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Angelina Volkova

College: Hunter College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2016

Searching for Microbes That Love To Eat Our Plastic Trash

The world is drowning in plastic. Almost every shred ever created still exists. Some is processed into other products, like polar fleece fabric. Some is recycled by melting, which consumes energy and releases toxic fumes.

Most is buried, but a plastic cup takes 50 to 80 years to decompose, a plastic milk jug 1 million years. Meanwhile, Americans guzzle from 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour (Institute for Sustainable Communication statistics).

Microbes offer a solution, and scientists worldwide are racing to find those whose happiest moments involve feasting on plastics. But there are so many kinds of plastics and at least 100 organisms discovered so far that can digest particular ones.

Angelina Volkova (Kingsborough Community College '13, Hunter College, '16) received a 2016 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship worth $138,000 over three years to determine which microorganisms are best at biodegrading which plastics - and what specific genes work that magic.

Her field is bioinformatics, the computerized classification and analysis of biochemical and biological data. She starts a doctoral program at New York University's Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences in the fall.

"I found a paper from China, where researchers found a worm. Inside of it were bacteria that could biodegrade regular plastics, like water bottles," Volkova says. "But other researchers are reporting on other bacteria. The research is disjointed. We need to connect it."

Volkova grew up in Siberia, studying linguistics and Germanic languages during two years at Kemerovo State University, even though her heart was in the natural sciences. "My parents didn't want me to go into that field, because in Russia it meant living in a chemical city and working in a chemical plant in hazardous conditions."

A college exchange program brought her to the United States and, some years later, to Kingsborough's biology program. At Hunter, she worked with associate professor Akira Kawamura in chemistry (including investigating antibiotic-resistant bacteria in New York's environment) and was fascinated by associate professor Weigang Qiu's computational biology class. She spent the summer of 2015 as a research intern at MIT's Center for Brains, Minds & Machines analyzing data from the brain scans of autistic individuals; writing the plan to do that prepared her for the more ambitious NSF grant proposal.

"I developed the NSF project pretty much on my own," she says. "I read several papers and figured out that I could propose how to solve this environmental issue by combining different areas of research."