Professor Leads Students in Microbial Research

  • By Kat J. McAlpine, republished with permission of emagination, a School of Engineering electronic publication

“Engineering ought to be more widely recognized as a human service,” remarked Dr. Leslie Shor. “An engineering education provides you with the right tools to understand problems and design solutions for issues such as protecting the environment and contributing to society.” Dr. Shor, an assistant professor of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering (CMBE), is overseeing several student research projects aimed at understanding and replicating microbial habitats. While conducted on an extremely minute scale, the projects are relevant to a variety of large-scale, global issues.

Dr. Shor has always been committed to environmental protection and advocacy. Growing up in New Jersey, her exposure to the industrialized northeastern area of the state fostered her desire to help alleviate environmental issues resulting from industry. “I realized that chemical engineering would provide me with the skills I needed to build solutions and address problems in a systematic and logical manner,” said Dr. Shor.

After earning her bachelor’s degrees in environmental science and chemistry, she pursued graduate degrees in chemical and biochemical engineering. Her dissertation work predicted the bioavailability of contaminants in long-term contact with sediments through the sampling and study of two sites in the New York Harbor estuary. She participated in the New York Academy of Sciences Harbor Project; her efforts to understand sources of pollution contributed to the project’s overall goal of achieving long-term sustainability in high-density human habitats. Today, she is a key member of the environmental faculty associated with UConn’s Center for Environmental Science and Engineering (CESE).

Her research projects focus on microbial interactions at the micro-structure level and stand to contribute a great deal to our understanding of the integral nature of environmental systems. Current standards for microbial research cannot account for the extremely complex composition of microbial habitats; as a result, less than 1% of all microbial species have ever been successfully cultured in a laboratory. Typically, laboratory cultures favor strains of microbes that thrive in controlled, non-complex environments that are extremely different from natural settings. In her research, Dr. Shor strives not only to better understand how micro-scale habitat structures influence microbial communities, but also to successfully replicate micro-structure habitats in which microbial behavior and growth may be more accurately studied.

In addition, her projects have led to research opportunities for UConn students. Dr. Shor is currently mentoring and advising four student teams conducting microbial research in her laboratory. While many of the projects examine the symbiotic relationships between microbes and their environment, in effect the student pairings are also symbiotic; each team comprises one undergraduate and one graduate researcher (of which there are three Ph.D. students and one post-doctoral researcher). The teams are tasked with different research objectives, yet all four projects are interconnected in their quest for understanding a set of vital questions fixed by Dr. Shor. The researchers are undergraduates Leonela Villegas, Megan Nolan, Emily Anderson and Kristina Gillick, graduate students Grant Bouchillon, Jinzi Deng and Andrea Kadilak, and post-doc Jessica Chau.