Megan Bucher Ruhmel ’09 Researches Fuels of the Future for ExxonMobil
By Jackie Lukas Eovtich ’11
If biofuels derived from algae ever replace gasoline in our trucks, Wilkes alumna Megan Bucher Ruhmel ’09 might have a hand in making it happen. Ruhmel is a senior research technician at ExxonMobil, where her days consist of testing and analyzing the productivity of algae for the company’s Algae Biofuels Program.
She and her 20-plus research colleagues are working to find ways to dial down the protein and dial up the fat in algae through protein and genetic work. “Remember,” Ruhmel says. “Oil is fat.” The normal strains of algae have a lot of protein. Algae biology is very challenging so researchers are working to develop and apply genetic tools to engineer algae strains that can one day be scaled up. The eventual goal is to take this science from the lab, to the greenhouse, to producing 10,000 barrels a day.
“I’m in the lab every day doing some sort of test,” says Ruhmel. “The algae don’t sleep. They grow like crazy.”
Exxon worked to publicize this program by creating YouTube videos and Ruhmel, who comes equipped with an energetic and bubbly personality, even starred in one. She was interviewed by a 6-year-old girl and explains the work she does. It sounds complicated, but as Ruhmel explains to her interviewer, Farrah, it’s relatively simple and algae could be a better source of fuel for future generations. In the video, Ruhmel explains that this program is trying to find the most productive strain of algae that produces enough oil to create fuel. (To view the video, see School of Exxon Mobil.)
Ruhmel, who was the keynote speaker of the Women Empowered By Science (WEBS) Camp in July 2019, can’t remember a time when she was not fascinated by science. When visiting her grandmother’s house, her first stop was the bottom bookshelf to pick up where she left off in the science book collection. As a child, her favorite question was “Why?”
“I would always be asking questions: Why is the sky blue? Why, when you put these magnets together, they attract each other, but when you turn them around, they repel each other? Why does the ocean look blue but when you get in, it’s clear?”
While at Wilkes, she fell in love with the laboratory setting and the faculty helped her to facilitate her energy, and prepare her for stepping out into the real world. She names Wilkes biology faculty Debra Chapman, Valerie Kalter, Kenneth Klemow, Jeffrey Stratford and Michael Steele as influences.
Ruhmel’s path to ExxonMobil was not a direct one. “A lot of people just assume that you graduate and you get your dream job, and that’s just not the case.” She worked at three different companies before being recruited by Exxon Mobil, whichwas looking for qualified candidates with genetic experience.
Ruhmel has also faced some challenges as a woman in science, but she encourages other women in STEM fields to keep challenging themselves and pushing their way into the room by asking, “Why can’t women do what men can do?”
Morgan Evans Serpico ’14 Is Activist for Suicide Awareness
By Vicki Mayk MFA ’13
When Morgan Evans Serpico ’14 thinks back to her Wilkes graduation, her memories are different than most graduates. Instead of simply recalling it as day of celebration, she also remembers that it happened barely a month after her brother David, a high school student, died by suicide.
While her classmates celebrated, Serpico felt alone.
“Everyone was in a happy space. No one understood my loss,” says Serpico, who works as a regional manager for Suntan City tanning salons.
Five years later, Serpico and her mother, Dawn Loftus Evans, have used their loss as the impetus for working to raise awareness and educate others about suicide prevention. Serpico is a volunteer to the board of the Northeast Pennsylvania chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and her mother, Dawn Loftus Evans, serves as board president. Their volunteerism is actively supported by Serpico’s father, David A. Evans ’84, and her husband, Sandro Serpico ’15, who also participate in many events. The chapter recently was merged with the Lehigh Valley chapter to become the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter.
Serpico and her family played an integral role in growing the chapter’s major fundraising event, the annual Greater Northeast Pennsylvania Out of the Darkness Community Walk. In January 2019, the event was honored as the most improved community walk at the national organization’s 14th Annual Chapter Leadership Conference in Dallas, Texas. The 2018 walk raised $94,381 and had 1,300 participants. It is the third largest walk in the state, behind Philadelphia and Harrisburg.
Morgan Serpico says she and her family want to help provide resources that were not available to them at the time of her brother’s death. The subject of suicide has long been treated as taboo in American society and is seldom discussed openly. And as a person who lost a sibling, Evans found it was especially difficult. No resources focused on the death of a brother or sister by suicide.
“Nobody has a book that tells you what to do,” she says.
After participating in a glow walk held at Wilkes that benefited the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Evans and her family found the organization provided helpful resources and support. They began volunteering for the group. In addition to chairing the regional board, Serpico’s mother, Dawn, delivers educational programs to schools, businesses and community groups, to raise awareness about suicide. Both mother and daughter have been trained to facilitate support groups for those affected by suicide loss. Both women staff informational tables at community events throughout the year.
“If I can be that one person for somebody, it would mean everything to me.”Morgan Serpico ’14
Serpico plans to continue her volunteerism to raise awareness about an issue that affects many. Each year suicide claims more lives than war, murders and natural disasters combined, yet funding for research and education about it lags behind many other issues. Serpico is determined to make a difference.
“If one person had been able to save my brother, I would be so grateful to that person,” Serpico says. “If I can be that one person to somebody, it would mean everything to me.”