CSE senior takes on climate change and, eventually, bioproducts in space

Benjamin Alva and his startup are on a mission to bring back coral reefs

Arriving at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities his freshman year, Benjamin Alva had several very clear goals. The biggest, and perhaps most pertinent, was to slow the destruction of the world’s coral reefs. Alva, now a senior studying biomedical engineering in the College of Science and Engineering, has had three internships with NASA, started his own intercollegiate student group, and is working on building a bioreactor that can eventually help save coral reefs. One could say he’s getting pretty close to achieving that goal.

Alva, who grew up in Eagan, Minn., remembers learning about the destruction of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in high school. Since the 1990s, it has lost more than 50 percent of its coral populations. Scientists predict that by the end of this century, most of the Earth’s coral reefs will be gone.

“Hearing about this problem that's occurring at a massive scale and the immediate climate crisis that’s already unfolding,” Alva said, “I just wanted to do something about it.”

He decided to study biomedical engineering because of its applications to biological systems. And in late 2019, with a friend from Washington and Lee University in Virginia, he co-founded Syntrophy, a student group that brings together students from different universities around the U.S. to collaborate on engineering projects. 

One of the group’s projects is a photobioreactor that can simulate coral tissue microenvironments in order to study and synthetically grow zooxanthellae, a microorganism that lives in coral reefs and is crucial to their survival. Alva and several fellow CSE students received funding for the project from the Taylor Student Project Fund and have been building the bioreactor in both the University of Minnesota’s Anderson Student Innovation Labs and the Earl E. Bakken Medical Devices Center. 

CSE student Benjamin Alva works on his bioreactor in Anderson Labs
Senior Benjamin Alva and fellow CSE student Will Mleziva work on their bioreactor project in the Anderson Student Innovation Labs on the Twin Cities campus. Photo credit: Olivia Hultgren

The students also formed a startup called Maverick Bioworks to eventually commercialize the bioreactor and sell it to research labs so scientists around the world can further study zooxanthellae. Ultimately, Alva hopes they can use the bioreactor to genetically engineer a strain of the microorganism that can withstand hotter temperatures, which would make coral reefs more resistant to climate change. 

“Increasing the rate of marine microbiology research is incredibly important, because climate change is a problem that’s happening very rapidly and will soon result in the destruction of all coral reefs,” Alva explained.

“Basically, we're building the tools and then using our tools to accomplish this higher-level objective that has a very real impact.”

Another area of interest for Alva is engineering technology for space exploration. 

Throughout his undergraduate career, he’s had three internships with NASA. One focused on studying hot springs at Yellowstone to provide background for the Mars Perseverance rover mission, and the other two developing technology that could use carbon dioxide to produce biomaterials on different planets.

Following graduation, Alva plans to continue working on Maverick Bioworks and conduct a summer research fellowship at NASA Ames Research Center, where he’ll lead an atmospheric payload project to study biology in conditions comparable to the surface of Mars. Then, he'll attend the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to pursue a Ph.D. in bioengineering in Fall 2022—he's one of only a few U of M Twin Cities graduating seniors to receive a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. In the future, he hopes to land somewhere between faculty member and entrepreneur, so he can both conduct research and engineer real products to benefit humanity. 

“The University of Minnesota helped me create a very strong foundation in biology and engineering,” Alva said. “It not only gave me the tools and the knowledge to do great things, but it also gave me a sense of how to approach complex problems. My ultimate goal is to pioneer the commercialization of bioprocessing in space—essentially to launch a company that serves the space economy of the 21st century, which is only going to expand as time goes on.”

Story by Olivia Hultgren

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