A Sea Change
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Jennifer Headman ’01 uncovers the secret power of microbes, and how they just might save the world
In the early months of the pandemic, millions of Americans found a welcome distraction in the wonderful world of yeast. If Instagram was to be believed, every kitchen across the country boasted a frothing sourdough starter just right for fresh bread and fluffy pancakes. We fed the starter meticulously; we shared tips and tricks over Zoom; we marveled at a world of microbiotics we had discovered. But for Jennifer Headman ’01, it was just another day at the office.
For more than 20 years, she has researched groundbreaking applications for bacteria, yeasts, and enzymes, including environmental clean-up and the development of biofuels. Along the way, she has grown a reputation as a microbiologist with a message: Fermentation can produce far more than delicious baked goods—it might just save the world.
As a high school science student, Headman recalls her earliest introduction to fermentation as closer to alchemy than microbiology. Thanks to a food science class, she discovered what would become a lifelong fascination with the power of unicellular organisms. “I thought it was so cool that you could put one thing in a jar, add something else, and it would produce an entirely new product on its own,” she says. “In particular, yeast’s ability to grow anaerobically seemed really neat to me.”
There was little doubt that Headman’s profession would be in the sciences, but, like yeast itself, her academic focus on microbiology had a lag phase. It wasn’t until arriving on the WPI campus as an undergraduate that she rekindled her fascination with all things microbial, which laid the groundwork for a career as a fermentation specialist. As part of her Major Qualifying Project (MQP), she researched the ability of bacteria to clean polluted soils.
“We found that certain bacteria could survive in the presence of really high levels of metal. In some cases, they could actually pull metals and other contaminants out of the environment,” she explains. “These contaminated sites weren’t barren wastelands; there were living things present in the soil that we could amplify to help clean things up.”
Through the course of that project, she discovered a field of research that would become foundational to all her future work: microbiology that made the world a better place.
I was looking for an area of research that would make a difference, and biofuels research fell right into my lap.
Following her graduation from WPI, Headman began her PhD studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and soon after headed to the Technical University of Denmark on a Fulbright scholarship, where she joined a Danish team of scientists focused on fermentation research. The team had access to large-scale bioreactors, allowing Headman to take engineered yeast strains from the bench to production. In retrospect, she credits her time in Denmark with introducing her to the niche field of fermentation microbiology. “Being in a community of people who thought constantly about fermentation—rates, yields, and how to optimize them—was an exciting experience for me,” she recalls. “The new equipment I had access to was necessary to get into those conversations, but I was impacted more by the mindset of the people I was working with.”
She later returned to the University of Wisconsin, where she researched the potential for microbial organisms to clean up explosives and ammunition depots. But sourcing raw materials in the wake of 9/11 proved prohibitive and she soon found herself looking for a new focus for her research. Her search led her to UW-Madison professor Thomas Jeffries—and the beginning of her life’s work.
At the time, Jeffries was working with Scheffersomyces (Pichia) stipitis and Spathaspora passalidarum, specialized yeast strains found in the stomachs of beetles. With the help of these strains, wood-boring beetles are able to digest a diet rich in xylose, a sugar found in the otherwise inedible portions of grasses, corn, and other plants. He theorized that these yeasts could also be useful in extracting ethanol biofuel from portions of plants that would otherwise be considered waste. Headman threw herself headlong into this line of research, uncovering new ways to put yeasts and enzymes to work in making meaningful change. “I was looking for an area of research that would make a difference,” she recalls, “and biofuels research fell right into my lap.”
As gas prices soar, ethanol blends promise a low-cost, low-carbon alternative to traditional fuels. In the summer of 2022 alone, the Environmental Protection Agency authorized the continued sale of fuels with an E15 blend, representing 15 percent ethanol. But biofuels are not without controversy and many environmental activists argue that ethanol blends are not the panacea they are often purported to be. While corn ethanol may boast a lower carbon output, the number of acres that require cultivating may offset the gain. Or so goes the counterargument.
Meanwhile, in the South Dakota headquarters of POET biofuels, Headman and a team of like-minded scientists are responding to those concerns in the best way they know how—in the lab. If they can find ways to boost yields and make the extraction process more efficient, they will continue to drive down ethanol’s cost and carbon footprint. And what’s the secret ingredient to unlock that goal? Here’s a hint: your sourdough starter requires it.
“Every day, we’re trying to find yeast and enzymes that improve our yields and make the whole process more economical,” says Headman. “Ultimately, we want to ferment the same amount of corn, but get far more product out of it, whether that’s corn oil, ethanol, or enhanced distiller grains that farmers use for feed.” She explains that sugars like glucose and fructose have long been known as plant-based energy sources that can be converted to ethanol. However, the industry has made considerable headway in converting nontraditional sugars present in corn, including xylose and arabinose. For these sugars, identifying the right yeast or enzyme for the job involves testing countless strains and processes.
Steve Lewis, vice president of technology and innovation at POET, explains the full import of the work that Headman and the research team have undertaken. “When it comes to the efficiency of ethanol, we’re really improving on an S-curve that we previously thought had plateaued,” he explains. “For 30 years, we’ve focused on improving the manufacturing process once the corn gets to the plant—and we’ll continue to do so. But now, we’re also helping farmers lower the carbon intensity on the front end.”
When it comes to yeast strains that can boost production, Lewis points to Headman’s past research with biotechnologies as her secret weapon. “We’re looking for needles in haystacks with these strains,” he says. “Jen’s been in the industry for a while, so she is helping us get to those needles faster and avoid the landmines she’s seen before.”
Both Headman and Lewis agree that traditional engineering can get the industry only so far in its search for maximum efficiency. “We have a better ability to improve with biology at this point, even beyond traditional engineering,” says Lewis. “And much of that biotech work revolves around fermentation research, which is Jen’s passion.”
As Headman and the POET team identify yeasts and enzymes capable of consuming elements of a corn plant (or other plants) that previously would have been considered waste—including the stalks, leaves, and husks—yields increase and the need to cultivate more acres will decrease. All of this spells greater efficiency and a lower carbon intensity. And for the long term, this innovation could become a key component in reducing dependency on non-renewable fuel sources. “Unlike fossil fuels, we have a nearly limitless source with bioethanol,” says Headman. “Our work at POET is focused on getting as much from clean and renewable sources as possible. If we feel that a product or process is going to hurt the planet or a community, we’re just not going to do it.”
Headman cites her passion for renewable energy as the driving force behind her research. But her professional arc has revealed far more than just the next great yeast strain—it has also become a profound journey of self discovery.
As many scientists will tell you, it’s not the microscopic organisms that pose the greatest challenge; it’s often the multicellular organisms on two legs that give you fits. “Learning to communicate with different kinds of people, each with their own communication style, has always been a challenge for me,” Headman admits. “I can be really direct, and I don’t always consider that my coworkers may have feelings about the project they’re working on. I’ve discovered that my brain works a bit differently from most.’”
As an undergraduate at WPI, Headman’s direct communication style rarely posed a problem—in fact, it kept her in good company. “I met a lot of people there who communicated the way I do,” she recalls. “And, in general, I learned to work with people from so many different backgrounds and skill sets. Knowing how to deal with various stakeholders, managing their respective needs and wants, that all came from WPI.”
Once she entered the workforce, however, she encountered colleagues who found her “just-the-facts” approach challenging. Although she intended for her communication style to be efficient and in service to her coworkers, she was often misunderstood as not being a team player. “I reached a point where it seemed I couldn’t do anything right, and it caused me to psychoanalyze every interaction I had,” she recalls. “I would go into the lab on a weekend and some of my coworkers would think I was doing it just to show how much harder I was working. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, ‘I did that so you didn’t have to!’”
Headman then received a critical piece of the puzzle: at 38, she was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Though the news was not surprising, it helped her understand that with a little bit of self awareness, she could leverage the gifts inherent to her condition. “I’ve come to see it as a strength. When we’re working on a new project, I can quickly recall the specifics of a similar project I worked on eight years ago, which often points us in the right direction.” Here, Headman pauses before adding, “Although, I’ve learned to first ask my coworkers, ‘What do you think?’”
Lewis describes Headman’s autism as both her “super power and kryptonite.” He notes that she often uses her razor-sharp memory and incisive analysis to steer the team away from pitfalls.
“We’re always trying to balance advocacy against inquiry,” says Lewis. “While the advocacy side is saying, ‘This direction seems exciting; let’s keep going,’ we need the inquiry side to ask, ‘Where are the landmines in that approach?’ That’s Jen’s strong suit.”
According to Headman, her journey of self discovery has made her a more valuable team member. She describes her role at POET as that of a knowledgeable facilitator—who is also paid to kick the proverbial tires. “My job is to support my coworkers’ enthusiasm around a new product, but also make sure that when we take it to scale, we don’t discover something we could have tested back in the lab,” she says. “We might be working with the best yeast strain we’ve ever seen, but if it fails 2 percent of the time in practice, the economics won’t make it worth it. I need to see that coming and share it in a way that others can hear.”
My job is to support my coworkers’ enthusiasm around a new product, but also make sure that when we take it to scale, we don’t discover something we could have tested back in the lab.
Although her “brain works differently,” to use Headman’s words, it’s her heart that’s always had the final say. As a student at WPI, Headman knew she wanted to spend her career in service to others and to the planet, a litmus test she has never strayed from. “When I was considering career options, I ruled out any work that would hurt animals,” she says. “And I was especially interested in work that would help the planet.”
From her early research on pollutant-eating bacteria to her current work improving the efficiency of renewable energy sources, Headman’s strong ethics have served as her guide. She cites her family as the source of her moral compass. Her grandfather, a second-career minister, gave up a comfortable job to return to seminary school and dedicate the rest of his life to helping others. “He was one of the most humble people I ever met,” she recalls. “When I saw the good he did for others, it led me to want to be helpful in life.”
During college, Headman’s drive to make a difference was galvanized when she met a WPI alumnus named John Grossi ’95. An active member of Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, Grossi pushed her to get involved in the organization’s many community service initiatives, often driving her to and from events and refusing gas money.
“He would say to me, ‘When you’re in a position to give back in the future, give back.’” Just a few years after their meeting, Grossi received a diagnosis of colon cancer. Following his death, Headman took her friend’s directive to heart. “It pushed me to make the most of the time we have and not put off doing for others,” she says.
I made a decision early on to search out companies that have a positive impact on people and the environment.
Following her graduation from WPI, Headman remained an active member of Alpha Phi Omega, starting a new chapter during her time at the University of Madison-Wisconsin. Today, she serves as regional chair for chapters in North and South Carolina. Throughout her time with the fraternity, she has worked in support of women’s shelters, environmental clean-ups, and creating safe spaces for homeless mothers when other shelters are closed.
For Headman, her day job and volunteer work are two sides of the same moral coin. “Seeing the good my grandfather did, I wanted to be sure that I was always, always in service to others,” she explains. This perspective didn’t just include career decisions—it drove them. “I made a decision early on to search out companies that have a positive impact on people and the environment,” she says, adding with a shrug, “I guess that’s just how I was raised.” In that spirit, she sidles up to the lab bench, ready to test a new yeast strain and honor those who have made her the scientist she is today.
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