WilhelmRoland Wilhelm

4th year PhD student in Microbiology and Immunology

Tell us about yourself

I have an unquenchable thirst for water... and... food... and afterwards... learning. I find the world to be full of wonderful patterns and stories. The natural world has always interested me with its smells, sounds and majestic views. That's what drew me into natural sciences and eventually drew me to study the details of life: molecular biology.

What is your research about?

I study the very small, single cell organisms, aka "bacteria", which live in dirt in the forest. Dirt, also called "soil", is a mixture of tiny rocks, tiny bits of planty things, tiny bits of mushrooms, insects and a WHOLE lot of small bacteria that feed on tiny pockets of nutrients in the soil. I'm interested in learning about which organisms are eating plant matter, in particular a part of the plant called "cellulose." You should be familiar with cellulose because we use it to make clothing: picture a white ball of cotton. All plants contain cellulose and it, like your t-shirts, lasts for a long time. Only very special organisms can eat cellulose; you can't! It's part of what we call "fibre" in our diet that passes right through us. I study the organisms in forest soil that CAN eat cellulose!

I enjoy the process of discovery: from imagining what must be going on, to making your best guess and then testing to see if it is correct. The investigation can be slow and challenging, but in the end I always find it satisfying.
 

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

I enjoy the process of discovery: from imagining what must be going on, to making your best guess and then testing to see if it is correct. The investigation can be slow and challenging, but in the end I always find it satisfying. I love to discuss and 'brainstorm' with my friends and colleagues. It can be very imaginative and fun. Also, I get to play with some very cool instruments and have the opportunity to visit places like the Arctic, northern forests and mines.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

Performing an experiment can be nerve-wracking b/c one small mistake can ruin it. Experimenting can involve many hours of menial work which isn't very fun (unless you love listening to the radio like I do!). As a result, it can take months to see results which takes patience. It's all about delayed gratification and managing expectations and disappointment.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

Well, I'm still a student and research is a major component of graduate studies, so I haven't yet had to choose a career. That being said, doing research has provided me with concrete skills that are valuable in the job market. Research has given me a specialization which will help me navigate the job market.

... doing research has provided me with concrete skills that are valuable in the job market. Research has given me a specialization which will help me navigate the job market.
 

How has your research impacted the world?

One of the most direct ways my research has impacted the world is the discovery of enzymes which can transform matter into a number of products like plastics, fuels and even.... vanilla! Indirectly, my research helps describe how fast different bacteria feast on cellulose. This turns out to be important for global warming b/c the bacteria produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

The next big breakthrough will be from the genetic engineering of bacteria to continue 'domesticating' them for solving wickedly challenging agricultural and environmental problems. Bacteria are inherently wild wild creatures and are very difficult to tame. Yet, the possibilities are vast once we are successful.

What motivates you to do research?

I didn't know that I wanted to do research. I pursued the opportunities that I had at the time. I have always enjoyed reading and learning about science, but didn't really know what academia / research was all about. My brother, who is 3 years older than I, recommended that I try research, in the form of a masters degree. I was offered a really cool opportunity to study permafrost and I jumped at it! It helps that I have always had a hard work ethic.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

I don't think I'd go so far as describe any moment I've had as carrying as much importance as Archimedes' moment. Still, I have been able to grow a number of very rare organisms in the lab, one of which holds the world record for lowest temperature for growth (-12°C). I've also been able to discover a number of new organisms which feed on cellulose, which is kind of a big deal given we've spent 50 years intensively studying them.

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