Main Navigation

U chemist Jessica Swanson, who harnesses methane-eating bacteria to fight climate change, named Cottrell Scholar

Reposted from the College of Science.

Jessica Swanson, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, has been named a 2024 Cottrell Scholar by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

PHOTO CREDIT: Dave Titensor, University of Utah

Jessica Swanson, assistant professor of chemistry

This prestigious award recognizes early-career faculty who are advancing innovation in both research and education. As part of her award, Swanson will receive $120,000 over three years to advance her bioenergy research, which explores bacterial methane oxidation in search of ways to reduce concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as well as her educational program.

Swanson’s lab is working to improve the efficiency of systems called bioreactors that utilize bacteria to convert methane gas from waste streams, such as landfills and abandoned oil wells and coal mines, into useful products before they escape into the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that helps drive climate change.

However, scaling this solution faces some challenges. The methane-munching bacteria, known as methanotrophs, struggle to access and break down enough of the methane in the low-concentration waste streams they need to target. Swanson uses computer simulations to study what limits these bacteria’s growth and activity in bioreactors. Her goal is to uncover solutions that can increase the efficiency of methane mass transfer and oxidation, such that methanotrophic bioreactors become profitable and can scale in the free market to mitigate methane emissions and their impact on climate systems. 

In addition to her methane mitigation work, Swanson is developing an interactive general education course called Chemistry for a Better Future. This course will expose students to the science behind developing climate solutions while inspiring them to propose their approaches. Teams of students will explore climate impacts on communities while learning about cutting-edge companies and technologies targeting sustainability.

“I am honored to receive this recognition, which will support critical investigations into scaling a biological solution to help mitigate methane emissions and climate change,” Swanson said. “The Cottrell Scholar network is invaluable for connecting with like-minded researchers that are pushing scientific boundaries.”

“Congratulations to professor Swanson on this prestigious honor,” said Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “As a leader pursuing innovative solutions to address our changing climate, her work embodies the transformational impact at the heart of the college’s mission.”

Swanson joins a legacy of U Cottrell Scholars, including assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy Gail Zasowski (2021), associate professor of Chemistry Luisa Whittaker-Brooks (2018) and professor of Physics and Astronomy Jordan Gerton (2007).