CCUR Staff Spotlight: Bill Colonna, Assistant Scientist

August 30, 2018

Bill Colonna is the assistant scientist at the Center for Crops Utilization Research.
Bill Colonna is the assistant scientist at the Center for Crops Utilization Research.

For the past five years, Bill Colonna has been the assistant scientist at the Center for Crops Utilization Research (CCUR), overseeing the daily activities of the Fermentation Facility. His areas of expertise include sugar/polysaccharide chemistry, microbiology, fermentation and enzymology.

Bill earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from Fairfield University, his master’s degree in biology from Fordham University, and his doctorate in biochemistry from Rutgers University. Prior to coming to Iowa State University, Bill had experiences in academia and industry. He spent five years at St. Mary’s College and Winona State University teaching courses in microbiology, immunology, biochemistry and molecular biology. Bill also spent three years as a project manager at Nabisco Brands in Wilton, Conn., and 11 years as a senior research chemist at American Crystal Sugar in Moorhead, Minn. 

When did you come to Iowa State University and what was your job? 

I started at ISU in 2003. My initial work was as an analytical chemist for Dr. Paul Flakoll in support of research aimed at identifying dietary supplements to slow or arrest sarcopenia. This is the loss of muscle mass and strength that occurs as a consequence of aging.  

Later, I worked with Dr. Anthony Pometto in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, evaluating plant extracts for antimicrobial activity. I then worked with Dr. Chuck Glatz in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering focusing on the production and characterization of polypeptide biosurfactants produced by bacteria. I joined CCUR in 2013. Currently, I work with Dr. Kevin Keener, professor of food science and human nutrition, on the use of plasma for preventing growth of yeast and extending the shelf life of foods and beverages.    

What is your role at CCUR? 

Currently, I have a dual role at CCUR. One is in Keener’s lab, conducting research on the effects of high-voltage atmospheric cold plasma (HVACP) on microorganisms. Besides research, this involves mentoring graduate and undergraduate students and post-docs and maintaining the lab. My other function is the maintenance of CCUR’s Fermentation Facility and providing fermentation services to on- and off campus clients.  

Bill Colonna gives a demonstration on how to use the 5-L benchtop fermentor during a fermentation and bioprocessing tour.
Bill Colonna gives a demonstration on how to use the 5-L benchtop fermentor during a fermentation and bioprocessing tour.

What does a typical day look like for you? 

A “typical” day begins looking at the day’s “to do” list. If a yeast-plasma trial is on the list, preparation of reagents, microbiological media and yeast cultures needs to be done, as well as locating equipment needed for the experiment. 

If a fee-based fermentation is scheduled, the work consists of assembling the fermentor, filling it with media, then sterilizing it, along with other equipment. A discussion with the client is held to finalize procedures. The fermentor is programmed, inoculated, then monitored. This involves periodic sampling to ensure that the fermentation progresses as planned.

Other “typical” activities include giving tours, assisting/mentoring students, ordering supplies, performing maintenance to lab equipment and putting out the occasional “fires” in the lab! From time to time, I assist food science faculty in conducting student laboratories. Periodically, I partake in discussions with prospective clients who wish to utilize our services, or with other ISU staff who wish to involve us in collaborative research. Writing up data, planning experiments and refining protocols round out the day.   

What do you like most about your job? 

There are several facets of this position that make it attractive. One is the interaction with students. Although not officially a teacher, I get a lot of satisfaction in guiding students and helping them on their way to becoming successful professionals. Another is the variety of projects and challenges that this position brings. This has enabled (and forced!) me to learn many new things and become more versatile. 

ISU has a large percentage of international students, visiting scientists and post-docs. In this position, I have had the opportunity to meet people from many other countries, and have gotten to know them and learn about their cultures. This has been one of the most enjoyable facets of working here.   

What do you find the most challenging at CCUR?  

Learning about fermentation. Before coming to ISU, I had limited fermentation experience. After joining CCUR, I acquired training in operating fermentors ranging in size from 5- to 150-L capacity. I also acquired some experience with the larger fermentors (500 and 1000 L) at ISU’s BioCentury Research Farm.  

What has been your favorite project at CCUR? 

Studying the effects of HVACP on microorganisms. Prior to this, I knew nothing about HVACP and its applications. This was a new area for me and I found it very interesting. The research is challenging, but the outcomes have been professionally rewarding.    

What is your biggest achievement to date?  

As mentioned earlier, I enjoy interacting with students. Earlier in my career as a teacher, I found it rewarding to educate and help students understand/master difficult scientific concepts. I saw it as a way of molding the next generation. Many of my students went on to graduate, medical and dental schools, and have become successful professionals. In my present position at ISU, I am still involved, in a small way, in educating students. To me this is an important achievement.    

Bill Colonna takes a sample from the 50-L fermentor.
Bill Colonna takes a sample from the 50-L fermentor.

Before working at CCUR, what was the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had? 

At American Crystal Sugar, I was involved in a variety of projects. One of the most interesting was in value-added product research. The focus of this was to find new uses for sugar or sugar by-products such as molasses and sugar beet pulp. This involved identifying useful chemicals in low-value sugar factory process streams and testing various separation techniques to recover them. Another approach was to convert low-value feedstocks into value-added chemicals via fermentation. The work was very challenging and the learning experience was rewarding.  

What is on your wish list for your next five years at CCUR? 

I hope to continue what I am doing, but go beyond so as to acquire more experience in fermentation and have more involvement in mentoring students. I also hope that in five years I can say that my efforts have improved the functionality of CCUR. I would also like to occupy a position with greater responsibility and with opportunities to have some say in the direction that the Center takes.