Michelle O'Malley Among Science News' Ten Scientists to Watch

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Two UC Santa Barbara junior faculty members are among the 10 “Scientists to Watch,” according to Science News, a bi-weekly magazine with more than 115,000 subscribers. Michelle O’Malley, in chemical engineering, and Andrea Young, in physics, were selected based on their innovative research and contributions to their fields. The annual list of groundbreaking scientists recognizes early- and mid-career scholars, age 40 or under, who are shaping the science of the future. 

This year’s awardees were all nominated by Nobel laureates, recently elected members of the National Academy of Sciences, and past Science News scientists to watch. 

“It’s truly a great honor to be recognized and to know our work stood out to someone widely recognized and respected,” said O’Malley, an associate professor in the chemical engineering department. “My research sits at the interface of biology and engineering. So it’s especially gratifying to be recognized alongside this multi-disciplinary collection of researchers. They have contributed in fields that include everything from climate change and astrochemistry to quantum mechanics.” 

O’Malley’s research focuses on the biotech potential of microbes, which may have significant applications when it comes to renewable energy and manufacturing chemicals and drugs. Her most recent work investigated the functions of anaerobic gut fungi, primitive microbes found mainly in large herbivores. The fungi’s enzymes and unique ability to transform cellulose from plants into sugars could offer new sources of biofuels and methods of producing the next generation of pharmaceuticals. 

Her work has earned her numerous awards and recognitions, including the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), National Science Foundation CAREER award, Department of Energy’s Early Career Award, and MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35. Within the last two months, O’Malley has also received a $2.25 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy to advance the knowledge of and technology for advanced biofuels, as well as the American Society of Microbiology Award for Early Career Applied and Biotechnological Research. 

“We’re extremely proud of Michelle O’Malley for being named to the highly selective list of just ten Science News Scientists to Watch from across the nation,” said Rod Alferness, dean of the UCSB College of Engineering. “This is the latest in a string of prestigious awards and notices Michelle has earned recently recognizing the importance of her groundbreaking research. We are, of course, delighted and proud that she is part of the CoE family and know that great things lie ahead for her.”   
“I see the awards as recognition and affirmation of the unique, leading-edge research conducted by my lab. Knowing people value our work, raises the lab’s collective spirit, enthusiasm, and drive to discover the unknown,” said O’Malley. 

Her students say they take pride in the roles they play in the lab, and see the external recognition as extra motivation to contribute each day to fulfilling their research mission. 

“We have an overarching goal of understanding anaerobic fungi. And while we each specialize in our own area, it truly feels like we approach the goal as a unified front,” explained Patrick Leggieri, a second-year PhD student, who said he came to UCSB specifically to work with O’Malley. “Professor O’Malley stresses that good science is more than technically proficient lab work, and reminds us to prioritize eloquent delivery of our findings. She is always building new connections and collaborations to improve resources available to us. She is a true mentor both in research and in how a professional engineer should be.”

Young, who received a PECASE award earlier this year, investigates the properties of graphene, a two-dimensional carbon-based material with tremendous potential in both practical use and theoretical study. His lab researches the properties of electronic states in quantum materials by combining nanofabrication and electronic measurement techniques. 

“We so often cover the results of scientists’ work, but not how they did that work, or what motivates them through the long, often frustrating research process,” said Nancy Shute, editor in chief of Science News. “We’re thrilled to be able to recognize the work of these outstanding scientists, and to give people a glimpse into their remarkable lives.”

Published since 1922, Science News, features new scientific and technical developments and reaches more than 115,000 subscribers and 200,000 readers. This is the fifth year the magazine is recognizing young scientists for their contributions. The list will appear in the October 12 print issue and be featured prominently online here

Michelle O'Malley, a chemical engineering professor at UC Santa Barbara, was one of the 10 scientists to watch profiled by Science News.