Graduate Dean Frances Leslie, left, smiles as Megan Newcomb reacts to the news that she's won the Grad Slam competition, where UCI grad students explained their research to a panel of judges and the audience. photo: Steve Zylius/UCI 

Unraveling Research: Grad Student Aims to Combat Climate Change with Enzymes

Megan Newcomb knows that sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest impact. And she’s applying that frame of mind to solve one of the world’s grand challenges: climate change.

“My small goal is to save the world,” she says with a smile.

The chemistry doctoral student aims to make an impression at this year’s University of California Grad Slam, a systemwide competition in which graduate students pitch their complex research projects to a non-academic audience in under three minutes for a share of $10,000.

While the ticking clock is daunting for most, time just might be on Newcomb’s side. The chemist works with enzymes – molecules that catalyze chemical reactions – that can turn greenhouse and pollutant gases into fuel. She has an inkling that the solution to reigning in these harmful gases may be found in a tiny form of life that has stood the test of time.

“Life is 3.8 billion years old, and bacteria have been around a lot longer than humans,” she said. “I believe that using biology and enzymes hold a lot of promise in helping us combat climate change.”

Newcomb currently is investigating how and why the enzyme nitrogenase, which she refers to as a “little biological machine,” turns carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into propane and butane. Her hope is to apply her research findings in the biotechnology field and work with industry leaders to make a difference, perhaps even starting her own company. But to be successful in business, Newcomb says you have to be able to communicate your ideas with the general public.

“I really want to speak up for climate change and help people understand that it’s a big deal,” she said. “At the same time, I understand that people will never fully accept what we do if they don’t understand the science. I have a real passion for educating others, and one of my biggest goals is to show people what science, biology and chemistry are capable of doing.”

Newcomb was inspired to participate in the Grad Slam competition with the encouragement of her colleagues in the laboratory led by Markus Ribbe [], a Chancellor’s professor of chemistry and molecular biology & biochemistry. The competition has given her a platform to further hone her communication skills and convey the significance of academic research with the community.

“Now more than ever, it’s important for graduate students to be able to clearly and effectively share their research with the general public,” said Frances Leslie, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate Division. “Our students are making a profound impact on society, and it’s vital for the taxpayers of California to see the benefits of their support of graduate education.”

The UC Grad Slam, hosted by President Janet Napolitano, will take place Thursday, May 4, at the LinkedIn headquarters in San Francisco. You can watch a livestream of the event here.