Dr Maria Lucia Ghirardi is a senior research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, Golden, CO). She's worked there since 1991, and for the past five years she's co-managed the lab's biology projects. She also teaches at the Colorado School of Mines, six miles away. As research associate professor in the department of environmental science and engineering, she works with grad students, teaching them NREL research procedures and advising them on their PhD research.
Colleague Mike Seibert is Ghirardi's co-manager in biology at NREL. She worked for him from 1991 to 1995 as a post-doctorate researcher. "My background is actually the biochemistry of photosynthesis," she explains.
Then she started some work on photo-biological hydrogen production. "I worked on my own for two years. In 1997 we got more funding and hired more people, and the project expanded enormously." Of course, she notes a little wistfully, "The more people we brought in, the less time I spent in the lab and the more on managing."
The fuel of the future
For the last six months, Ghirardi's team of ten PhD-level biologists has conducted algal experiments. The algae produce hydrogen gas, which she considers "the fuel of the future."
In fact, the group has spent the last ten years exploring biological systems as renewable sources of hydrogen production.
"Basically these organisms are working as catalysts to turn sunlight into hydrogen energy which, in the future, could be used to power our cars. It's a very neat, clean concept, and you don't run into problems of using oil, coal and natural gas.
"Of course it's nowhere near ready yet," Ghirardi warns. "We've got to face long-term challenges to develop these systems. We've been lucky that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is interested in supporting this research.
"We have collaborators all over the world and in other places in the U.S.," she notes. "That helps our funds go further and cuts down on my managerial responsibilities, too," she says with a laugh.
Another important aspect of her work is talking about it. "I get invited to a lot of conferences, and I'm trying to get collaborations and influence political decisions to support it. I describe the research to DOE managers and to the public. I've been in a couple of videos explaining what we're doing and highlighting its potential."
Seeking a path
Ghirardi was born in the U.S. and is an American citizen, but she grew up in Brazil where her father worked for General Motors. "By the time I finished high school I was already very much into science, but what wasn't clear was how I could apply it."
She entered Brazil's best pre-med program, where she worked for four years. But she realized she wasn't cut out to be a doctor, and didn't know what alternate path to take.
Then her husband, an engineer, was accepted into a grad program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It was a great opportunity for him, and we came here together. I got a job working in the MIT medical department."
In 1977 the couple's son was born, and Ghirardi spent a while as a stay-at-home mom. Then the University of California-Berkeley accepted her husband into a PhD program and Ghirardi applied there, too.
"I returned to school in bioenergetics and realized I loved the research area. I finished my BS in 1981 and my teacher and mentor, the late Daniel Arnon, helped me get accepted to the graduate program. He found me a researcher to work with, Professor Anastasios Melis, and I stayed in Berkeley and got an MS in comparative biochemistry."
Work/life and more
Ghirardi credits her husband with helping her balance work and family. "I cannot see having done it without him," she says. But by 1988, when she completed her PhD in comparative biochemistry, they were divorced and her ex-husband had returned to Brazil.
Ghirardi stayed on as a single parent. The flexibility of the PhD program and Berkeley's excellent daycare center helped a lot.
Armed with her PhD, she did a couple of post-doc stints and industry consulting work, including research and publishing in Maryland for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But it wasn't until she moved to Colorado and started work at NREL three years later that she felt really settled.
"The people are very idealistic in spite of the challenges," she says. "I was looking for a place where I could use my knowledge, and I started working on this very basic photosynthesis project."
"The mountains are incredible!"
Despite physical limitations of fibromyalgia, Ghirardi enjoys dancing and hiking, occasional cross-country skiing and even snow-shoeing. She spends time with friends and her son. Art is another interest, and she takes a break from science by reading modern fiction in English, Portuguese, French, German and Italian.
"I love Colorado," she says. "I also liked Boston, Washington and California, but the mountains and climate here are just incredible. I can drive for twenty minutes and be in the mountains."