Plant biologists, geneticists, biochemists, bacteriologists, chemical engineers and computer scientists collide in the world of bioenergy, where the search for viable solutions demands intelligence of all kinds. The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) at the UW-Madison has hired a translator to connect researchers who would normally live in entirely separate research worlds. That translator – and the new scientific programs manager for the GLBRC – is Steve Slater, a plant and bacterial geneticist.
“I may spend the morning talking to a computer scientist and the afternoon talking to a biochemist,” Slater says. “I know enough to speak the language of all these groups, figure out their needs and make sure we can secure the resources to meet these needs.”
As the scientific programs manager, Slater will first concentrate his efforts on building infrastructure as well as a collaborative research culture – one that bridges gaps between the four universities, two national labs and one private company that make up the GLBRC.
“Everyone gets so focused [on their individual research project] that they don’t spend much time talking to each other. My goal is to see the big picture and make those connections. The No. 1 goal is to make the research move forward.”
Prior to joining the GLBRC, Slater was an associate professor at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University (ASU), where he and his colleagues focused on plant and bacterial genomics.
Slater also spent time in the private sector of the biotechnology industry. As a former Monsanto researcher and a founder and senior scientist at Rxoa Biosciences, a small Madison research company, Slater brings vital firsthand knowledge of the industry to the GLBRC.
“Steve brings a critical and unique set of skills to GLBRC,” says GLBRC director Tim Donohue. “First and foremost, he is an outstanding scientist with academic and private sector experience in plant and microbial systems at the center of GLBRC programs. He is also experienced in coordinating large multidisciplinary projects – a skill set that is key but often difficult to find in scientists with his credentials.”
During his time at ASU, Slater worked to restructure the undergraduate science curriculum to be increasingly practical and hands-on. In the field of genomics, Slater explains, the depth of sequencing data limits graduate and postgraduate students to in-depth analysis of only a small number of genes in each sequenced genome. “Functional testing of many genes is perfectly suited for undergraduates,” he says.
In addition to giving undergraduates more real world research experience, Slater and his colleagues are developing kits and training for both high school and college classrooms. The kits contain sets of bacterial strains, reagents and instructions for genome research and experiments.
“The idea is to lower the barrier to people doing research at whatever level,” Slater says.
In his new position, Slater will break down departmental barriers to leverage the GLBRC’s intellectual talent into deliverable technology.
“The Department of Energy wants and expects us to deliver new technology – stuff that works in the real world and is economically and environmentally viable,” Slater says.
“We may develop a pre-processing regime that works with a few feedstocks, but one may be better than the other when trying to optimize economic and environmental impacts,” Slater adds. “If we don’t understand impacts, we can’t make good decisions. The data being collected in the sustainability area will guide us.”