Walton Receives Gilliam Fellowship
There are two things PhD candidate Jill Walton is passionate about – microbiology and community outreach – and the work she has done to incorporate the two is impressive, to say the least.
Walton studies how different members of the roseobacter clade are able to degrade polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are harmful to the environment and difficult to break down because of how stable they are.
“My project started by reading a paper that introduces this idea that this family of bacteria (roseobacters) is able to degrade polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs,” Walton said. “My thinking was that they show some members in some environments can do this, but I want to see if our bacteria that we work with do this.”
Walton set up a plate-screening assay by spreading a thin, cloudy top agar containing PAHs, then inoculating the bacteria on top. After incubation, she scrapes the bacterial growth off, and if some of the cloudiness in the augur cleared out, that indicates that the bacteria were able to degrade the PAHs.
“Their genomes didn’t have anything to indicate that they can do this,” Walton said. “They’re missing a lot of the biomarkers for this sort of degradation, so I thought maybe they’re doing this via a novel pathway.”
She decided to investigate the possibility of a novel pathway by focusing on randomly disrupting the genome and re-running the plate assays of Regalia pomeroyi DSS-3, a member of the Roseobacter clade. She sequenced the genome-disrupted strains that did not degrade the PAHs for this round of assays to figure out which gene was disrupted, and thus involved in PAH degradation.
“This was my groundwork. From that I went looking for novel degraders in marine ecosystems as a whole, looking for novel degraders using a genetic biomarkers search. I found it seems a lot of marine bacteria are able to degrade PAHs, but don’t have the tell-tale genetic biomarkers for this ability,” Walton said.
While Walton continues her research on PAH-degrading bacteria, she is also widely involved in community outreach. Beyond her weekly volunteer work at the Sustainable Future Center, she runs the Knoxville Tennessee Environmental Soil and Stream Testing (K-TESST) program, which aims to educate Knoxville residents about local soil and water quality. She also serves on the Student Disability Services advisory board, mentoring students with disabilities through the NSF-funded TAPD-INTO STEM program.
This past summer, Walton was awarded the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship for advanced study. Fellows and their mentors receive support for three years of research for their dissertation, and an award amount of $53,000 per year.
“It was nice to have my work be recognized, and to be able to engage in the professional development opportunities that came with the fellowship,” Walton said.
Jill Walton is an exceptional graduate student, both in the lab and in the community. There is no doubt she will go far in her research and in her community work.