Adina Howe knows better than anyone that in the quest toward large-scale sustainability, it’s best to start small. As a CABBI Sustainability Co-PI, Howe’s microbiology research proves that Earth’s most minuscule inhabitants might be the environment’s biggest allies.
Now an Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University, Howe has worn a variety of hats over the course of her colorful career. Her research has played out on many different points along the STEM spectrum, up to and including an undergraduate venture into mechanical engineering that kickstarted her academic journey.
“People often ask me how I went from mechanical engineering to microbiology,” she laughs.
Far from the polar opposites that they appear to be, these two disciplines are bridged by Howe’s enduring motivation to engage in meaningful research with tangible outcomes. This mission inspired her pursuit of a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering at Purdue.
“I [was] interested in problem solving, and the methods that engineers use to see a problem and find a way to solve it with impact — that was a big drive for me,” she said.
When the time came to plot a course toward her Master’s, Howe’s fascination with the up-and-coming field of sustainability spurred a focal shift from mechanical to civil and environmental engineering.
“Sustainability as a word (became) popular during my Master’s degree,” she said. “It was a big deal — you have young students who are interested in saving the world, and all of a sudden there’s the study of a science where that is the focus, to improve the future. (It was) definitely a big part of the choice to go into environmental engineering.”
Enter microbiology — surprisingly, it was environmental engineering that granted Howe her first glimpse into the world of microscopes, antibiotics, and the small-but-mighty microbe.
“When I did environmental engineering, I studied sustainable building design,” Howe said. “During that time, I took a microbiology class … and saw that there were lots of ways to think about buildings and safety in the environment through microbes. They were invisible to us, and much smaller, so it was a different scale to think about.”
The opportunity to sequence DNA in a lab — a fascinatingly “Jurassic Park-esque” experience — solidified Howe’s decision to incorporate microbiology into her Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. Through coupling her engineering roots with her newfound biological interest to pursue a doctorate in environmental engineering and science, Howe created a “best of both worlds” combination that primed her for research positions at Michigan State University and at Argonne National Laboratory.
One of Howe’s favorite things about studying microbiology is its universality. Though too small to see with the naked eye, microbes have a massive interdisciplinary wingspan that can be scaled up and connected to every aspect of the world around us.
“Microbiology affects so much of our daily lives, and we have increasingly become aware of the depth of that impact,” she said. “Microbes are all over our bodies, inside our bodies and on the surface. They outnumber the cells we have substantially, they are in the air we breathe (and) the food we eat. Not only that, but they are in every environment we are connected to.”
As PI of Iowa State’s GERMS (Genomics and Environmental Research in Microbial Systems) Lab, Howe implements insights gleaned from microbial research to solve high-stakes problems in all facets of the environment. She’s especially intrigued by how data can be implemented to combat the spread of misinformation and shed light on lesser-known topics related to environmental sustainability such as energy, water quality, food security, and climate change.
“(It’s) interesting to see how something specific could provide data for the ambiguous topic of sustainability,” she said.
The sustainability component specifically pertains to the GERMS Lab’s collaboration with CABBI, which has been going strong since the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Bioenergy Research Center was first established. Howe’s integrated team investigates how soil-bound microbes could improve bioenergy crops’ health and productivity by serving as “nutrient delivery systems.” The alternative, nitrogen-heavy fertilizers, has been observed to cause both financial and environmental losses as quantities of the chemical often leach into nearby river systems.
Howe, who has extensive experience working with biofuels, is excited by the prospect of leveraging microbial data to decode the inner workings of lesser-known bioenergy crops like miscanthus, switchgrass, and sugarcane.
“We know that (microbes and plants) are deeply connected,” she said. “We know that microbes provide nutrients to the plants that they would not otherwise get without microbes, but we don’t know how that works.”
Through gathering data on how microbes operate in various circumstances, Howe is hopeful that her team can clarify questions like “how much fertilizer is too much?” and “how is nitrogen cycled through the soil?” In addition to optimizing bioenergy agriculture, analyzing these gray knowledge areas provides farmers with the necessary resources to make informed, environmentally conscious decisions.
Howe’s commitment to educated decision-making goes hand in hand with her continuous learning philosophy that’s not only evident in her research, but also in the people behind that research. Within the GERMS Lab and CABBI crew, Howe fosters an environment of diverse skills and specialties that keeps her students on their research toes, encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration, and drives toward the same impact-driven outcomes that Howe aimed for as an undergraduate.
“If you’re going to make real impact and address relevant problems,” Howe said, “you have to admit that they’re very complex, and the more people you have addressing that complexity with different skill sets, the more successful you will be. It’s not only something I try to do, but something that’s required.”
While Howe’s wide array of personal, professional, and academic roles spans from microbiologist to board game buff and everywhere in between, the role she finds most rewarding is teaching her students: “The thing about teaching is you’re always teaching, whether it’s in research or in the classroom. Part of the reason I like this job is because it’s a very training-centric job, and it’s very rewarding to be able to train students and continue learning through that process.”
Many of these students, like Howe before them, have a vested interest in changing the world for the better. But no matter the magnitude of the problems they face, their mentor is living proof that no challenge is too big — you just have to start small.
— Article by Jenna Kurtzweil, iSEE Communications Intern; photos provided by Adina Howe