Graduate Ag Research Spotlight:
“I like discovering the underlying mechanisms of how different microbes and microbial communities are acting, and how we can leverage that from an engineering standpoint.” — Ethan Hillman, PhD candidate, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
New Castle, Indiana, native Ethan Hillman went to Anderson University to study pre-medicine, double majoring in biology and chemistry. After a couple of his professors gave him opportunities to conduct undergraduate research, Hillman changed direction. He chose the Purdue Interdisciplinary Life Science (PULSe) program for graduate study, he says, because “I liked the idea of not being on one set path — of merging biology, chemistry and engineering.” When he arrived at Purdue in fall 2015, he rotated through different labs, a process he likens to speed dating with advisors “because we’re going to be married for the next five years.” The rotations further influenced his research choices. “I was in a termite microbiology lab first, and then I did some regenerative medicine/tissue engineering,” he says. “Ultimately my research combined these different viewpoints.” He joined the then-new lab of Kevin Solomon, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, in spring 2016.
Hillman is interested in the versatility of microorganisms to produce useful products. “I engineer anaerobic fungi to convert agricultural waste into useful biofuels and pharmaceuticals,” he explains. “These fungi naturally degrade plant biomass in the GI tracts of herbivores; however, I’m adapting them for bioproduction applications.” He collects fungus from livestock and from zoo animals, and isolates these different samples in the lab. The work involves genetics, microbiology, biochemistry and engineering, which is fine by Hillman: “I’m very interdisciplinary; I have trouble staying in one field.”
Hillman enjoys meeting other scientists at conferences and the prospect of collaborating with them. The recent Department of Energy Genomic Science Program was especially impactful, because Hillman met program managers from different funding agencies that he well may apply to in the future. He also mentors undergraduates in his lab. “I help them experience research like I did at Anderson to give other students that opportunity, to help them grow,” he says. He credits his advisor with preparing him for a career in academia, he adds: “He’s been doing a lot to get me exposure to the different components of that, so when I move on I’ll be well equipped.” Hillman is president of the PULSe graduate student organization.
Hillman’s next step is a postdoc where he can refine techniques to better understand specific microbial communities. Through the application process, he has come to like writing, which surprised him. “As I’m applying for grants and scholarships, I’m asking, ‘How can I put that into simpler terms?’, and I enjoy developing my ideas and writing them out so people understand it.” In his spare time, Hillman helps his wife with her photography business (primarily weddings and families). The couple enjoys home projects and welcomed their first child, a son, in September.