Between two majors, Bertrand ’05 has found a world view
A double major in chemistry and environmental studies, Erin Bertrand ’05 has learned the art of seeing both the trees and the forest.
As one of the students participating in associate professor Rachel Narehood Austin’s ongoing study of the decomposition of hydrocarbons, Bertrand has proven herself an exceptional researcher — in fact, she’s the only undergraduate ever to present findings at the graduate seminar in bioinorganic chemistry held by Gordon Research Conferences, the esteemed nonprofit science organization.
Meanwhile, as a dedicated activist, Bertrand has worked diligently with the Bates Environmental Coalition and the Coalition of Progressive Students to raise awareness about government policy in the realms of science and the environment.
For her, learning to link the molecular and the moral has been one of the greatest benefits of a Bates education. “That has really been the synergy between my majors,” says Bertrand, of Torrington, Conn. “I came out with a focused world view, and that’s important — and I think that doing actual physical research has helped me do that.”
“It really is a way to relate to the world, asking these molecular-level questions and then being conscious of how they relate to the broader things.”
“Erin has an unusual ability to connect to her work and to make it meaningful to her,” says Rachel Austin. “It’s remarkable to have an undergraduate student who has developed an aesthetic about science — what makes it interesting, beautiful, meaningful, worthwhile, and also what some of its typical shortcomings are.”
“Erin has that on top of being an extraordinarily capable scientist, with all the perseverance and attention to detail a scientist needs.”
What sold Bertrand on chemistry was a pair of introductory courses with an environmental focus. “Mostly I was struck by how passionate the professors, Tom Wenzel and Rachel, were” she says. “Understanding how, in an introductory-level chemistry class, you can do things that matter in the real world sucked me in.”
Since summer 2003, Bertrand has worked with Austin in investigating the molecular means through which hydrocarbons, a category of compounds that includes fossil fuels, combine with oxygen. Fire is an obvious example of that process, but Austin is looking at more controlled and precise mechanisms, such as those performed by particular bacteria and fungi. (During the winter, Austin received grants totaling $210,000 to support this work from the National Institutes of Health and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation.)
In fact, says Austin, “Erin took my research in a new direction.” Austin studies the breakdown of a kind of hydrocarbons called alkanes. Bertrand, interested in certain bacteria that inhabit deep-sea hydrothermal vents (in effect, geysers on the ocean floor), “learned through her reading that their ability to metabolize alkanes could be connected to the very existence of life at these vents, and perhaps even to the evolution of life on Earth,” Austin explains.
“This is an idea that I wasn’t familiar with, but now that she has explained it to me, it makes me think about our work in a different way.”
In her research and for her honors thesis, Bertrand has studied the enzymes that the vent dwellers use to metabolize alkanes. “These organisms use alkanes as a carbon and energy source, and this is a really difficult thing to do chemically,” Bertrand says. To understand how they manage it, she has synthesized certain alkanes, fed them to the bacteria and then used a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer to analyze the substances the bacteria produce from the alkanes.
Those products, she says, “create a picture of how the enzyme functioned as it metabolized the alkane. That allows me to understand the molecular mechanisms by which the bacteria actually break down alkanes.”
But the aim is to better understand not only how the bacteria operate but, Bertrand explains, to refine the research methodology itself, with an eye toward any potential for environmental applications in this so-called whole-cell approach.
Although the work is very preliminary, the grail of environmental applicability is “really what has driven my interest,” says Bertrand. “I’ve always been passionate about science and about learning, but I’ve never had a particular goal in mind. This has really given me something to work toward and that’s colored the way I’ve pursued all of my classes.”
Long term, she explains, “I’m really interested in science policy and understanding how that is affected by the moral conventions of the time” — an interest sharpened by the pressure in our society to bend science to fit political interests. “It’s really fundamental, the changes that are happening in science policy, and deeply troubling,” she says.
“I feel that understanding science and then moving to understand how politics affects that might be an effective way to make a difference.”