Bonding Over Bacteria: Mutual Passion Connects Biology Student with Engineering Research Faculty

By: Diana Riggs
Date: July 16, 2018

Destini Cordner discovered her passion at the crossroads of microbiology and chemical engineering, thanks to student employment opportunities in the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS).

Three people stand outside a building and its sign, which reads, "Spallation Neutron Source, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Cordner, Nickels and graduate student Ahmad Yahya at Oak Ridge

Many days, you will find Destini Cordner in a chemical engineering lab in Rhodes Hall, but she is not an engineering student. The senior biology student is a student employee at CEAS who has worked in several areas within the college, including the facilities unit. Last year, she met Professor Jonathan Nickels, PhD, while renovating his chemical engineering lab. They struck up a conversation about bacteria and research, which eventually led to Nickels inviting her to join his research team.

Cordner jumped at the chance, having been inspired by a microbiology course a just few months prior. “By the third week of the course, I quickly realized a career in microbiology was the right path for me. Dr. Nickels’ invitation was the first time anyone invited me to be a part of research, and the first opportunity since I had discovered my path in microbiology,” Cordner said.

Student holds a dish of bacterial cells ready to harvest

Cordner culturing bacterial cells

Nickels is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, a discipline that intersects with microbiology more than might be apparent. “The world today is far more interdisciplinary than it used to be. Chemical engineering and microbiology overlap both at an industrial scale and at a laboratory scale,” Nickels said.

With a BS in chemical engineering, and a PhD in biomedical engineering, Nickels’ own background reflects the interdisciplinary nature of his research. Inseparable concepts and techniques from both fields are needed at the microscopic level, and this adaptability allows a multitude of applications for his work.

“Industrially, one might take the example of fermentation processes for the production of pharmaceuticals or ethanol. While the microbes do the ‘work’, engineering principles play a huge role in optimizing processes and separating products from biomass. At the laboratory scale, we invoke fundamental principles taught in chemical engineering, such as phase separations and partition coefficients, to understand the way that biology works,” Nickels said.

Student in a lab coat kneels and places test tubes into a rack inside a machine with a clear lid

Cordner places cultured tubes in the incubator

One of the topics the team is investigating is the organization of molecules in the cell membrane of bacterial cells and tissues. Cell membranes are made mostly from lipid molecules, and the goal of the research is to explore the role that these lipids play in driving organization of the membrane. Lipid organization, also known as lipid rafts, is something that is thought to be associated with bacterial resistance to antibiotics in some species. Ultimately, the research may provide insight into why certain bacteria are more antibiotic resistant, and reveal additional avenues to treat bacterial infections like MRSA.

Photo of microscope with a slide on it, and a light shining from below the slide

A bacterial slide under a microscope

Cordner’s duties in the lab include culturing the bacteria that are studied using advanced characterization techniques like small angle neutron scattering (SANS). Neutron scattering is a powerful structural characterization technique only available at nuclear reactors and spallation sources.

Perhaps the highlight of Cordner’s work thus far was her visit last March to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, a site once used to produce materials for the Manhattan Project. The team traveled there to use SANS instruments to observe the structure of lipid membranes.

The team visited Oak Ridge again this month, returning with more data to help understand how lipids are organized in the cell membrane. They hope to publish their work soon, which will be Cordner’s first publication credit.

Student stands in front of glass case of lab equipment, turning on a blue UV light inside

After work under a biohood, proper protocol requires sterilization by UV light

When she first started in the lab, Cordner said she felt self-conscious being the only student as a biology major. However her willingness to ask questions and understand the engineering side of her work lead to valuable learning opportunities. She and her teammates help each other understand the intersectional concepts, techniques, and terminology.

Nickels said, “It is great to have students working with me who are interested in both the biological and engineering aspects of the project. Engineers and biologists see how much they have in common and how much they have to gain by working together."

Four people stand in an industrial lab, in front of a large metal instrument

Cordner, Nickels, Yahya and instrument scientist Piotr Zolnierczak, working with Neutron Spin Echo

Cordner’s recent experience in chemical engineering research built on her biology foundation, and has assured her that she is on the right path. “When someone is passionate about their work, they apply it to their daily lives. That is what Dr. Nickels does, and now I think about microbiology in everything I do,” said Cordner.

Cordner’s plan for the future is to attend graduate school for microbiology. Afterwards she’d like to pursue a career in biodefense. Her overall goal would be to research plant-based antibiotics for bacterial diseases.

“After almost a year of working with Dr. Nickels, I finally feel confident calling myself a researcher,” said Cordner.

Prof. Nickels agrees. “Destini is curious, driven, and has a great work ethic; it has really been a privilege to work with her,” said Nickels.

For more information about research within CEAS, visit the research webpage.