2015 Shaping the Future

From genetics to solar energy, WashU student watches for new research paths to unfold


Greg Orf was an undergraduate studying biochemistry when a random assignment about solar energy altered his course.

“All along I had been interested in genetics and DNA, but this made me do a 180,” said Orf, who will graduate this week with a PhD in chemistry. “I knew then I wanted to impact — even in a small way — the future of energy and the environment.”

Orf joined the lab of Robert Blankenship, PhD, Lucille P. Markey Distinguished Professor of Arts & Sciences and director of the Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center (PARC), one of 32 federally funded Energy Frontier Research Centers. There, he has studied how simple organisms store solar energy and has built molecules that can harvest light. This research ultimately could lead to the next generation of solar-catching technology.

“The storage part of the equation needs to catch up if we are going to make an impact on everyday life,” said Orf, a prolific publisher in the field.

While at Washington University, Orf also served as a consultant for the BALSA Group, a unique program in which Washington University PhD, MBA and JD students provide expertise and advice to St. Louis startups. The experience informed his own research.

“It’s been fun to see companies go from conception to actually earning revenue and putting something useful out into the world,” Orf said. “That is a side of science I never understood before. It’s made me more efficient as a scientist. And it’s shifted my mindset from the possible to the practical. Sometimes in an academic lab, you only are concerned with what’s possible. But what people can actually use, what gets them excited — that’s really important, too.”

Orf has not decided where he will work after graduation, but he is interested in exploring a new research field.

“I want to have another one of those branching out experiences because my interests are very, very broad,” Orf said. “Just as the work I did as an undergrad opened my eyes to genetics and the work that I did here opened by eyes to environmentalism and green chemistry, I would like my next step to take me in another direction — maybe it will be developing a drug that helps someone with cancer or finding a way to feed more people by advancing agriculture. Washington University has prepared me for a lot of options.”

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