The National Science Foundation has given an early career development award to Tina Jeoh, a UC Davis assistant professor of biological and agricultural engineering. The prestigious CAREER award is worth $407,573 over five years and will support Jeoh’s studies of how microbial enzymes break down plant cell walls to release sugars for conversion to biofuels and other products.

Cellulose is one of the key structural components of the plant cell wall and the most abundant natural sugar on Earth. Cellulosic biofuels are renewable and sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, and Congress has mandated the incorporation of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels into our nation’s transportation fuels portfolio by 2022.

But the cellulosic biofuels industry faces significant challenges in scaling up production and making it reliable. Jeoh hopes to help by discovering how cellulase enzymes break down cellulose.

“In nature, microorganisms produce many different enzymes that cooperatively release the sugars,” Jeoh said. “Our goal is to identify the mechanisms of these enzymes, and to learn to consistently reproduce their natural actions in a controlled setting on an industrial scale.”

Jeoh’s team is developing molecular-scale atomic force microscopy methods to analyze cellulase-cellulose reactions as they occur. The researchers will incorporate their findings into models that will help predict reaction outcomes in commercial settings.

Jeoh received her bachelor's degree in biological systems engineering in 1996 and her master’s in 1999 from Virginia Tech, and her doctorate in biological and environmental engineering from Cornell University in 2004. She was a scientist for four years at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and worked for nine months at GeoSynFuels LLC, a startup biofuels company.

CAREER awards are intended to support the work of academic scientists and engineers at an early stage in their careers, especially by helping them to hire graduate student researchers.

About UC Davis

For more than 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has more than 32,000 students, more than 2,500 faculty and more than 21,000 staff, an annual research budget that exceeds $678 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science. It also houses six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.