Graduate Spotlight: Chris Hopkins
Expected Graduation: Spring 2010
Degree Objective: Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
The Life Sciences building is incredibly complex to the unacquainted. Its hallways twirl and bend resembling the structure of a double helix. Rooms and elevators are numbered following patterns based on DNA sequencing structures, not standard building practices.
“We have visiting professors who come here to teach two to three months and don’t learn how the building is laid out until they’re ready to leave,” says Chris Hopkins, a Ph.D. candidate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.
Nevertheless, in this building Hopkins has been conducting groundbreaking research related to alternative energy sources. The laboratory he works in bustles with activity as other doctoral students and the principal investigator, Dr. Michael Adams, investigate energy challenges related to biochemistry and molecular biology.
Hopkins, in the fifth year of his doctoral study, has been working toward his Ph.D. under Dr. Adams since his undergraduate years, even if he did not know it then.
“Dr. Adams was my undergraduate advisor. At the time, I wasn’t really sure of what I wanted to do, but Dr. Adams offered me a job as a lab technician,” he says.
With Dr. Adams’ encouragement, Hopkins made the leap to graduate school. Working with Dr. Adams, Hopkins is conducting research that is establishing the groundwork to enable biological hydrogen production with the ultimate goal of contributing to renewable, clean energy.
“We want to do the basic research that will enable biological hydrogen production in the future,” he says.
Hopkins’ research focuses on an enzyme called hydrogenase. Although hydrogenase was first discovered in the 1920s, not much research has been done to expand the existing knowledge. His goal is to understand better how scientists can use microorganisms to create hydrogen – a potentially valuable biomass form of energy.
According to Hopkins, hydrogen energy is still 15 to 20 years away from profitability and widespread usage, but his research will help build the knowledge for scientists to develop a clean, sustainable method for producing hydrogen.
Scientists are looking for ways to create carbon-neutral hydrogen energy while confronting the challenge of originating it from sunlight. Herein lies the problem, Hopkins says, since scientists need to reach a sustainable coexistence between photosynthetic organisms and hydrogen-producing proteins.
“When you use the sun’s energy, you actually split water and you make oxygen,” Hopkins says. “Well, the protein that makes hydrogen in the presence of oxygen kills it. How do you make these two things compatible? How do you make them work together?”
Regardless of the eventual method, the end result will be a carbon-neutral, clean form of energy.
In an effort to continue his research with hydrogen energy, Hopkins has been in talks with his professors and colleagues about creating a biotech company after he completes his doctoral work. However, he cautions, a scientific-based enterprise is much different from the academic world. According to Hopkins, 90 percent to 95 percent of all biotech companies fail in the first year.
Still, the possibility of continuing his work is alluring.
“To think that you’ve discovered something, and you can build a company, build a future, off of your work is a really intriguing possibility,” he says.
Hopkins has another semester in the Adams Lab to continue his work and decide on a career path in energy, pharmaceuticals, or academia.
Until then, Hopkins is thrilled that his work at UGA may inform and inspire future research. “It’s really exciting to think something you did could help contribute to renewable, clean energy, and ultimately saving the planet.”