Graduate Student

Anthony Abel is a Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering in the Clark Laboratory at UC Berkeley. Previously, he earned his B.S. in Chemical Engineering and M.S. in Materials Science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, where he developed solution deposition techniques for inexpensive semiconductor materials. He has previously worked for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where he designed reactors for the sustainable production of hydrogen via photoelectrochemical water splitting. 

Anthony’s research interests lie at the intersection of chemical engineering, materials science, and microbial synthesis. Within CUBES, he will focus on the simulation and design of hybrid bioinorganic reactors and engineering microbes to function optimally within this artificial environment.

In his spare time, Anthony is a mentor for Bay Area Graduate Pathways to STEM, and enjoys reading science fiction and playing squash.

Aaron Berliner is a Bioengineering graduate student in the Arkin Laboratory at UC Berkeley/UCSF. He studied bioengineering, control theory, synthetic and systems biology, and nanotechnology at Boston University. In 2012, he began working as a research associate at the NASA Ames Research Center on projects involving 3D printing, bioelectrochemistry, and astrobiology. In 2013, he started as a research scientist in the Life Sciences group of Autodesk Research in San Francisco. At Autodesk, Aaron’s work ran the gamut from bioprinting, software engineering, synthetic virology, and DNA origami until 2016 when he moved back to space biology. Forming a partnership between UC Berkeley, Autodesk, and NASA Ames, Aaron began construction for Crucible, an open-source reactor for space synthetic biology experiments until 2017 when he started as a graduate student with Adam Arkin. He enjoys playing with his Mars-in-a-jar reactors. Aaron helped author the STRI grant that launched CUBES and is an NSF graduate fellow. His alternative scientific interests are terraforming and radiation biology. Aaron likes whiteboards and dry erase markers and dirty models with clean math.

Stefano Cestellos-Blanco is a Ph.D. student in Materials Science & Engineering in the Yang Group under the direction of Professor Peidong Yang at the University of California, Berkeley. He received his B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University in 2016. His research interests lie at the intersection of inorganic materials and molecular biology. He envisions a future in which nanoengineered materials work in cooperation with the natural world. Stefano is investigating biohybrid catalytic systems for the fixation and utilization of CO2 and N2 in the MMFD division of CUBES. 

Pauline received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in pharmaceutical sciences from the University of Lyon, France. She is currently a visiting scholar in the Department of Chemical Engineering in the McDonald Laboratory at UC Davis.

Wakuna is a PhD candidate in the environmental engineering program working with Prof. Craig Criddle. Her research focuses on the microbial degradation of methane in mixtures (biogas and natural gas) for the production of biodegradable polymers called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). Wakuna is interested in understanding the impact these methane mixtures have on microbial communities, the dynamics between the microbial interactions under certain complex conditions, while optimizing the polymer production process and bacterial growth rates. In addition to research, Wakuna is quite passionate about tutoring and mentoring.

Paul Kusuma received a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from the University of Florida, and is now pursuing a PhD in plant physiology at Utah State University. 

Rhesa discovered her scientific interest many years ago in a high school chemistry class. Her inspirational teacher, Mr. Best—the stereotypical science geek with large bug-eye glasses—taught Rhesa many scientific lessons, but perhaps the greatest was that science is not just for nerdy boys (as her flawed logic thought), it is for anyone.

Currently, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Utah State University, Rhesa can be found at the laboratory bench doing research focused on understanding and harnessing the amazing abilities of microorganisms. Specifically, she studies the microbial transformation of nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3). This process is a critical part of nature as the majority organisms cannot utilize N2 directly, but need it in a form like NH3 for growth and reproduction. The few microbes that facilitate this conversion provide valuable insight into one of the most biologically challenging reactions and may serve as a catalyst for developing systems for sustainable ammonia production on Mars. 

In additional to research, Rhesa also serves as a science reporter for Utah Public Radio and plans to pursue a career in science education and/or communication. Her excitement for not only doing science, but communicating it just might stem from growing up doing musical theater, which she loves. She also enjoys experiencing other cultures, and hot-potting is always on her list of things to do (and yes, it’s partly to see the beautiful microbial mats)!

George earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a M.S. in "Process, Simulation, Optimization, and Control" from the University of Patras (Greece) in 2016 and 2018, respectively. While there, he was a member of the “Laboratory of Fluid Mechanics and Rheology” where his research focused on the rheology and numerical simulation of flows involving complex yield-stress fluids. He is now pursuing a PhD in Chemical Engineering at University of California, Berkeley, working in the “Process Systems and Control Laboratory”. His current research interests lie in learning-based optimal control of complex systems that intrinsically contain uncertainties. As a member of CUBES, he will be part of the SDID, focusing on systems engineering, process modelling, dynamic optimization and control. His motivation for studying Chemical Engineering was his particular interest in mathematics as a high-school student, as well as his enthusiasm in applying scientific principles towards solving real-world problems.

Matt received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He previously worked as a process engineer for Sanofi Genzyme. His current research focuses on developing a novel biologically-derived bioseparations platform for limited resource environments.

Jorge is originally from Chicago where he attended Loyola University Chicago and received his B.S. in Environmental Science with a Chemistry Minor. After his undergraduate studies, he attended Stanford where he obtained his M.S. in Environmental Engineering and where he has continued as a PhD student working with Professor Craig Criddle. His research focuses on biotechnology with an emphasis on efficiently utilizing waste streams to produce biological materials (e.g., bioplastics, biofuels). As part of the CUBES effort, Jorge's research involves identifying organisms that can thrive on the limited amount of resources available for long-range space travel.

Vince is a first-year Ph.D. student in chemistry at Stanford University; he is interested in creating biodegradable organic materials as well as designing materials processing techniques such as additive manufacturing in order to make functional parts from biodegradable materials feasible for replacing petroleum based plastics. His role in CUBES will be to create and optimism polymeric systems based on methanotrophic polyhydroxyalkanoate production for the closed-loop manufacturing of tools. Before starting his graduate work at Stanford, he studied mechanical engineering and chemistry at Colorado School of Mines where he created block copolymer materials for hydrogen fuel cell membranes and computed degradation mechanisms for small molecule bis-azide species. He also worked as a design engineer at RICOH where he designed, 3D printed, and tested small parts for improving large-scale ink-jet printer functions. Vince likes to hike and carve wood in his free time. 

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Mathangi Soundararajan
Areas of Interest:

Mathangi Soundararajan is a PhD candidate from India currently at Utah State University advised by Lance Seefeldt. She has also been awarded the Presidential Doctoral Research Fellow by Utah State University. She majored in biotechnology in her high school, and went on to get her Bachelors in Biomedical Sciences from Sri Ramachandra University. In her junior year, she was awarded the Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship by Sri Ramachandra University to study the effects of dairy intake on inflammatory biomarkers in people with Type 2 Diabetes. She also worked as a Research Assistant at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences during her final year, where she studied the genetic susceptibility of Type 2 Diabetes patients to colorectal cancer using bioinformatics methods. Graduating at the top of her batch, she was awarded the 'Best Outgoing Student' medal as well. Her current research interest includes understanding and applying biological nitrogen fixation in bioelectrochemical systems. Her undergraduate research experience has also contributed to her interest in understanding metabolism and the effects of derangements in metabolism. When she is not losing track of time in the research lab, you can find her catching up on TV series and Netflixing. 

Alex graduated from Georgetown University in 2014 with a B.S. in Environmental Biology with a focus in community ecology. Following graduation, he moved to the University of Kentucky to study how bacterial symbionts mediate insect ecology in agricultural systems.

Now, pursuing a PhD in Plant Biology at UC Berkeley, Alex studies plant-associated microbial communities from shoots to roots. In cassava, a tropical root crop, Alex  investigates the phyllosphere ecology and carryover of the microbiome between planting seasons. For CUBES, he aims to construct synthetic bacterial communities via host-mediated selection to better grow rice in space. As both a Trekkie and wannabe farmer, Alex is very excited to be a member of FPSD.

Tom Tacken
Areas of Interest:

Tom is a Visiting Scholar from the Netherlands completing the research for his master thesis in the Peidong Yang Group. His work is focused on the microbial synthesis of ammonia from dinitrogen gas. Ammonia is essential for a successful manned mission to Mars. However, it is not feasible to achieve the current production method, the Haber-Bosch process, on Mars due to limited resources. Therefore, the search for an alternative way to produce ammonia is paramount to the success of this mission. The reduction of dinitrogen gas with a solar-driven potential and bacteria as catalysts is a very promising way of achieving this.

Kelly Wetmore is a graduate student in Adam Arkin’s lab at UC Berkeley with over 15 years of experience in microbial physiology and genetics before and during graduate school. She has been instrumental in developing a number of next-generation tools and protocols for microbial functional genomics. Kelly is supporting the CUBES team in applying these tools to optimize the core biomanufacturing microbes in physiologically more-or-less relevant conditions. She is also part of a large DOE environmental systems biology project in which she is developing a new technology to query high-throughput genetic interactions.

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Hao Zhang
Areas of Interest:

Hao Zhang is a 4th year graduate student in Chemistry at University of California Berkeley with Prof. Peidong Yang. She received her B.S in Material Science and Engineering from University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in 2014.
Her research is focused on the CO2 fixation via photosynthetic biohybrid systems(PBSs) in the MMFD division. The non-photosynthetic bacteria could be photosensitized by using the semiconductors to reduce the CO2 into multicarbon products, such as acetate, ethanol, and other valuable products. Such PBSs inherits both the high light-harvesting efficiency and the superior catalytic performance from solid-state semiconductors and whole-cell microorganisms, respectively.