Grad student receives National Science Foundation grant

Funds to be used in biofuel research

By Trevor Allison

A Baylor graduate student was recently awarded a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation for research in biofuel and sustainability.

Plano doctoral candidate Zack Valdez, in his first year at Baylor, said he will use the grant to research the ability of switchgrass, a common plant in North America, to retain carbon in its root system.

Valdez is studying with The Institute of Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at Baylor, which is an interdisciplinary doctoral program.

Students in the program study chemistry, biology, geology and other sciences relating to the sustainability of earth’s natural system.

According to the National Science Foundation website, the three-year grant includes — on a yearly basis — a $30,000 stipend, a $10,000 cost-of-education allowance to the institution, international research opportunities and access to the TeraGrid supercomputer, an extensive research network.

Valdez, who received his undergraduate degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, said he came up with the research idea in conjunction with Dr. Bill Hockaday, Baylor assistant professor of geology and Valdez’s faculty adviser.

“I had some research ideas I wanted to pursue,” Hockaday said. “Then Zach and I talked about his interests and found he wants to make a contribution to the world in the area of biofuels.”

Hockaday said he has had experience in researching switchgrass and is excited about the research Valdez is going to do.

“Switchgrass is one of the most promising crops we have for making biofuels,” Hockaday said of the fast-growing crop.

Valdez said his research will be half of a two-part project performed in conjunction with students at Rice University.

He said the research at Rice will deal with the above-ground part of the plant and its ability to be turned into a biofuel, which occurs when the plant is broken down into ethanol — much like corn can be.

Valdez’s part of the project deals with the root system, finding the best environment for the growth of switchgrass and how it can reach maximum sustainability.

“The roots of switchgrass are basically a big filter,” Valdez said. “It pulls in more carbon dioxide than it breathes out.”

He said this means the plant has a positive environmental impact.

“Switchgrass is capable of biofuel production, but it doesn’t affect the global food supply like corn [from which standard ethanol is made],” Valdez said.

“[The goal is to] be able to tell switchgrass farmers how to optimize production and minimize environmental impact,” Hockaday said.

Valdez said he was surprised when he received the notification email saying he had been awarded the grant.

“It’s one of those things you don’t expect to get a reply,” Valdez said. “I showed it to my adviser [Hockaday], and that’s when I realized the prestige of the award.”

Hockaday said the foundation awards 2,000 grants out of more than 50,000 applicants and only one other student in Texas received the grant.

He also said since Valdez’s undergraduate degree is in physics and engineering, he was not specifically prepared for the Institute of Ecological, Earth and Environmental Sciences program and its interdisciplinary nature. “It’s a pretty ambitious program,” Hockdaday said, “but if anybody can accomplish all [Valdez] is trying, he is the guy.”

Valdez said he came to Baylor for the sense of community and the Baylor program. “I can get experience I know I wouldn’t otherwise in the TIEEES [the institute’s] program,” Valdez said. “And I love the people and the hospitality.”

Valdez said he wants his research project to inspire younger students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

“I want to break down the project where it can engage middle school and high school students in the science, technology, engineering and math fields and help them learn,” Valdez said.