Forever True, For Iowa State

A chain reaction in action

Carmen Lopez knows a little something about chain reactions. She was a high school student in Mexico when the first link of her future career in genetic engineering clicked into place.

“I have a clear memory of a class called ‘Mankind and Science,’ where we learned about the latest progress in science and how it would affect nature, society and our communities. This was where I learned about genetic engineering and its potential to solve many challenges in the world,” Carmen says. “After the class, I started researching what major I should choose to do just that.”

It was while Carmen was an undergraduate in that major – biotechnology engineering – at Monterrey Tech that the next link in the chain lined up.

“I realized that biotech as a field was pretty young, so research was still intensive and required to continue advancing our knowledge,” she explains.

In other words, the field presented exciting possibilities for someone like her with an aptitude for scientific research and a desire to make a difference in the world. But where to go to be part of that?

She soon learned that other students at her college were spending the summer at Iowa State as part of the department of chemical and biological engineering’s Biological Materials and Processes Experience for Undergraduates (BioMaP). “I didn’t go myself but a couple of friends, including my now-husband, did. They talked about how great the experience and Iowa State had been.”

That, along with the research themes being explored in the department, was what ultimately led Carmen to pursue her graduate studies at Iowa State. Another click.

Donors to the Forever True, For Iowa State campaign provided critical support to enable more students like Carmen to work with world-class faculty researchers on some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

As recipient of the Loren and Donna Luppes Graduate Fellowship in Chemical Engineering, Carmen concentrated on research with the potential for sourcing value-added chemicals in a sustainable manner in the lab of Zengyi Shao, the Vernon Guse Faculty Fellow and associate professor of chemical and biological engineering.

“I use different technologies, including CRISPR, to enable novel features in unusual microbes,” Carmen explains. “For example, some of the microbes I engineered are now able to degrade complex sugars present in agricultural waste so microorganisms can use them as feedstock to produce functional molecules,” an approach that could provide alternatives to fossil fuels.

Carmen graduated in December 2021 with her doctorate in microbiology and chemical engineering. Now in the greater Boston area, she is continuing to engineer microbes for the production of chemicals, this time with therapeutic potential for treating neurological diseases – a dream job she credits Iowa State and donor support with helping make possible.

“Throughout my studies I have been very fortunate to find people willing to help me pursue my dreams, and I’m convinced that I would not be where I am without their support.” Carmen says. “I’d like donors to know that their gifts have started a chain that I intend to keep going, helping those who come after me.”