Scientists delve into sustainability from a wide variety of academic backgrounds. For Anshu Deewan, it was the unsung field of computational biology that drew her toward all things “green” and her CABBI work to develop sustainable bioproducts with yeast.

Deewan grew up in Delhi, India, and completed her bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Upon graduation, she worked at a consumer goods company, Unilever, spending her time on surfactant research (substances like detergents that reduce the surface tension of a liquid) and management training. After four years there, she decided it was time to return to school.

With the world her oyster, Deewan chose the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign thanks to its breadth of research and the kindness she encountered during the application process.

“At the start of graduate school, my research interests were pretty flexible,” she said. “My department has a wide variety of research fields, and upon joining, I got to pick what interested me the most. Throughout the process, the faculty members were very compassionate and accommodating.”

Deewan is in her fifth year of a Ph.D. program in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and 2020 marks her third year with CABBI. She works in Professor Christopher Rao’s lab under the Center’s Conversion Theme. This team focuses on engineering microbial strains that can efficiently produce diverse, high-value compounds such as biodiesel, organic acids, and fatty alcohols. Deewan has been studying the processes these yeasts employ to produce lipids, and she is finding ways to improve them.

Above: Deewan presents at a conference in Washington, D.C. in February 2019. Top: Deewan at the beach on a trip to Oregon in 2019.

“I study the patterns of cell regulation that are involved in these yeasts during growth and lipid production,” she said. “We want to understand these processes and engineer them to improve the yields of lipids and various value-added products.”

Harnessing the power of these yeasts has proven fruitful thus far; the team at CABBI has significantly improved lipid production in the species Rhodosporidium toruloides and Yarrowia lipolytica. These yeasts produce numerous compounds, including lipids, which can be 20 to 30 percent of the cells’ products. Amazingly, CABBI scientists can modify these yeasts to produce as much as 60 to 70 percent lipids.

Once these excess lipids are harnessed, they have different applications. They can undergo more chemical processing to be used as fuel additives; they can be turned into products like biosurfactants or polymer precursors; or they can be turned into supplements for human consumption like artificial sweeteners. The benefit of using yeast-derived products lies ultimately in their lower carbon footprint. In the context of biofuels, yeasts can decrease fossil fuel emissions. In the context of oils, yeasts do not have the agricultural demands of soybeans or palm trees; agriculture contributes significantly to the United States’ carbon footprint.

Deewan was not born with an innate passion for sustainability, but stumbled upon it by chance.

“When I started working in this lab, my main interest was in computational biology,” she said. “I was studying why some cells make lipids, while some others produce glycogen (a form of sugar stored in body tissues). As I delved further into it, I found more applications of yeast lipids in the manufacturing of biofuels and bioproducts. That tied in well with the focus on climate change, reducing carbon emissions, and finding sustainable ways of living.”

Since discovering the field of sustainable research, Deewan has been toiling hard on important topics — but she is not alone. CABBI is a highly collaborative program and promotes teamwork to accomplish bigger-than-yourself projects.

Deewan, center, at a gathering for a colleague’s farewell in August 2020.

“In our lab, we collaborate internally as well as with different groups of CABBI. Working in teams has significantly expanded the breadth of our research. We have realized the potential of collaborations with other researchers who are experts in their areas of work, as compared to starting from scratch on every new idea.”

After graduation, Deewan plans to continue her research as a postdoctoral candidate. She hopes to pursue a career in research, science communication, or science policy, though she is unsure of her exact steps.

Despite that uncertainty, Deewan remains enthusiastic about spreading the word of computational biology, which she defines as “the intersection of modeling and wet lab experiments.”

“The primary thing a computational biologist does is use mathematical or computational models to help guide the design of experiments. Anything that improves the understanding of the cellular behavior under analysis would fall under computational biology,” Deewan said.

This can get tricky, though, because the definition is not universal; computational biology is a broad field. For instance, the skillset of a computational biologist can be highly variable, ranging from the knowledge of microbiology to machine learning and bioinformatics to mathematical modeling. Due to the vastness of the field, Deewan is always encouraging people to explore it.

“I think a lot of people can fit in here — even without a lot of prior knowledge of computer science or biology,” she said. “This is a really fun place to be.”

Deewan’s co-worker, Goose, in one of his many hand-sewn outfits. All credits: Anshu Deewan

In her free time, Deewan is usually planning where to travel or what to bake next, but this year has been a little different. In lieu of adventures here and abroad, she spent some time making cloth masks (more than 75 of them!) to help the community-based “Make-a-Mask” effort spearheaded by Carle Foundation Hospital. Drawing upon these newfound sewing skills, Deewan has been fashioning clothes for her and her rescue cat, Goose, who has been her co-worker during these work-from-home months.

Additionally, Deewan spent copious time contributing to get-out-the-vote efforts for the Nov. 3 election, writing hundreds of postcards to Wisconsin residents urging them to vote. She also volunteered with a ballot helpline, answering questions about mail-in ballots.

“I am not a citizen, so I cannot vote or donate. But volunteering was very useful in channeling my anxieties about the election outcome,” she said. “It was interesting to write all those postcards because now it seems like I know almost every county in Wisconsin! I’ve now signed up for writing more postcards for the January elections.”

— Article by iSEE Communications Intern Maria Maring