subsurface sites exposed by mining activities in South Africa, to characterize the aqueous organic and inorganic geochemistry of these environments and to examine the microbial community structure using flow cytometry and in situ hybridization techniques. 

This year, Dr. Onstott was included in Time Magazine's "Time 100" as one of the nineteen scientists and thinkers. The Time 100 is an annual list of the 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world.  

As a faculty member at Princeton, Dr. Onstott has advised seven undergraduate students on their junior projects and senior theses over the last six years.  The most recent student was Mike Hochman of the Ecology and Environmental Biology Department whose senior thesis was on AA case for biotic speleogenesis in a dolomite aquifer in South Africa.  Other senior undergraduates include Kevin Long who studied enhanced advection of bacteria in porous media, and Justin Pavolich who studied the preservation of Archaea in ancient halite crystals.  He also teaches a course in Environmental Isotopic Hydrology and has taught undergraduates aqueous geochemistry by taking them to contaminated groundwater sites undergoing microbial remediation and shown them how to collect and analyze water samples for geochemistry. 

Dr. Tommy Joe Phelps is a Senior Research scientist in the Environmental Science Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  During the 2001-2002 undergraduate workshops and the 2003-2004 REU, Dr. Phelps served as a faculty mentor, assisted in recruitment of workshop participants, coordinated with other mentors to provide enriching experiences for students, assisted in improving and equipping the field lab, fabricated experimental facilities (e.g., media making and gassing/flushing/evacuation station), and provided field handy-person expertise.  Dr. Phelps routinely mentors undergraduates, graduate students and post-doctorates.  Undergraduates are typically from the DOE-undergraduate program.  Dr. Phelps has advised and supported nine graduate students, most through his academic appointment at UT.  His former graduate students and nine post-MS and post-doctorates are nearly equally divided among government, industry and faculty positions. 

Dr. Phelps provides no-cost assistance to NSF, as he is employed by ORNL, a Federally Funded Research and Development Center that normally does not seek NSF funding.  His no-cost assistance to past workshops (2000-2002) and the 2003-2004 REU draws from three years of field experience for the NSF-Witwatersrand Deep Microbiology Project, and his availability has been provided in part by the collaborative spirit of DOE-Office of Science-OBER, by ORNL, and by personal leaves.  He donates time to serve on NSF panels including the U. S. Science Advisory Committee (USSAC) for the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) as it transitions into the international Ocean Drilling Program (IODP).  Dr. Phelps also served on the ODP Deep biosphere planning group and as a liaison to the Gas Hydrates planning groups (1996-2000).  Dr. Phelps has authored 100+ papers in basic and applied aspects of microbiology related to subsurface or extreme environments.  He and Dr. Pfiffner and others received a 1996 R&D 100 Award for PHOster, a biostimulation process licensed by more than 30 bioremediation companies. Dr. Phelps has been awarded two patents with others pending.  Dr. Phelps has been the PI for more than a dozen DOE-sponsored multi-year projects in subsurface microbiology, bioremediation, carbon sequestration, and gas hydrates research.   

Dr. Tom Kieft of New Mexico Institute of Mining Technology (New Mexico Tech) has been a mentor to undergraduate as well as graduate students during his tenure as a faculty member at New Mexico Tech. A major emphasis of his research in environmental microbiology has been on the metabolic activities and diversity of microorganisms in the terrestrial subsurface. He was a funded investigator in the Department of Energy's Subsurface Science Program and Natural and Accelerated Bioremediation Program for over 15 years. He has been directly involved in research in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand Basin since 1997 and he is an investigator on the NSF LExEn project on South African Ultradeep Mines. He and his students use culture-dependent and culture-independent, molecular biological approaches to characterize deep subsurface microbial communities. He has extensive field research experience in the mines of South Africa and has been a mentor to undergraduate students during 2001-2002 workshops at the University of the Free State and during the 2003-2004 REU. Kieft has also conducted research on the physiology and ecology of microorganisms in other extreme environments, including desert soils and thermal springs. Recently, Kieft and a New Mexico Tech colleague, Dr. Snezna Rogelj, have been developing nucleic acid- and antibody-based techniques for detecting pathogens in environmental samples as part of a project funded by the Office of Naval Research. He has published over 40 papers in environmental microbiology.

Dr. Alison Buchan is an Assistant Professor in the UT Department of Microbiology. She is a microbial ecologist with broad interest in applying molecular tools and genetic approaches to microbial communities and was recently awarded NSF funding to develop methods to measure marine bacterial growth rates in situ. Dr. Buchan has a strong commitment to undergraduate training, especially of underrepresented groups. Since arriving at UT she has mentored three undergraduate students, including one minority female in graduate school and a visiting student from a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). Participation in this REU will compliment her early career as a research mentor for undergraduate students and broaden her research program to include subsurface environs.

Dr. John Biggerstaff is a Research Associate Professor in UT CEB, the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Department and the Microbiology Department. He is Director of the Bioimaging Unit. He is skilled in the application of optical microscopy techniques to environmental and medical research projects as documented by his international collaborations. Dr. Biggerstaff is active in teaching, regularly supervises undergraduate and graduate students in the laboratory, and has experience in the design and implementation of lecture based courses.

Dr. Rick Colwell is a microbial ecologist and professor of Marine Geology & Geophysics at Oregon State University (40% teaching and 60% research). His research interests include developing strategies for accurate estimation of in situ rates of microbial activities in the subsurface, the importance of biogeochemical processes in carbon sequestration, the use of molecular methods for detecting microbes in the environment, and investigating biological and abiological processes that are coupled to each other.

Dr. Eric Roden of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) is a geomicrobiologist with extensive experience in the physiology and ecology of anaerobic respiratory and chemolithotrophic microorganisms in surface and subsurface sedimentary environments. He serves as a mentor to both undergraduate and graduate students, and is currently participating in NSF-funded research (Biogeosciences program) that involves both undergraduate and high-school students. He is also a participant in two different NASA Astrobiology Institute projects (based at the University of California Berkeley and UW) that involve participation of undergraduate students in studies of physiologically-unique organisms relevant to the subject of the current proposal.

Dr. Melanie Eldridge of the UT CEB is a molecular biologist who has worked on projects as varied as bat fecal DNA analysis, Fe effects on bacteria with community profiling techniques, and yeast-based bioreporter construction. She has supervised the research of twelve undergraduates, leading to coauthored publications, presentations at meetings (for which one received an award), and senior theses. She has taught hundreds of undergraduates in laboratory and lecture classes. Her current research involves genetically engineering yeast for the detection of androgenic chemicals.

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