Professor Encourages Student Researchers to Ponder ‘What Can I Build that Will be Useful?’
Professor Encourages Student Researchers to Ponder ‘What Can I Build that Will be Useful?’

by Jackie Hennessey
Communications and Public Affairs Writer/Editor

Melanie Eldridge, assistant professor of biology and environmental science, was a pre-med major with designs on becoming a veterinarian. After a couple of summers working in a veterinary clinic, she felt burned out — and that was before she got to veterinary school.

Then her microbiology professor asked if she would be interested in doing undergraduate research in an environmental microbiology lab. “I had no idea undergrads did research,” she said.

Melanie Eldridge

Soon she was studying how termites digest wood pulp. No one was paying much attention to such research at the time, but since then, Eldridge said, it has become a key research area as scientists study whether the breakdown of lignin, a complex organic material found in trees and other plants, may be valuable in the production of ethanol.

Eldridge liked every facet of the research – extracting DNA from bacteria, sequencing it and making up clone libraries. “I said to myself, ‘this is what I want to do,’” she said.

While pursuing her advanced degrees, Eldridge also discovered she loved to teach. Now, as a new professor at UNH, she calls herself doubly lucky. Her research life is flourishing, and she hopes to inspire her students to find their own paths as they pursue science, just as she did.

She sees in many of her students the passion she had as an emerging scientist at Tennessee Technical University and at the University of Tennessee, where she earned her Ph.D.

“I want my students to think about the different opportunities available in research, whether it’s working in a government lab or teaching and doing research at a university,” she said. “To succeed at research, students must have marketable skills, because that puts them ahead of the game. That’s what is great about UNH. With our emphasis on experiential education, our students learn research techniques in the lab, rather than just the theory about them.”

Students use those skills to embark on undergraduate research projects. “I ask them, ‘What is the pressing question you want to try to solve?' In our department, we don’t propose one for them,” she said. “They come up with their own project ideas and research focus.”

That can be challenging, Eldridge said, because undergraduates often propose ideas that are too expansive to complete in one or two semesters. “My job is to make their focus more manageable,” she said.

Eldridge’s own research centers on using modern molecular tools to help find solutions to today's environmental challenges. While pursuing her Ph.D. and then later as a research scientist at the Center for Environmental Biotechnology, she studied environmental contamination from chemicals that mimic human hormones. She genetically engineered bioluminescent bioreporters – living microbial cells that have been engineered to produce a measurable signal in response to a specific chemical in their environment – to search for contaminants.

“With chemicals in the environment on the rise, waste water treatment plants are challenged to clean up all the chemicals we put down the drain and the ones we consume. The environment is increasingly contaminated with harmful chemicals, which may be having an effect on humans today, and certainly could have an effect on the next few generations.” 

For example, she said, male fish exposed to some chemicals can take on feminine traits, which affects their fertility. Scientists are studying whether the chemicals can cause tumors, promote cancer, cause early puberty or be responsible for reproductive difficulties in humans.

“It is a big issue,” she said. “I enjoy working on projects that bridge the gap between environmental health and human health, but I also love projects that study different aspects of the two fields individually.”

This summer, she will use a Fulbright Scholarship she won in 2013 to visit Brazil, where she will study the waste-water treatment plants that sometimes discharge raw sewage directly into waterways. She hopes her work will raise awareness and encourage leaders to make changes. She also hopes to begin researching water treatment plants and waterways in Connecticut, with UNH graduate students taking part.

“My goal was not just to make biomarkers but to apply them to a real world problem and actually use them to raise awareness,” she said. “From the start my question was, `what can I build that will be useful?’”

That philosophy has stayed with her. “It’s very fulfilling to me that the work I did during my Ph.D. was useful in some way,” Eldridge said. “I love the search and the quest. I love research projects that aim to answer the fundamental questions of science. It’s very sad to me that those projects don’t get as much funding these days, because they are so important. But for my work, I wanted to tackle something that would be of use to the general public. And that’s what I’ll continue to do.”

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