P.E.I. science student getting global recognition

Islander Mike Ogden, 26, is ringing in the new year far away from his home province as he pursues his PhD in Melbourne, Australia. His research is concentrating on plant sciences and he is getting international recognition for his abilities.

'Research is my thing'

Mike Ogden in the lab in the school of biosciences at the University of Melbourne in Australia. (Mike Ogden)

Islander Mike Ogden, 26, is ringing in the new year far away from his home province as he pursues his PhD in Melbourne, Australia. His research concentrates on plant sciences and he is getting international recognition for his abilities.

Ogden, originally from Stratford P.E.I., said he enjoys coming up with solutions to problems. 

Throughout my research I'm always keeping P.E.I. in mind.— Mike Ogden

"Research is my thing, I really like plant science," Ogden said. 

"I really like being in the lab."

'Someone to watch out for'

Ogden said he doesn't know of any other research scientists in his family, and never thought he would do a PhD but he found his passion in genetic plant research and figuring out what makes plants respond the way they do. 

"It's interesting to really kind of push the boundary of knowledge," Ogden said. 

Christian Lacroix, a former biology professor at UPEI who supervised Ogden for his research project when he attended the university, describes Ogden as an enthusiastic student, a go-getter who did fabulous research. 

Ogden spreads bacteria into petri dishes to help with his research into how plants respond to greater amounts of nitrogen. (Mike Ogden)

"The pathway he's followed has been exceptional," Lacroix said. 

Even though he's early on in his PhD program, Ogden now has an international reputation and a talent for finding out how things work, Lacroix said. 

"Definitely someone to watch out for," Lacroix said. "He's very smart." 

Intensive selection process

Ogden beat out hundreds of applicants from around the world for the joint-funded PhD program based out of Germany and Australia. In the end about a dozen were chosen.

Part of the application process involved being flown to Germany for a four-day interview process at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology. 

"I totally did not expect this to happen but I'm really liking it," Ogden said. 

Research that could help P.E.I. 

Ogden's research for his PhD is looking at understanding how plants respond to nitrate fertilizer. 

He said it's research that could help P.E.I. 

"Throughout my research I'm always keeping P.E.I. in mind," he said. "How can we improve sustainable agriculture?"

He said he hopes to figure out what is happening genetically within the plant, when fertilizer is in the soil. 

Ogden extracts DNA from plants in order to analyze genes of interest. (Mike Ogden)

"How the plant senses is there a lot of nitrogen in the soil," he said. 

He said he's hoping to breed plants which would use fertilizer more efficiently, helping reduce the amount of costly fertilizers farmers have to use and avoid nitrate run-off. 

If fertilizer is not used by plants it can end up in ground water and streams, he said, causing environmental problems.

"A lot of it is lost to the environment," he said. 

Ogden's research involves looking at how seedlings respond to nitrogen and what genes are involved in plant growth. (Mike Ogden)

"If we can understand how the plants use the nitrate, we can engineer or breed plants to be more efficient in their use."

He also said the research could help world food supply. 

International recognition

Ogden received global recognition recently when he competed in an international science competition called the Innovation Cup, hosted by the pharmaceutical company Merck in July 2018.

"The goal of it is to come up with novel research proposals, research ideas that can have a large impact globally," said Ogden. 

More than 2,000 graduate students from around the world apply to compete. Ogden was one of 75 students accepted. Students compete in teams of five, brainstorming for seven days, then presenting to a panel of judges.

Ogden holds the prize award at the Innovation Cup which took place in Darmstadt, Germany. The team proposed using a bacteria which could be fed plastic, and then produce an essential amino acid. (Mike Ogden)

Ogden said he'd hoped to get some experience doing industry-based research and meet new people in the science world but he ended up getting much more than that. His team won the whole thing and the grand prize of about $30,000 (€20,000), which the team split.

Ogden and his team looked at dealing with plastics in landfills and oceans. 

"Let's tap into this massive resource that is plastic," Ogden said. 

The botany building in the school of biosciences where Ogden works at the University of Melbourne in Australia. (Mike Ogden)

The team looked at modifying a bacteria that could eat plastic and then produce a useful nutrient.

"There's energy stored in plastic, can we tap into that?" Ogden said. 

"It was pretty surreal," Ogden said. "We were all celebrating for quite a while afterwards." 

Hopeful for the future

Ogden is in the first of four years of the PhD program. 

He hopes someone will continue on with the idea from the competition, but his focus now is his research into nitrates and plants. 

Ogden says although he spends some long days in the lab he's trying to get out and enjoy Australia as much as possible. 'Australia in general is fantastic,' he says. (Mike Ogden)

"I'm really hoping one day to take this research and apply it so we can produce better crops," he said.

Ogden said he hopes to eventually come home to P.E.I to work and looks forward to making a career out of doing research. 

"I think I'm pretty much sold on science and research. I'm hoping that I can just keep it up."

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