Two faculty members from SIU Carbondale have received statewide awards for innovation at the 2022 STEAM Expo at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.
SIU nominated Scott D. Hamilton-Brehm and Lahiru Jayakody for the 2022 Illinois Innovation Network awards. The two Innovators of the Year are faculty in the School of Biological Sciences. Hamilton-Brehm won the award for his work with the environment and water, while Jayakody was honored for his work in food and agriculture.
The Illinois Innovation Network is a group of public universities and community colleges working together to improve the state's economy through an inclusive approach to innovation, research and education. It has 15 innovation hubs across Illinois associated with 13 public universities.
IIN works with businesses, governmental agencies and community groups to grow Illinois' workforce, bring new technologies to market faster and use research to make better decisions through an equity approach for the state.
Now in its second year, the awards are based on each entry's novelty, potential impact on society, contribution to the field, feasibility and support of IIN's principles.
From the pandemic to deep space
Hamilton-Brehm, an associate professor, joined SIU in January 2016. His research focuses on characterizing microbial communities from extreme environments, such as those with limited nutrients, are very hot, or anaerobic, and explores using these new microbes to solve world problems.
Hamilton-Brehm has been intimately involved with several high-profile efforts at SIU in recent years. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, his lab quickly went to work manufacturing the much-needed medium to preserve test swabs, ultimately making some 110,000 vials that supported the state's efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
He also recently collaborated with students, forming the team "Carbon Down Under" and the local SIU spinoff company Thermaquatica Inc. to research methods for removing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. The work earned an XPRIZE for the student team, which received $250,000, and placed the SIU research team in the Top 60 international teams for a separate prize.
Working with Jayakody, Hamilton-Brehm also is part of a team funded by NASA's Deep Space Food Challenge aimed at creating a process to provide tasty, nutritious food to astronauts on future deep space voyages, using microbial processes and recycled carbon.
Hamilton-Brehm said the award also recognizes his work with Jayakody and Ken Anderson, director of SIU's Advanced Energy Research Center, founder of Thermaquatica and himself an Innovation Network Award winner in 2021.
"Being recognized by the IIN is truly a great honor," he said. "All of these projects have made a significant impact on student careers and SIU's reputation with the international scientific community. We are developing techniques that will reshape how to make a better tomorrow for our planet and people."
Solving problems using biology
Jayakody, an assistant professor, joined SIU in fall of 2019 and has a joint appointment to the university's Fermentation Science Institute. His research focuses primarily on developing robust microbial cell factories for industrial applications using systems biology, synthetic microbiology and metabolic engineering approaches that utilize waste biological mass or industrial byproducts.
Along with his leading a team of SIU researchers' work for the NASA Deep Space Food Challenge, Jayakody is developing a molecular-based method to make everyday, single-use plastics biodegradable and more readily recyclable.
Building on another process pioneered by Anderson, the method also relies on spent tea leaves and coffee grounds to produce high-value chemicals that in turn can make biodegradable, efficiently recycled plastics. Jayakody received a $290,000 grant from Green Core Ltd., Japan, and Ito En USA for the research project, which also will involve SIU undergraduate and graduate students.
Jayakody said he is honored and humbled by the award and grateful to Anderson, his research collaborators and his students.
"This award and recognition will be giving me extra strength and motivation to work on my current research involving plastic upcycling. I would say this award is a team effort," he said. "It highlights how SIU is at the forefront of this issue, and it will enhance the university's reputation for developing innovative biological solutions for global-scale problems that pose considerable environmental damage."