Curious scholar explores love of teaching, research
Growing up in a small village in the Czech Republic, Ivana Brzonova (pronounced B-jo-noh-vah) learned early the value of
curiosity from her parents.
Now a working scientist aiming for a Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of North Dakota, she says her endless curiosity inspired her desire to study biology. Now she's expanding beyond her bioengineering background to chemical engineering, where she is tackling the complex problem of developing inexpensive fuels and chemical products from a key renewable resource: biomass.
"I'd call this sustainable energy research, or bioenergy," said Brzonova, who was introduced to UND by Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering Wayne Seames during a visit to her baccalaureate school, the Institute of Chemical Technology in Prague, Czech Republic. “I traveled up from Graz in Austria where I was working on my master's program to meet with Dr. Seames because one of my undergraduate professors, Jan Paca, advised me that it would be worthwhile."
Seames, who is one of Brzonova's Ph.D. committee co-advisors, must have said the right things because Brzonova came to UND, initially as a visiting scholar and now, after converting her visa status, as a Ph.D. student.
Brzonova is in the thick of a North Dakota SUNRISE research program that aims to develop improved technologies to more efficiently convert biomass, the most common agricultural material available, into energy and chemical products.
"It's all about sustainability and reducing our reliance on petroleum," said Brzonova, who also interned at Zentiva, an international pharmaceutical company. "The main question that I'm trying to answer is: can we improve the conversion of agricultural crop biomass--such as wheat straw and corn stover--into useful chemicals and biofuels using biochemical methods? That includes not only the relatively readily fermentable cellulose but also much more recalcitrant lignin (basically, the main component of trees) portion of the biomass.”
Brzonova says the broader societal impacts of her research are in the sustainable, efficient, and economically feasible production of fuels and chemicals from sustainable resources, as opposed to non-renewable mineral sources such as crude oil.
"What that means is I'm researching ways of using the entire feedstock with less or no waste," she said.
Of course, there's a lot more to being a Ph.D. chemical engineering student than setting up experiments; there's also coursework.
"It takes a disciplined, dedicated student to do this kind of program," says Yun Ji, UND assistant professor of chemical engineering, Brzonova's other primary research advisor. "Ivana is doing seminars, courses, writing papers and working collaboratively with other graduate students--all part of the Ph.D. education."
"Another key factor about Ivana is that she enjoys working with students, with mentoring them. Students who work with her learn lab techniques and Ivana learns how to direct others," said Ji, who is an expert in methods to break down biomass into intermediate chemicals that can subsequently be converted into fuels and chemicals.
Still, at its core, Ji agrees, a Ph.D. program is primarily about research.
"Ivana's research has the ambitious goal of reducing the cost--both in terms of energy used and dollars expended--to convert biomass into fuel and chemical products," said Ji.
"We're looking at a wide variety of alternative biomass resources, including wood chips, agricultural residue such as wheat straw and corn stover, and crops grown specifically for this purpose such as fast-growing trees, kenaf and sorghum (the forage kind, not the kind raised for grain)," said Ji. "What we're looking at is low temperature conversion technology using microbes that can digest the biomass. The point is straightforward: use less energy to create a renewable product that contains more energy."
"We are in the very early stages of this research," said Brzonova. "The possibilities that we see here are very exciting--but as in all early-stage research, we're cautiously optimistic."
Brzonova is also being mentored by SUNRISE faculty Alena Kubátová, UND associate professor of analytical chemistry, who, like Brzonova, is from the Czech Republic, and UND Physical Chemistry Professor Evguenii Kozliak. Kubatova is currently the co-director of ND SUNRISE.
ND SUNRISE is a student-centered, faculty-organized supercluster consisting of 38 faculty in 13 academic departments at the University of North Dakota, North Dakota State University, and Mayville State University. ND SUNRISE research focuses on three areas: the technologies to enable the environmentally sustainable use of coal, the production of fuels, chemicals, polymers, and composites from renewable sources, and the harvesting of energy from diffuse sources (wind/solar/hydrogen)