10-Questions with Cliff Morrison

Photo credit: Audrey Larkin Zurlo
On biotechnology, gardening, and seeking different perspectives…
Concept & interview by: Shekhar Garde, gardes@rpi.edu

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

My name is Clifford Steven Morrison. I am a third year Ph.D. student in the Howard P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. I am originally from the northeastern part of Texas, and received my bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biochemistry from the University of North Texas.

What attracted you to Rensselaer?

Rensselaer’s focus on interdisciplinary work and biotechnology is what caught my attention. The facilities in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies – CBIS – convinced me to pursue my graduate work here.

How has your Rensselaer experience been? What do you think distinguishes Rensselaer?

My experience as a Rensselaer graduate student has been simultaneously challenging, stimulating, and rewarding. Rensselaer’s focus on multidisciplinary collaboration for tackling complex problems sets it apart.

What do you do research on? Why is it important?

I work broadly in the field of biotechnology. I study electrochemical bioreactors. Specifically, I am exploring the use of electric power to increase the carbon efficiency and theoretical yields of biocatalytic processes and fermentations relevant to industry. This is important as it has applications to renewable energy and biofuels, sustainable production of industrial chemicals, and developing a market for underused biocatalytic processes. 

What is doing research like? What drives you to excel?

There are many facets to the pursuit of research, each demanding a creative mind and a persistent approach to problem solving. We try to see the big picture in everything we do, so it’s important to communicate and network with a lot of people when doing research. Other scientists and engineers may approach a problem differently than we might, and that can teach us something new. So, doing research is also about thinking of problems in as many ways as we can, and sharing our thoughts with those around us to gain new insights.

The process of discovery is exciting and rewarding, so that is definitely a motivating factor. However, I’m also driven to excel so that I can set a positive example for LGBTQA youth interested in STEM.

You recently won an NSF fellowship. Congratulations! Tell us about it. What does winning the fellowship mean to you?

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is a prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students who are anticipated to become knowledge experts and future leaders who will contribute significantly to research, teaching, and innovations in science and engineering.

Winning the fellowship means a number of exciting things to me: it serves as validation of my potential as a researcher; it gives me the freedom to focus on my work; and it allows me the opportunity to reach out to underrepresented minorities in STEM.

What do you want to do after you graduate?

I would love to work for a company that is focused on using principles of sustainability to produce materials, chemicals, and energy derived from renewable biological resources. I will explore teaching and mentoring as part of my career.

What do you do when you are not working or thinking about your research?

I’m an avid gardener – I love to grow orchids, roses, African violets, and irises. I love music, and I sing tenor for the Rensselaer Concert Choir (I hope to see you at our concerts!). I also volunteer for the Pride Center of the Capital Region to work with LGBTQA youth.

My favorite activities to do in the area include playing tennis at Prospect Park, checking out restaurants I’ve never been to in downtown Troy, hiking in the surrounding areas (especially in autumn), and shopping for fresh food in the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market.

What are some of your favorite books? Movies? Podcasts? Or Blogs?

In literature, I’m a fan of high-fantasy and dystopian fiction. The Lord of the Rings and 1984 are great examples. In terms of film, my favorite genres are documentaries (to learn about new things from another person’s perspective), and horror (because horror is just fun!).

Any message to new students?

Pursue new interests, cultivate hobbies you already have, and find the time to do some things outside of campus that are personally fulfilling to you.