Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis

Undergrad Is All About Renewable Energy

Nigam Arora

Undergraduate, Interdisciplinary Studies, School of Science
2011 IUPUI Top 100 Student
Update: Nigam Arora currently is a Ph.D student at Purdue University in West Lafayette. He is studying chemical biology and expects to graduate in 2015.

Nigam Arora’s academic interest lies in a field with which few are familiar – cellular energetics – but in the not too distant future this field may help provide answers in the search for renewable energy options.

Today Arora is an interdisciplinary science major in the School of Science combining chemistry, biology, environmental science and engineering to study renewable energy. He followed his sister Natasha, from Fishers, Indiana, to IUPUI. She was the first interdisciplinary science major at IUPUI; he is the second. She completed her undergraduate degree at IUPUI in two and a half years; he will complete his degree in three years and graduate in May 2011. Today, she is a graduate student at Harvard University and he is completing graduate school applications.

While renewable energy is a big picture field, what really grabs his attention is something that can only be seen under a microscope. He’s fascinated by the ability of cells in plants and animals to make energy internally without harming the environments in which they reside. His hope is that this energy can somehow be harnessed as a solution to the world’s need for alternative sources of energy.

“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I am super excited about cellular energetics and its potential as a future energy source. So many of the alternative energy sources we are looking at today aren’t perfect solutions. The manufacture and disposal of solar panels, for example, wastes a lot of energy. If we can learn more about how cells make and use energy, then develop ways to capture and utilize similar forms of energy, we may have something.”

With a desire to study renewal energy at a cellular level, Arora applied to and was accepted by the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program at IUPUI. He spent the summer between his second and third year at IUPUI working with School of Science mentors Stephen Randall, Ph.D., of the Department of Biology and Brenda Blacklock, Ph.D., of the Department of Chemistry and Biological Chemistry, investigating the suitability of various wild and domesticated soybean strains for bio-based petroleum alternatives such as biodiesel fuel.

The specific goal of the research was to determine which, if any, of 20 strains of soybeans possess unique properties that could prove advantageous for efficient biofuel production. In the future these strains might be genetically altered in the laboratory or through breeding techniques to amplify beneficial fuel qualities.

“Once I had learned the correct procedures, Dr. Randall encouraged me to come up with an experimental plan and helped me refine and improve it. There was no spoon-feeding involved. I did a literature review to gain an understanding of similar research in the field and to help determine what proteins and lipids I should be looking for in my investigation. Using advanced computer programs and sophisticated equipment, I analyzed various qualities of the soybean seeds; running tests to determine specific oil content as well as specific and total protein content. I really appreciated both the mentoring and the laboratory experience,” Arora said.

He recalls that while he used to be “all about history,” since coming to IUPUI he is “all about science.” To his mind, the transition is a natural one. “History is what made me interested in helping those less fortunate than myself because I could see how things such as European Imperialism negatively impacted certain parts of the world. I do not associate the current energy issue with European imperialism or any specific event; it is simply the issue that I think is most pressing in our world today, that is why I chose to study renewable energy.”

Nigam AroraWhile he wants to investigate cellular energetics in graduate school, Arora does not plan a career that focuses solely on science. Because he will be able to understand the science, he sees himself as someone who will be able to make scientific discover accessible to business and business accessible to science. His ultimate goal is to help fund, promote, and institute new energy alternatives, not only from cellular energetics but from whatever field is spawning new energy ideas, many of which he thinks will arise long before energy generated by cells can be harnessed and eventually consumed.

“We are running out of oil and coal. And while biofuels are a step forward, they still impact the environment as the fuel is burnt. I am confident that the ability to make energy without harming the environment is attainable. Invention of the light bulb, the telephone and microchips have changed the way we live and I think cellular energy production capabilities will, too. It’s that kind of thing that I want to be a part of,” he said.

Currently, Arora is focused on gaining the tools he needs to attain this goal and on community service. As a Sam H. Jones Community Service Scholar at IUPUI he has tutored at George Washington Community High School in Indianapolis and has worked with Exodus Refugee Inc., an organization that helps refugees from Burma and Iraq acclimate to new lives in the United States. Currently he is mentoring 14 IUPUI freshmen in the Sam H. Jones program, which he sees not only as an opportunity to train up-and-coming students to be service-minded individuals, but also as an opportunity to sharpen his own team building and leadership skills for the future.