Pure energy

Faculty of Graduate Studies

Pure energy

Alumna Kirsty Salmon leads a search for a greener source of fuel
By Tiffany Gallagher

If ever Kirsty Salmon (BSc ‘91, MSc ‘94) has needed affirmation she’s on the right career path, she has been getting it this year.

Every news clip of tar-like globs of oil washing ashore in Louisiana and clouding the Gulf of Mexico in the BP oil spill has made the purpose of her work evermore clear.

Salmon is the director of renewable fuels at Verdezyne Inc., a synthetic biology company in Carlsbad, California. She is also a Brock alumna (BSc ’91, MSc ’94) who returned to the university this spring to be a keynote speaker for Scientifically Yours, a two-day event encouraging Grade 11 girls to pursue scientific careers.

At Verdezyne Inc., the microbial physiologist and molecular biologist tries to maximize the amount of ethanol one gram of glucose can produce and make the production of the clean-burning fuel economically viable.

The BP oil spill weighs heavily on the minds of herself and her coworkers.

“Our whole company talks about (the oil spill),” Salmon says. “We can’t do the work as fast as everyone wants us to do it but this just makes us know we really have to get there soon.

“We’re so reliant on oil — if we can just tip the scales to need a little less oil. You really have to get to that point where we’re not so reliant on Saudi Arabia. It leads to wars and chaos, but also for the environment. Our kids, we want them to live in a better world, not live in a Wall-E world,” she added, referring to the futuristic Disney epic about a robot designed to clean up trash-covered Earth.

Salmon’s pursuit of reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels started at Brock in 1986.

She dove into studying science at Brock, in part because of the competitive swimming program and the approach the university took to attracting scholarly and athletic students.

Salmon, who swam competitively in high school, was being aggressively recruited by the University of Toronto, in a way that overwhelmed the Ottawa native.

When she checked out Brock, a place she only knew about from competing in swim meets hosted in the university’s Olympic-sized pool, and met her future swim coach, Herb de Bray, she immediately “felt at home.”

“You go to Brock labs and there’s maybe room for 20 students. I said, ‘I can live with this.’ I’ve never regretted my decision.”

She’s earned several academic accolades since graduating with her honours Bachelor of Science in 1991 and then an MSc in 1994, including completing her PhD at Montreal’s McGill University and accepting a post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA before joining the University of California at Irvine’s medical school as a research assistant. But it’s her time at Brock that Salmon remembers most fondly.

“When I was there, our science professors cared about us,” she says. “They went out of their way to help us. You were a name, not a number. At UCLA and UCI, you’re a number.”

Brock is also where Salmon really got her feet wet for a demanding career in the sciences.

“In my final year, my exam questions were, ‘Design an experiment to show A, B, C, D.’ Brock taught me to learn. As a scientist, you constantly have to assimilate information,” Salmon says. “You understand how to learn this stuff and put it together.”

These days, she’s putting it together with a team of scientists she leads at Verdezyne. Together, they’re trying find a way maximize ethanol production from non-food crops, including through the metabolic engineering of yeast, a micro-organism that can help achieve the ‘theoretical yield’ of one gram of glucose producing 0.51 grams of ethanol.

It has been an elusive target for which renewable fuel researchers have long been aiming.

Salmon’s work has got the field more than half way to that end goal of maximizing production of the alcohol-based fuel that, at best, makes up two per cent of what drivers pump into their gas tanks. This is despite signs at gas stations claiming up to 10 per cent ethanol content.

Salmon’s determination in her career is no surprise to de Bray, given her determination in the pool so many years ago.

“Kirsty rarely missed practice. She was very dedicated, a very hard worker,” de Bray says. “She often led the practice. She was often the first off the walls. It all comes together. Anyone who’s that disciplined at that age and goes without missing a swim practice in five years, to trust in her coach and to trust in her professors the same, her qualities as a microbiologist are phenomenal.”

So far, Salmon has been able to get one gram of glucose to produce 0.39 grams of ethanol. Much like improving her time in a race in a pool, she’s not about to give up on bettering that figure.

“I have the ability to understand organisms and change them to do what I want them to do,” Salmon says.

“We’ve got a long way to go but we’re making a major contribution.”

(This story was first published in the September 2010 issue of Surgite!)

Kirsty Salmon (BSc ‘91, MSc ‘94)

Kirsty Salmon (BSc ‘91, MSc ‘94)