Multitalented microbiology student highly lauded for her scholarship

Contact: Paula M. Davis

Aug. 24, 2016

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KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Carol Beaver has long been the inquisitive sort, a creative mind fueled by versatility and the notion that there is always something new to discover. Her past professions speak to this. After earning a music degree, the viola player taught general music in an elementary school. For quite a different challenge, she later joined the U.S. Marine Corps, working as an aircraft mechanic on combat jet ejection seats.

“Maybe because I was more interested in science and how things are put together,” she says.

In ensuing years, Beaver focused on mothering three children and managed a restaurant. But she longed to return to school and at WMU found a new passion—environmental microbiology—while completing a biomedical sciences degree.

Photo of Carol Beaver.

Carol Beaver has long been the inquisitive sort, a creative mind fueled by versatility and the notion that there is always something new to discover.

“I think I became interested in microbiology because there are a lot of organisms that are not known and named, and I figured there’s a good chance that I would find something new,” she says.

Beaver now is in the homestretch of completing a doctorate at WMU and already is distinguishing herself as a scientific investigator, racking up a series of awards. Her latest accolades include being named a Gwen Frostic doctoral fellow for 2016-17 and receiving the MPI Outstanding Graduate Research Award. And the Department of Biological Sciences nominated her for the 2016 department-level Graduate Research and Creative Scholar Award, sponsored by the Graduate College and the Graduate Studies Council. 

“Western has been a great place to be,” Beaver says. “I’ve been given opportunities here that I wouldn’t have had going somewhere else. For one, there aren’t many people who work in biogeophysics. The whole field is new.”

In her doctoral studies, Beaver has been conducting research at the famed Bemidji, Minnesota, oil spill site with biological sciences Professor Silvia Rossbach and Dr. Estella Atekwana. Atekwana is a former WMU professor who pioneered the sub-discipline of biogeophysics and is today an Oklahoma State University geological researcher. Biogeophysics is concerned with how microorganisms, such as bacteria, influence geological material, such as sediment and rock. Only during the last few decades have scientists recognized this interaction.

Photo of labeled bottles in a lab.Rossbach’s and Atekwana’s labs collaborate in research on the Bemidji oil site, a forested area that was heavily contaminated when a pipeline rupture in 1979 caused more than 100,000 gallons of oil to surge into the land. Because the oil leaked into what is a remote area near Bemidji and does not impact community drinking water, the petroleum was not completely cleaned up so that scientists could study how such oil spills are naturally degraded by microorganisms. What U.S. Geological Survey and academic researchers have discovered on site has been used to address oil spills around the globe, according to the USGS.

WMU researchers, including Beaver, are working to contribute to that body of knowledge.

“I find it very interesting what microbes can do to the environment,” Beaver says. “I think that for a lot of the problems we have today, some of the solutions might be found in encouraging or manipulating microbes to deal with some of these environmental situations.

“With an oil spill, a lot of times, the only way you can fix it is by the microbes breaking it down and degrading everything and turning it into carbon dioxide, or methane, to get rid of the contamination,” she explains.

Her research involves analyzing how this natural remediation affects certain geophysical characteristics of the surrounding environment.

“And if they do affect them, what geophysicists could do is put probes in the ground and use them to monitor the bioremediation. It would be a lot cheaper and a lot less invasive to stick a probe in the ground and watch it all the time versus continually digging long cores.”

Rossbach, Beaver’s graduate advisor and mentor, says her student “has really achieved at a high level.”

“Carol’s research will have great impact on not only one, but two disciplines, microbiology and geophysics.”

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