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Outstanding December Graduate: William Brad O’Dell

The first in his family to earn a college degree (and a Ph.D.), William Brad O’Dell is an accomplished scientist who has big goals for his future. Read on to learn more about Brad and his exceptional experience as a graduate student in CALS.

Why did you choose NC State?

I decided to come to NC State for my Ph.D. in Biochemistry because I knew that I was going to have the opportunity to pursue my research both at State and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My Ph.D. thesis advisor, Dr. Flora Meilleur, is joint faculty between NC State and ORNL. I did a research internship at ORNL after earning my bachelor’s degree, and while I was there Dr. Meilleur described her lab’s research to me and asked me if I was interested in joining her lab as a Ph.D student. Dr. Meilleur wanted a student who was willing to spend time in both Raleigh and in Oak Ridge. I saw coming to State as a perfect opportunity to conduct exciting research while experiencing both academic and government laboratory environments and cultures.

What’s your career goal?

I would like to become a staff scientist at a U.S. government research laboratory like ORNL. My experience has been that government scientists have opportunities to embrace both the pure curiosity of academia and the perspective toward applications that is commonly found in industry. I also like that government laboratories are typically very collaborative and dynamic research environments where scientists can work together on emerging topics that are scientifically intriguing and important to our national interests.

NC State grad student Brad O'Dell
O’Dell in the lab with his faculty mentor Dr. Flora Meilleur.

What are you working on now?

For my Ph.D. research, I investigated the enzymatic reaction mechanism of lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases. LPMOs are enzymes from fungi that increase the efficiency of converting cellulose from trees and grass into glucose that can, in turn, be converted into chemical products including bio-ethanol. Industrial bio-ethanol producers are already using LPMOs in their processes. However, there are still many unanswered questions concerning how these enzymes perform their function, and this makes LPMOs an important area of research for bio-energy. I solved crystal structures of a fungal LPMO using both X-ray and neutron crystallography techniques. These structures provided atomic-scale details about how LPMOs interact with oxygen, which is the first step in their reaction with cellulose. These LPMO crystal structures are a starting point for structurally describing the reaction mechanism, and a structural understanding of the mechanism may allow other scientists to tune industrial conditions for optimal LPMO activity or even engineer LPMOs to yield greater efficiency in cellulose-to-glucose conversion.

Tell me about your experience at ORNL:

I spent three and a half years at ORNL for my Ph.D. research, and my time there was an excellent experience both scientifically and professionally. I was hosted by the Neutron Sciences Directorate at ORNL which operates the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science to facilitate neutron scattering experiments conducted by user scientists from all over the world. Neutron scattering science is a specialized field; so specialized, in fact, that ORNL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s only national laboratory supporting a user program for basic science using neutrons. Being “in residence” at ORNL provided me with an immersion into my field that wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else.

ORNL also maintains a significant commitment to STEM outreach in its local community and nationwide, and I was lucky to become a regular volunteer with the Oak Ridge Traveling Science Fair. I had numerous opportunities to educate, and sometimes excite, students, parents, teachers and folks just generally interested in science and technology about my research, the science that Neutron Sciences at ORNL makes possible and, importantly, the necessity of government support for scientific research both at national laboratories and at colleges and universities.

I definitely missed out on a lot of the great campus life at NC State by being away for so much of my graduate career, but the joint NC State–ORNL experience was perfect for me.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

The one thing that I enjoy most about my research is how often the science gives me opportunities to be surprised by the elegance of nature. I work most often with macromolecules and microbes, and both have innumerable examples of complex processes achieved through elegant approaches. Sometimes, I see elegance in a complicated equilibrium of elements in a protein structure or a gene regulatory network, but it’s really when nature achieves something with elegant simplicity that I admire. I love conducting research that lets me appreciate this elegance in a personal way or, sometimes, even discover a previously-unknown structure or process that’s complicated but solved beautifully by nature.

How does it feel to be the first in your family to earn a college degree, and now, a Ph.D.?

I feel very fortunate to be a first-generation college graduate and, now, a first-generation Ph.D. My parents are from a generation for which a high school diploma was the key to finding a good job or even starting a career. That has obviously changed for my generation, and a career as a research scientist requires a graduate degree regardless. I’m sincerely thankful for the attention and mentorship I have received from so many individuals starting as far back as middle school that illuminated the path of higher education and for each step helped me navigate that path.

In fact, while I was preparing my dissertation, Dr. Meilleur and I realized that we’re both first-generation college graduates and Ph.D.s. As a professor at State, she’s doing her part to help a new generation of students realize their academic goals. I hope that in my career I can carry forward that commitment and also be able to help young, possibly first-generation scientists achieve their goals.

O'Dell and Meilleur prepare for Dec. 15 commencement exercises.
O’Dell and Meilleur prepare for Dec. 15 commencement exercises.

What have you learned at NC State that you’ll take with you when you graduate?

My experience as a Ph.D. student at NC State has taught me to embrace opportunities for collaboration, and I want to keep that mindset throughout my career. Science is so much bigger than one person or one institution or even one country. At State and at ORNL, I’ve had excellent instructors and research collaborators from very diverse fields that often seemed completely unrelated to my degree or my Ph.D. research. However, in most of those cases, we found commonality in what each of us knows and studies and used that basis to extend what we knew sometimes to the point of publishing new scientific findings. Personally, I think those lessons in scientific collaboration have been the most important, and I want to draw from those experiences for the rest of my career.

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.