Biology Professor Jim Pesavento Receives NSF Grant

Pesavento endeavors to unlock the multifaceted benefits of algae on the environment—and engages students in the process.

By Kay Carney  /  Photography by Haley Nelson

Jim Pesavento, assistant professor of Biology, loves that green, murky, often smelly stuff known as algae. In fact, it’s his passion. So much so that he was recently awarded close to a half million dollars to research and uncover new findings about algae and its utility in removing carbon dioxide from the air and creating biofuels. It isn’t as simple as it sounds, and the science behind his research is exceptionally complex, which may be why only a handful of scientists have taken the deep dive into algae research.

“The organism I’m interested in is green algae. It’s unicellular. The actual name of the organism is Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. It’s a mouthful, I know,” said Pesavento with a chuckle. By description, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii is a single-cell green alga about 10 micrometers in diameter that swims with two flagella. It has a cell wall made of hydroxyproline-rich glycoproteins, a large cup-shaped chloroplast, a large pyrenoid, and an eyespot that senses light. To his fellow scientists, this makes perfect sense. To the layperson…what? 

“This is the model for all of the green algae that exists. It’s genome sequenced, and it grows very quickly. It’s also photosynthetic, which means that it can take light energy from the sun, carbon dioxide, and make its own food,” said Pesavento. He added, “By doing that, you’re taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere if you can grow the green algae and feed air through them to suck out the carbon dioxide. This organism and similar ones have been interestingly paired with fossil fuel–burning exhaust. The fossil fuel gets combusted, energy is produced, carbon dioxide is made, and then the gas is put through hundreds of filters of these cells, which suck up the carbon dioxide before it can go out into the atmosphere.”

Pesavento further explained that algae can also be considered a biofuel—a renewable energy source. Algae has the ability to make lipids, which are energy-rich fats that can be burned. He asserts that if algae can be grown and use carbon dioxide to make their own sugars and effectively burn them, thereby replenishing the carbon dioxide, the algae will suck up the carbon dioxide by keeping it sustainable and circular, so there’s no net increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “If I were to talk to someone about epigenetics, they will likely have no idea of how that relates to carbon dioxide sequestering and biofuels,” said Pesavento. “But it’s a super important question to ask and an important field to investigate.”

The National Science Foundation (NSF) obviously believed that Pesavento was onto something. There was a high level of examination and scrutiny of his 15-page submission, which he prepared leveraging highly impactful collaborations with algae expert Jim Umen (Danforth Plant Science Center) and epigenetics expert Gary Karpen (Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC Berkeley). The details were hunted down after precise review by SMC Director of Office of Research Elizabeth Gallagher to ensure that the proposal was in compliance. After all was said and done, Pesavento received the news that he was awarded the Research Impact Grant of $460,000 for four years. 

Pesavento is stoked that the grant will profoundly benefit his biology and biochemistry students at Saint Mary’s, in addition to underrepresented students interested in science at SMC and at nearby Los Medanos Community College, who will participate in his upper-division molecular biology course taught at SMC. “Apparently, the grant proposal review panel loved the part that included undergraduates in my project. I have a section that details my engagement with Los Medanos Community College, where science students will come and shadow my upper-division molecular classes,” said Pesavento. “I’m a big believer in peer-to-peer teaching. When students hear from others who are within their age group, I think they’re more receptive.” He contends that when the Los Medanos students see upper-division students with so much knowledge, they can more easily envision themselves learning just as much or more when they become juniors and seniors. 

The students from Los Medanos will come to Saint Mary’s for approximately four weeks to shadow upper-division students and to see how science is taught and experienced at this level. “I’m going to transport them for free and feed them for free to ensure that they have a great experience without having to worry about food and transportation,” said Pesavento. “If they choose to transfer to Saint Mary’s after they’ve completed their two years at Los Medanos, that’s great. It’s about exposing them to a four-year college’s molecular upper-division program and opening their eyes to the endless possibilities in science.” 

"I live for moments like this. Instead of asking for money from the limited funds available to send my students to these conferences and to have paid internships over the summer, I now have the resources from the grant to fund this.” —Assistant Professor Jim Pesavento

Pesavento has expanded research opportunities and off-campus learning experiences in his plan for his science students. Over the past few years, funding to provide opportunities for the students to attend conferences or to have paid internships has been limited; with the grant award, however, there are no limitations. “I live for moments like this. Instead of asking for money from the limited funds available to send my students to these conferences and to have paid internships over the summer, I now have the resources from the grant to fund this,” said Pesavento. “I can only imagine with this four years of funding what kind of student experiences they’re going to have, and how it will create pathways of opportunities for them in the future.”

Pesavento has seen firsthand how having opportunities and exposure can impact a student’s life. He speaks proudly of Jada Walker ’18, who was almost defiant in defense of her plans to become an optometrist. Her hard work at Saint Mary’s paid off with research and conference opportunities that have prepared her for her current status as a PhD student at the University of Texas (UT). When Walker was a sophomore in Pesavento’s Biology 1 class, he noticed her meticulous lab notebook and stellar lab reports. He invited her to conduct research in his lab, which opened her eyes to the world of science during the next three years. “I had no idea, no clue what scientific research actually was. Participating in research that first summer of my junior year led to a whole new world,” Walker said.

Opportunities for Walker to participate in conferences, most notably where she was able to deliver a student presentation, paved the way for her to meet some of the top scientists and members of the academy in the field of science. Walker caught the attention of Professor Jennifer Brodbelt, chair of UT’s Chemistry Department, who encouraged Walker to pursue a PhD. According to Pesavento, “Jada is a great example of how expanded opportunities and exposure can create an even greater outcome. The NSF grant will help open doors for even greater opportunities and promising futures for my students.”

With more money for Pesavento and his students to expand their algae research, and the opportunity for Pesavento to collaborate with the top scientists in the world to uncover more truths about the benefits of algae, efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the air to benefit the environment are even more plausible. 

Pesavento has no qualms about achieving all of the goals stated in his winning proposal. “I’ve been very fortunate. I have great students, and I can’t speak highly enough about the collaborative environment and cohesive community here at Saint Mary’s.”