Post-doctoral fellowship bolsters collaboration with Brazilian university
By Mark Kerr, Senior Communications Officer
Julia van Drunen (PhD’13) can’t wait to escape the miserable winter weather and head south to São Carlos, Brazil, in two weeks. The trip is more business than pleasure, though, as Dr. van Drunen begins her post-doctoral fellowship at the Universidade de São Paulo (USP).
Dr. van Drunen will spend the next two years conducting research in Germano Tremiliosi-Filho’s laboratory. Her project focuses on turning biomass and biomass waste products into valuable chemicals and electrical energy using electrochemical conversion.
“Dr. Tremiliosi-Filho’s research group is really good and the facilities are incredible,” says Dr. van Drunen. “Also, I think it’s a good time to go to Brazil for research because the country’s economy – and the biofuel industry – is booming.”
Dr. Tremiliosi-Filho has collaborated with Dr. van Drunen’s PhD supervisor at Queen’s, Gregory Jerkiewicz, for many years. Dr. van Drunen met Dr. Tremiliosi-Filho early in her graduate studies and decided to approach him for her post-doctoral work. He helped her secure a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship from the state of São Paulo, the equivalent of a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada post-doctoral fellowship.
Canada and Brazil generate large amounts of biomass that often remain untreated and contribute to environmental pollution. When converting sugarcane to bioethanol, one of the main waste products is lignin. Currently, lignin is usually burned for heat which is then used for energy. Dr. van Drunen has proposed using electrochemical methods to break down the lignin into valuable biochemical products. She admits it’s a tall order because lignin is a complicated molecule. However, she is hopeful her research will yield positive results given the Brazilian research group’s expertise in transforming organic molecules using electrocatalysis.
Dr. Jerkiewicz and Dr. Tremiliosi-Filho are laying the foundation for collaborative research between Queen’s and USP.
“Projects such as this require not only bright ideas and research funding but also talented, dedicated and hard-working researchers. Dr. van Drunen possesses all these qualities and is ideally suited to initiate this collaborative effort,” says Dr. Jerkiewicz.
Dr. van Drunen is busy preparing to leave for Brazil on Feb. 24. She isn’t overly worried about the language barrier because Dr. Tremiliosi-Filho converses well in English. She and the Brazilian students speak some French because of their research connections with the Electrocatalysis Laboratory at the Université de Poitiers, France. Dr. van Drunen went on an exchange to that institution in 2010-11. She also took the Portuguese language course offered by the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.
“The instructor is really good and I learned quite a bit. I got some basics of the language. I can’t have a conversation but I can read a little like the menu at a restaurant,” she says. “I would tell students that if they are going to Brazil to make the effort to take the class.”