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From Goldfish Blood Cells to SIMB President-Elect, Microbiology Is Steve Decker's Passion

June 6, 2019

The seeds of microbiology were planted in the inquisitive mind of a young Steve Decker when a microscope—gift-wrapped with his name on it—arrived on a cold Wisconsin morning. From then on, the young boy embraced all that was microscopic as he peered through the lens at strange, minuscule worlds like circulating blood cells in the tail of his hapless pet goldfish.

Microbiology Is in His Blood

Two men talking in a laboratory.

Steve Decker (left) using the HTP Recalcitrance Screening Pipeline at NREL, which is designed to rapidly screen hundreds or thousands of biomass variants for differences in susceptibility to pretreatment and/or enzyme hydrolysis. Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

Decker's passion for the hidden natural world never waned and inspired copious amounts of curiosity leading to an M.S. and Ph.D. in microbiology. Soon after, he came to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as a postdoc in enzyme discovery and was hired as a staff scientist researching biomass conversion to fuels and chemicals.

Today, he is group manager and principal scientist in the Bioenergy Sciences Center at NREL where he manages and mentors a dozen scientists, technicians, postdocs, and interns on projects in cellulase engineering, fungal molecular biology, high-throughput pipeline (HTP) biomass screening, and waste-to-energy through anaerobic digestion engineering.

From watching circulating goldfish blood cells to years of rigorous academic study to esteemed NREL scientist, Decker's notable career in microbiology has led to another honor: president-elect of the Society for Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology (SIMB).

SIMB: Bridging the Gap between Academia and Industry

Founded in 1949, SIMB is a nonprofit, international association dedicated to the advancement of microbiological sciences, especially as they apply to industrial products, biotechnology, materials, and processes. SIMB promotes the exchange of scientific information through meetings and publications. And with Decker being named president-elect, the organization will be in good hands.

"SIMB has so much to offer beyond biotech and biofuels like fermentation technology, natural products, and all aspects of industrial microbiology and biotechnology," said Decker. "This opportunity is exciting to me as I will gain exposure to a much wider range of industrial experts and hope to develop these connections into new research collaborations at NREL."

Decker has been an SIMB member for 10 years, serving as either a program chair or co-chair for SIMB's Symposium on Biotechnology for Fuels and Chemicals for most of those. In March, he was elected to the SIMB presidency by fellow SIMB members—a 3-year term (president-elect, president, and past-president) that starts in July. During the term he plans to focus his efforts on:

  • Increasing involvement of industrial members in meetings and SIMB operations
  • Expanding student participation to increase future member base and educate young scientists
  • Encouraging more direct meeting participation from members by developing opportunities to present their work and serve at the meetings
  • Broadening SIMB membership through outreach to diverse research groups.

As president-elect, Decker will be exposed to leading industry and academic researchers that he would not have met otherwise. And Decker is excited about the compatibility of SIMB and NREL, where much of NREL's research enables and advances industrial applications.

"SIMB provides common ground where industry can get the latest scientific discoveries relevant to their needs while academic and national laboratory researchers can get direct feedback from industry on their needs," Decker said. "This is especially important for some U.S. Department of Energy-funded work, where the driver is industrial deployment and impacting the economy."