Meet the Researcher - Laurel Bitterman

Breakout Room: 18

LaurelBitterman_HeadshotResearcher Name: Laurel Bitterman
Title of Research: Microbial Cellulose Capsules Reactions with Solid Particles and Sulfates
Division Representing: Engineering
Institution: Montana Technological University
Institution Location: Montana
Home State: Montana
District Number: At Large
Advisor/Mentor: Katherine Zodrow, Dario Prieto
Funding Source: National Science Foundation, Army Research Laboratory

Research Experience:  
I began involvement in research on my campus during my sophomore year. I helped record precipitation data at our university weather station. Also, I joined a Research Assistance Mentorship Program (RAMP) that focused on creating microbial cellulose spheres while engaging as a team and preparing a poster to summarize our research results. Then, I followed up the RAMP project through summer 2020 with further research that included verifying prior results and encapsulating solid particles.The research experience from the 2020 summer was also a full-time job, so I also include it with my work experience. I currently hold the same undergraduate research position but work part-time. In the summer, I conducted experiments and wrote a manuscript, which is currently undergoing peer review. My current research responsibilities include finding and testing applications for microbial cellulose. Prior to research, I have worked as a resident assistant and a desk clerk in the residence halls on my campus. These jobs involved hosting events for residents and ensuring safety in the halls.I have had many opportunities to volunteer in Butte, which I always enjoy doing. I have spent time assisting at the Park Street Community Garden. As part of Environmental Engineers of Montana Tech, I participate in a highway cleanup each semester. Last October, I joined other students in Make A Difference Day” and picked up litter throughout Butte. During my freshmen year, I worked with a member of Forward Montana to help students register to vote.

Presentation Experience: 
As mentioned in the biographical section, I was involved in a Research Assistance Mentorship Program (RAMP). This program is designed to engage undergraduate students in research on campus, familiarize them with lab safety, and encourage collaboration. At the end of the program, we planned to present our research results at an on-campus design showcase called Techxpo. Due to COVID-19, our campus halted in-person learning in the middle of the semester and a virtual Techxpo was planned. Our poster was presented at this online event, and virtual attendees, consisting mainly of campus faculty and staff, emailed us questions and comments about our research project. Although there was no face-to-face presenting, my group and I still had the chance to practice answering questions from a virtual audience.To share my summer 2020 research results, I presented at Montana Tech's Summer Undergraduate Research Poster Symposium. This event was open to the public and many campus faculty members also attended. Visitors were encouraged to view the various posters and interact with the presentations whose research they found interesting. When explaining my research, I gave a brief overview of the experiments I conducted, described the relevance of my project, and then answered any specific questions about my poster when asked. 

Significance of Research:       
Microbial cellulose (MC) capsules can encapsulate contaminants from aqueous environments and potentially slow the release of sulfate into water from activities like coal mining. In high concentrations, sulfate pollution in drinking water is harmful to human and animal health. Using MC capsules for water remediation can be a sustainable and non-invasive method since MC is made using water, tea, and vinegar and is biodegradable. This research seeks to quantitatively measure if MC capsules can remediate mine-impacted waters by reducing sulfate and other potential contaminates. MC capsules can uptake biochar, polystyrene microbeads, and mine waste from aqueous media. Encapsulation of solid particles was quantified using thermal gravimetric analysis (TGA) and gel doc imaging. Results indicate that the capsules encapsulated 10 - 20% of the solid particles added to the media. To research the effect of MC capsules on aqueous sulfate, we use a photometer to calculate sulfate concentrations. First, we tested the amount of sulfate released from inside MC capsules into deionized water by sampling the MC, sulfate, and DI solution over time and plotting the mass of sulfate released. Results show that a new method is required that does not significantly alter the original solution volume. Experiments to test if MC capsules will remove sulfate from an aqueous environment by adsorbing the contaminant into their membranes will also be conducted. It is expected that MC will lower the sulfate concentrations in a exponential decay pattern.

Uniqueness of Research: 
Microbial cellulose (MC) is a biodegradable, easily produced material that can have applications in various environmental sectors. The membrane properties of MC capsules may contribute to its use as a water remediation tool.