Recent graduate investigates methane production in peat

In high school and college, Rachel Andrews’ favorite classes were chemistry and biology. So when a friend from church told her about internship opportunities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), just a few miles from her hometown, Andrews jumped at the chance to apply.

After receiving her associate degree from Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tennessee, Andrews participated in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships (SULI) and Higher Education Research Experiences (HERE) programs at ORNL over the course of three semesters.

Under the guidance of Senior Staff Scientist Christopher Schadt, Ph.D., and Postdoctoral Research Associate Eric Johnston, Ph.D., in the Biosciences Division at ORNL, Andrews investigated methane production in peat, a brown deposit formed by the partial decomposition of Sphagnum moss in wet, acidic conditions. Peat contains methanogens, or microorganisms that produce methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas considered a major contributor to global warming.

“Methanogens produce methane at an elevated level as temperatures rise, and our research shows us just how much methane is capable of being produced through different temperatures over time,” Andrews said.

Specifically, the team explored a new process in which methane is produced from peat through very specific methylated organic compounds.

Andrews contributed to an experiment in which samples of peat, taken from an ORNL-led research site in northern Minnesota, were incubated in jars with these compounds for weeks at a time. Using an instrument called a gas chromatograph, Andrews measured the gas production of the samples.

At the conclusion of the SULI internship, Andrews shared her research findings during the fall 2019 poster session for participants in the SULI and Community College Internships (CCI) programs. Andrews’ submission earned “best poster” honors. She also presented the research as a poster at the national virtual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in August 2020, and is working with Schadt and Johnston on a future publication for a scientific journal.

During her time at ORNL, Andrews gained valuable experience in a laboratory setting, learning how to conduct experiments and use different types of lab equipment. “Through this experience at ORNL, I have been able to use the information I learned in college and apply it to real-life scenarios,” she said.

In the future, Andrews hopes to pursue a bachelor’s degree in either biology or chemistry.

“I would recommend [the internship programs at ORNL)] because they allow interns to learn about different opportunities at national labs, conduct research with great scientists and expand their interest in science,” she said.

The SULI program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists. The SULI and HERE programs at ORNL are administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.