As a child I was always interested in nature. I grew up in a small town in Arkansas and later moved to the countryside, where there was forest all around our house. I spent most of my time outdoors exploring the pastures, steep hillsides and narrow valleys near our home. I disappeared for hours exploring woods, ponds, and springs and studying all their wild creatures. I took crackers to the woods and watched an army of ants carry the crumbs one by one up a large tree, I could tilt my head back and see their white bobbing trail disappear into the canopy. As a family we also spent a lot of time in the outdoors. My parents took my brother, sister, and I fishing almost every weekend during the summer. We trolled along in a flat bottom boat or sat on the banks of small streams, fishing with our cane poles, eating our lunch of bologna sandwiches and Kool-aid, and watching for gar, turtles and water moccasins.
I did very well in high school, I liked math and biology. But the person that inspired me to go to college was my English teacher, who talked about her own college years all the time.
After high school, I got married and I had my first son when I was eighteen. My husband and I lived on a dairy farm and took care of the animals together. My interest in animals led me into the animal science program at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. I worked for a parasitologist, and collected manure from calves and lambs to culture parasitic worms in the lab. This really raised my interest in microbiology.
In that lab, the graduate students inspired me and encouraged me to study further. The husband of one of the graduate students there was an agricultural engineer, who worked in waste management. He was very enthusiastic about hi
Donna with Post Doctoral fellow, Valdis Krumins, taking a core sample, 2007.
s research on anaerobic conversion of waste to energy. Biomass is a good source of energy, because almost any type of waste material can be converted to biogas. Things really connected for me, and I decided to change my major to agricultural engineering. The involvement and encouragement of my engineering professors had a tremendous impact on me. From practically the first day of “Introduction to Engineering,” I knew I wanted to become an engineering professor. I love the structure of engineering. Problems have a beginning and an end; you acquire pieces of the puzzle and you use your imagination to put things in order.
I decided to go to Cornell University to pursue a master’s degree and worked on anaerobic digestion of biomass to methane. Between my master’s and PhD, I worked as a research assistant for four years. My personal life was very turbulent at that time; I obtained a divorce and had to take care of my child. I took classes part-time and eventually entered a PhD-program full time. I studied biodegradation of chlorinated compounds, like the dry cleaning fluid tetrachloroethene, which is a wide spread ground water contaminant. We investigated how naturally occurring bacteria that break down these compounds operate in complicated bacterial communities, how they compete for substrates. As engineers, we look at how we can make these bacteria work better or faster.
During my PhD study I also met my husband, A.J., and after we came to Rutgers, I had a second son, 24 years after the first one! At Rutgers, I study bioremediation in sediments that are contaminated with chlorinated compounds like PCBs and dioxins. PCBs were produced as industrial chemicals and used for electrical insulators, but dioxins are produced ac
D. Fennell with her sons and dog, Raven, 2008.
cidentally. These compounds are very hydrophobic, so they like to stick to soil particles that end up as sediment in the bottoms of rivers, lakes, harbors and coastal areas. We are looking at microorganisms that occur naturally in the sediment and can break down PCBs and dioxins.
We have several sites where we work, like Kearney Mash in the New Jersey meadowlands. This area was previously used as a landfill, and pollution is a big problem there. We also collaborate with a Finnish investigator on a site in Finland, where there is a lot of dioxin contamination from the forestry industry. After we’ve collected the samples, we do some studies in the greenhouse here at Rutgers, and see if we can stimulate the bacteria in culture.
I am also back to working with wastes. I have a project with mechanical engineering to harvest ammonia from bacterial breakdown of waste. We are also investigating whether it could be economical to convert stall waste from horses to bioenergy for use in sustainable farming.
In hindsight, it is actually very funny that I got into science for the animals and now I only work with animal waste. But bacteria can do so many more things than any other types of organisms, they are so genetically diverse. They are really the mediators of our environment, and do everything for us. As an engineer, it’s interesting to try to select the ones that can be successful tools for environmental applications.
Today, I cannot image not doing this job. I love being part of an international scientific community. My colleagues are all so supportive and I have flexibility to be able to spend time with my family as well. After a lot of twists and turns my husband and I both ended up in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers, so now we are colleagues as well as husband and wife.
As an undergraduate student in Arkansas, I really felt that the professors took an interest in me. They fostered a nurturing environment for undergraduate students. We had social events like picnics and barbecues, which made me feel like I was one of the family. Here at Rutgers, I also try to create this family-feeling with my students. They can always come to see me for advice on their plans for the future, and of course I always try to encourage them to attend graduate school. I try to get them excited by telling them about my work and the conferences I go to.
Persistence is a quality that is very important in science. A lot of freshmen get insecure very quickly if they flunk a subject like calculus for example. But I tell them they still can be an engineer, they just have to try again. Students often think that failure cannot be part of success. But failure is part of life, part of research. Proposals get rejected sometimes, getting funding can be difficult. But you just have to put yourself out there to fail and you have to get used to that, otherwise you might as well stay in bed in the morning.
My life has been very non-traditional; it took me a long time to get a PhD, and it has taken me awhile to earn a faculty position. One thing that I like to stress with students, is that you can be successful even if life hands you a lot of setbacks. You just have to keep working and keep your dream in mind. People may think that because they are not the best in class or have a taken a different path in life, that they are not going to succeed. But life does not work like that. The path to success is different for everyone.