Maureen Chinwe Onyeziri

Microbiology Grad Student, Indiana University

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The world needs you, your grit, your knowledge, and what you will contribute.

What do you do?

I currently investigate the mechanism of biosynthesis of a polysaccharide adhesin secreted by Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a plant pathogen that causes crown gall disease in dicots.
Bacterial adhesion to host cells is often the first step in pathogenesis, and surface adhesion is necessary for biofilm formation in many bacterial species. The A. tumefaciens adhesin (unipolar polysaccharide or UPP) allows A. tumefaciens to adhere to both biotic and abiotic surfaces, is necessary for successful plant infection and biofilm formation, and plays a role in the ecology of A. tumefaciens.
Understanding how A. tumefaciens makes UPP will provide valuable insight into how other closely related plant pathogens and symbionts establish host associations. My research also offers potential agricultural (pathogenesis control) and biotechnological (bioadhesive production, biofilm control) applications.

My previous research involved the long-term evolution (LTE) of a bacterial co-culture comprising the fermentative bacterium E. coli and a purple non-sulfur bacterium (PNSB), Rhodopseudomonas palustris. Both bacteria were engineered to form a stable co-culture in minimal medium with glucose as the sole carbon source and nitrogen gas as the sole nitrogen source. In this system, E. coli ferments the glucose into organic acids that R. palustris can metabolize (R. palustris cannot metabolize glucose), while R. palustris, in turn, fixes nitrogen gas into ammonia which provides a useable nitrogen source for E. coli. Interestingly, both bacteria in co-culture produce more hydrogen gas (a potential biofuel) than each can produce individually. My LTE work explored the genetic co-evolution in the co-culture using molecular biology and several chromatography techniques. Furthermore, as part of my bacterial metabolism work, I helped discover that reductive tricarboxylic acid cycle enzymes and reductive amino acid synthesis pathways contribute to electron balance in another PNSB, Rhodospirillum rubrum.

Why did you choose this field?

I got very interested in environmental microbiology as an undergraduate student in Lagos, Nigeria. It fascinated me how these tiny, invisible organisms greatly influence our environment to the point where we couldn't survive without them, and how they were so versatile that they could adapt and survive anywhere, even in the harshest of environments. I also learned how they did amazing things as part of their normal metabolism, like clean up oil spills and break down plastic! I knew I wanted to learn more about them and hopefully do work that allowed me to apply their awesomeness to improve our world.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Getting a Ph.D. There was a time in my life when I didn't even think I would be able to attend undergrad because my family was going through a very tough time and we couldn't afford to pay for my undergrad education. I had resigned myself to a life without a college degree and took up several jobs helping to make ends meet but also saving the little I could for school. When we could finally afford undergrad for me, I enrolled and ended up paying fees for just one session (which was later reimbursed). I got a full ride through school because I got excellent grades and went on to further my education beyond my bachelor's. Now I'm nearing the end of my Ph.D. journey and it's just wild to think that a few years ago, I wouldn't have thought this possible.

Why do you love working in STEM?

What's not to love? I'm excited to do applied research. It has always been my dream to impact the world positively in some way, and STEM provides an excellent opportunity to do just that. It is fulfilling to know that whatever research I do has the potential for impact beyond the workbench and will actually make someone's life better. This is what I live for.

Best advice for next generation?

My advice would be: don't let anything kill your dreams. Pursue those aspirations passionately and persevere when you face obstacles that threaten to leave you battered and broken. The world needs you, your grit, your knowledge, and what you will contribute.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"Every storm runs out of rain." - Maya Angelou

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