Outstanding December Graduate: William Brad O’Dell

DECEMBER 15, 2017

By  (courtesy of NC State University)

The first in his family to earn a college degree (and a Ph.D.), William Brad O’Dell is an accomplished scientist who has big goals for his future. Read on to learn more about Brad and his exceptional experience as a graduate student in CALS.

Former ORNL GO! student Brad O’Dell is among NC State University’s
December graduates. O’Dell studied under ORNL’s Flora Meilleur in the
Neutron Sciences Directorate for 5 years. He received the UT-Battelle graduate
student award in 2016.

Why did you choose NC State?

I decided to come to NC State for my Ph.D. in Biochemistry because I knew that I was going to have the opportunity to pursue my research both at State and at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My Ph.D. thesis advisor, Dr. Flora Meilleur, is joint faculty between NC State and ORNL. I did a research internship at ORNL after earning my bachelor’s degree, and while I was there Dr. Meilleur described her lab’s research to me and asked me if I was interested in joining her lab as a Ph.D student. Dr. Meilleur wanted a student who was willing to spend time in both Raleigh and in Oak Ridge. I saw coming to State as a perfect opportunity to conduct exciting research while experiencing both academic and government laboratory environments and cultures.

What’s your career goal?

I would like to become a staff scientist at a U.S. government research laboratory like ORNL. My experience has been that government scientists have opportunities to embrace both the pure curiosity of academia and the perspective toward applications that is commonly found in industry. I also like that government laboratories are typically very collaborative and dynamic research environments where scientists can work together on emerging topics that are scientifically intriguing and important to our national interests.

What are you working on now?

For my Ph.D. research, I investigated the enzymatic reaction mechanism of lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases. LPMOs are enzymes from fungi that increase the efficiency of converting cellulose from trees and grass into glucose that can, in turn, be converted into chemical products including bio-ethanol. Industrial bio-ethanol producers are already using LPMOs in their processes. However, there are still many unanswered questions concerning how these enzymes perform their function, and this makes LPMOs an important area of research for bio-energy. I solved crystal structures of a fungal LPMO using both X-ray and neutron crystallography techniques. These structures provided atomic-scale details about how LPMOs interact with oxygen, which is the first step in their reaction with cellulose. These LPMO crystal structures are a starting point for structurally describing the reaction mechanism, and a structural understanding of the mechanism may allow other scientists to tune industrial conditions for optimal LPMO activity or even engineer LPMOs to yield greater efficiency in cellulose-to-glucose conversion.

Tell me about your experience at ORNL:

I spent three and a half years at ORNL for my Ph.D. research, and my time there was an excellent experience both scientifically and professionally. I was hosted by the Neutron Sciences Directorate at ORNL which operates the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science to facilitate neutron scattering experiments conducted by user scientists from all over the world. Neutron scattering science is a specialized field; so specialized, in fact, that ORNL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s only national laboratory supporting a user program for basic science using neutrons. Being “in residence” at ORNL provided me with an immersion into my field that wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else.

ORNL also maintains a significant commitment to STEM outreach in its local community and nationwide, and I was lucky to become a regular volunteer with the Oak Ridge Traveling Science Fair. I had numerous opportunities to educate, and sometimes excite, students, parents, teachers and folks just generally interested in science and technology about my research, the science that Neutron Sciences at ORNL makes possible and, importantly, the necessity of government support for scientific research both at national laboratories and at colleges and universities.

I definitely missed out on a lot of the great campus life at NC State by being away for so much of my graduate career, but the joint NC State–ORNL experience was perfect for me.

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