Dr. Michelle O’Malley of UC Santa Barbara Selected as 2021 Colburn Award Recipient

This fall, ChEnected is introducing readers to AIChE’s 2021 Institute and Board of Directors’ Award recipients. These awards are AIChE’s highest honors, and candidates are nominated by the chemical engineering community and voted upon by the members of AIChE’s volunteer-led Awards Committee. The prizes recognize outstanding achievements and world-class contributions across a spectrum of chemical engineering endeavors. 

First presented in 1945, the Allan P. Colburn Award for Excellence in Publications by a Young Member of the Institute is presented to an AIChE member in their early career.

The recipient of the 2021 Allan P. Colburn Award is Michelle A. O’Malley, Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

O’Malley’s recognition

Dr. O’Malley is being recognized “for engineering unusual microorganisms from nature for biomass deconstruction and novel bioprocessing.” She has established a new research field by engineering anaerobes, which evolved to decompose and recycle carbon biomass throughout the Earth — from the human digestive system to landfills and compost piles. Her research set the foundation for engineering microbial interactions in anaerobes to accelerate biomass breakdown, and serves as a springboard to study and engineer how microbes partner in nature and in bioreactors. O’Malley’s more than 60 research papers have been published in the leading journals, such as Science, Nature Microbiology, Nature Genetics, and Nature Chemistry.

O’Malley and the other Institute and Board of Directors’ Award recipients are slated to receive their prizes at the 2021 AIChE Annual Meeting, November 7–11 in Boston, Massachusetts. A video of the honors event will be available for viewing the following week at the virtual version of the Annual Meeting, November 15–19.

More about O’Malley

Michelle O’Malley earned her BS in chemical engineering and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and her PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware, where she engineered the overproduction of membrane proteins in yeast. She then was a U.S. Department of Agriculture / National Institute of Food and Agriculture postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she developed new strategies for cellulosic biofuel production. Today, at UC Santa Barbara, here research team engineers protein synthesis within anaerobes, with applications in sustainable chemical production, bioremediation, and natural product discovery. 

Dr. O’Malley’s research has been featured on NPR’s Science Friday, the BBC Newshour, the Los Angeles Times, and several other media outlets. Among numerous honors, she was named one of the 35 Top Innovators Under 35 in the world by MIT Technology Review, one of the 10 “Scientists to Watch” by Science News, and is the recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers — the highest honor bestowed on early career scientists by the U.S. government. 

Michelle O’Malley (front row, right) with members of her research group on a fact-finding trip to the Santa Barbara Zoo.

Dr. O’Malley’s work

In describing her work, O’Malley commented on her collaboration with her research team:

“My research group aspires to solve grand challenges in sustainability, ecology, and medicine by deciphering how ‘weird’ microbes in the environment perform extraordinary tasks. We primarily focus on anaerobic microbes, which have evolved to work together in complex communities that decompose and recycle carbon biomass throughout the Earth — from our guts, to landfills, ocean sediments, and compost piles. Anaerobes are woefully understudied, yet they are a vast, untapped resource for novel enzymes that degrade complex biomass into sugars, as well as natural products that could find use as new drugs. Fieldwork is a critical part of our research approach, and our group members can often be found sampling microbes at the local Santa Barbara Zoo, wastewater treatment facilities, or in the Santa Barbara Channel. By learning how microbes act and interact in nature, we are inspired to engineer new microbial functions in the lab and build new biotechnologies.”  

In the weeks leading up to the 2021 AIChE Annual Meeting, ChEnected will feature the other 2021 Institute and Board of Directors’ Award recipients. Visit ChEnected regularly to meet all of this year’s honorees.

The award is sponsored by E. I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, Inc.

Stop back for more entries in our series on the 2021 Institute and Board of Directors’ Award recipients, and catch up on any previous posts in the series you’ve missed.