Caroline Harwood '73
In a small office at the bottom of a science building in the middle of a mammoth campus at the center of Seattle, one of the nation's leading microbiologists heads a team charged with developing a new way to produce a biofuel that may one day help ease the world's dependence on petroleum. The scientist is Carrie Harwood '73, professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, and her no-longer-so-secret weapon is the metabolically versatile phototrophic bacterium Rhodopseudomonas palustris, a potential catalyst for the production of hydrogen, a biofuel.
The plan is this: genetically engineer Rhodopseudomonas palustris so that in order to live it has to produce hydrogen—and a lot of it. Eventually the bacteria would be embedded in a sort of solar panel to maximize the photosynthetic process that is essential to the bacterium's hydrogen production. Some far-fetched futuristic scheme?
Caroline Harwood '73 at work in her lab at the University of Washington. Harwood and her team of researchers are developing ways to use bacteria to produce hydrogen for use as an energy source.
Photo by Mary Levin
Not at all.
"The process of getting this all [genetically] engineered—we can make a lot of progress in five years,— Harwood said. "Clean up all the details in the next five years. I'm really excited.—
Her team's largely federally funded research has the potential to change the way we live. They have published several papers, with more in the works, that they hope will establish Rhodopseudomonas palustris as a model for studies of bio-hydrogen production.
"I love my work,— Harwood said.
And she has ever since she was a biology major (one of only seven in her graduating class). With the enthusiastic support from the Colby faculty of the time, she decided to pursue a career in science, settling on microbiology.
"When I was at Colby, I had no idea that I'd end up as a professor at a major research university,— Harwood said.
The path was this. After earning a master's degree in biology at Boston University, Harwood spent a career-shaping summer working at the Marine Biological Laboratory at the Woods Hole Institute. "While studying microbial diversity, I learned that you can grow bacteria, which has the most breadth of all forms of life, in a test tube and study any properties you want to study. I knew that that's what I wanted to do.—
Then Harwood moved on to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to pursue her doctorate and commence her study of bacterial physiology. "I loved graduate school. When you know something that no one else knows, that for me is a 'Wow!'— After completing postdoctoral studies at Yale and Cornell, she spent eight years at the University of Iowa, where she developed her main focus of research, bacterial physiology.
While at Iowa she developed a new area of research interest related to her daughter's condition: cystic fibrosis. Harwood is interested in the pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the bacteria that infect and damage the lungs of most cystic fibrosis patients.
Harwood moved to Seattle in 2005 to join the faculty at the University of Washington. She continues to lead studies of the cystic-fibrosis bacterium, attempting to determine how it grows in high densities in low-oxygen environments, like the mucous in a person's lungs.
She also is principal investigator for the team working to define the metabolic networks that lead to hydrogen generation. The team, made up of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students, is working to define the essential components in each network and how they are regulated in order to effectively predict and maximize hydrogen production by Rhodopseudomonas palustris.
"This is a whole new way of thinking in biology, sometimes called systems biology,— Harwood explained. "We're not just analyzing one gene or enzyme at a time; we're studying everything at once. And this bacteria contains about five-thousand genes. We have to be patient; most days we make no progress at all. But the process of discovery is exciting, no matter how long it takes.—
Harwood acknowledges that her pioneering roles have extended beyond her work itself. "There were very few women professors when I was at Colby, and there still aren't enough women nationwide in the sciences. I'm incredibly fortunate to be living at this time, to ride at the front of the wave.—
This, she said, is "the golden age of biology.— —David Treadwell