Carnegie Mellon University

Michelle O’Malley, Professor of Chemical & Biological Engineering, University of California, Santa Barbara

Creating Wonder from Waste

Michelle O’Malley (ENG 2004) seeks scientific breakthroughs through unique chemical reactions on a microbial frontier where few others dream — or dare — to tread. 

“We’re developing biotechnology from poop,” Michelle says. “Microbes do awesome chemistry in our guts. They produce the enzymes that allow us to break food down, absorb nutrients and produce chemicals that keep us healthy.”

Michelle focuses her chemical engineering and biotech skills on the world of large, grazing animals. Domestic livestock like cows and sheep eat fibrous diets, so they are full of unique enzymes that break down woody plant material. In her lab at UC Santa Barbara, she and her research team uncover the chemical processes in these animals. Then they mimic them to turn waste into products at large scale — possibly unlocking opportunities for new fuels, materials and medicines.

“Because plant waste is abundant all over the world, we want to learn how large herbivores break down that material with the microbes in their gut and recreate the process in a bioreactor,” she says.

It’s important work that’s earned her a Presidential Early Career Award from President Barack Obama as well as numerous other recognitions.

“It’s the ultimate turning trash to treasure, right? Agricultural wastes are typically burned for energy,” Michelle says. “We would rather use enzymes to turn that waste into a fuel, chemical or a bio-based material that's not harmful for the environment.”

Story by Elizabeth Speed