Faculty Spotlight: George Wells

George wekks

Question and Answers

Where were you born and where did you study (undergrad, grad, post-doc)
I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, a beautiful city on the banks of Lake Superior. I was raised primarily in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, a small but vibrant community close to the North Dakota border. Fergus Falls is in the lakes region of the land of 10,000 lakes—meaning I grew up surrounded by amazing freshwater ecosystems and recreational opportunities.  I suspect this may be part of the genesis for my lifelong passion for clean water and the protection of the water environment.

For my undergraduate degrees, I studied chemical and environmental engineering at Rice University, then moved west to pursue my M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in environmental engineering at Stanford University.  I then spent a bit over 2 years at EAWAG- the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology as a postdoc.

How long have you been at NU & briefly describe your research program?
I’ve been at Northwestern for 9 years; it’s hard to believe that amount of time has gone by! Here at Northwestern, I direct the Environmental Biotechnology and Microbial Ecology Lab. I am grateful to work in this lab with an extraordinary group of intelligent, talented, purpose-driven, and simply fun Ph.D. students, postdocs, master's students, and undergraduates. In our research, we ask how complex microbial communities assemble, fluctuate over time and space, and perform useful functions, then put these microbial communities to work in environmental bioprocesses to protect public health and the environment, clean water/wastewater, generate renewable bioenergy, and recover valuable resources from societal “waste” streams.  A major thrust in our research is how to manage nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution, as this is a major driver of declines in water quality worldwide.  Water, resource recovery, and urban sustainability are central themes of our research efforts.
What courses do you teach?
For our undergraduate students, I teach CE 260: Environmental Systems and Processes and CE 364: Sustainable Water Systems. I also co-teach CE 301-2 as a means to prepare students for the Fundamentals of Engineering exam.  For our graduate students, I teach CE 442: Environmental Biotechnology for Resource Recovery, and CE 443: Microbial Ecology for Resource Recovery.

Did you always know you would become a professor? What attracted you to an academic career?
As an undergraduate, I considered careers in engineering practice, environmental policy, and academic research. What tipped the balance towards a career in academia was an extraordinarily positive experience in undergraduate research in Mark Wiesner’s lab, where I worked for 3 years.  Mark and their labmates were wonderful mentors, and I really became addicted to the thrill of discovery—and also to simply dabbling in the lab. I was attracted to academia by the opportunity to delve into unknowns, generate new approaches and new knowledge, and use that knowledge to improve the world and the well-being of both natural systems and human society.  The research enterprise has been termed “organized curiosity”; as someone who greatly values intellectual curiosity, I have always loved and been inspired by that idea.  I have also always loved the opportunity to interact and engage with talented and motivated young scientists and engineers in training, from Ph.D. students and postdocs to undergraduates, via both teaching and research mentorship.  Moreover, an academic career attracted me because it provides a clear route to collaborate and engage with colleagues around the world; it is a truly international endeavor. As a final point, academia has always excited me because it provides such a powerful pathway and incentive to continuously learn and explore new areas, with extraordinary colleagues and partners. 

What do you consider your most significant research finding or accomplishment thus far?
One of our recent research findings that I’m most excited about centers on understanding and controlling microbial greenhouse gas production.  Microbes are significant sources of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, which has a global warming potential 300 times that of carbon dioxide.  Understanding how this nitrous oxide is produced, and how to prevent fugitive emissions, is paramount to tackling the urgent global challenge of climate change. Members of my group recently used cutting-edge DNA and RNA sequencing techniques to elucidate an unexpected metabolic diversity in denitrifiers, one of the types of microbes that can produce nitrous oxide.  This work revealed an unexpectedly high prevalence of taxa with incomplete denitrification pathways and suggested these taxa may be a major source of nitrous oxide.  From a practical standpoint, this work may allow us to engineer microbial communities to more efficiently prevent nitrous oxide emissions, or conversely to operate reactors in such a way so that we can first capture all produced nitrous oxide (preventing fugitive emissions), and then use that produced nitrous oxide as an oxidant in bioenergy or green chemistry applications.

Is there someone or something that has inspired you?
This list could go on for pages!  I’ll keep my answer short, however, and highlight my Ph.D. mentors Craig Criddle and Chris Francis, and postdoc mentor Eberhard Morgenroth-- all of whom have inspired me immensely with their creativity, passion for our field, positive outlook, and good-natured approach to the ups and downs that come with the research enterprise.  Perry McCarty has also been an astounding inspiration, both due to his extraordinary impact over many decades on the development of Environmental Biotechnology and due to his patience in talking to and guiding naïve new graduate students (myself included).

What do you do for fun when you are not working?
I spend most of my time off work with my wife and kids, ages 6 and 9- both of whom are amazingly fun, rambunctious, and inspiring.  Outside of family activities (jumping in piles of leaves, roasting marshmallows on camping trips, making sure every inch of carpet is covered in legos, etc.), I’m an avid cyclist, hiker, and swimmer;  I find exercise to be a tremendous break, a great way to get some outdoor time in, and a lot of fun to boot.  I also dabble in acoustic guitar from time to time, preferably by jamming with my 9-year-old (guitar) and 6-year-old (drums or xylophone).  We have a long ways to go before we’re ready for a recording contract, but we’re making headway. 

What books are you reading or shows/movies are you watching? 
I just started reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, an amazingly creative and prolific author. The last book I read was The Invisible Life of Adie Larue by V. E. Schwab, an astoundingly vivid and compelling novel.  Along with the rest of the country, I am watching House of the Dragon, and I’m slowly making my way through The Sandman (Neil Gaiman again).  On a more serious note, I’m also reading Replenishment: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity, an eye-opening account of the current state of the global water cycle, replete with urgent challenges as well as emerging solutions.


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