Our nation generates over 40 million tons of hazardous waste each year, and most of it ends up in the ground. One way to detoxify waste is to "let the bugs eat it," an approach known formally as bioremediation. But which bugs are best for a given job?

Hoi-Ying Holman of Berkeley Lab's Center for Environmental Biotechnology finds part of the answer by using infrared synchrotron light to study the biological response of living microbes to contaminants.

Born into a farming family near the border of Hong Kong with China, Holman was always intrigued by nature. "I was fascinated by floods and weather, and I wanted to know why my father had to set fires around the crops when the cold air came." Her fascination embraced cabbages, fish, lotus blossoms, insects — and, when she tagged along with the village women at night, a sky filled with undimmed stars.

Sometimes there was electricity, and the radio played; the little girl peered inside. "I was looking for tiny humans; I thought there was a whole symphony in there."

Although traditional Chinese farm families saw no use educating girls beyond the sixth grade, the village had a small library built with foreign aid. There Holman read about science. A book about relativity, translated from German, was one of many that intrigued her.

She determined to move to the city to live with her aunt and to learn German at the Goethe Institute while attending high school. Later, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, she majored in earth sciences, but the day she graduated — with high honors — she found out she was too young for the German fellowship she'd counted on.

Hearing that an American was on campus, she ran to an unscheduled interview. "We talked a long time. It was an English test, and I failed." Not quite: the man offered her a year of English study at the University of California. If she did well, she would be accepted for graduate work.

Because "I did not expect to do well," Holman packed one small bag — but a year later she knew English. Then, at UC Berkeley's college of engineering, Professor Jerome Thomas invited her to design her own Ph.D. program, combining engineering and chemistry.

Meanwhile she had struck up a conversation — in German — with a Czech student; before long they were married, and Hoi-Ying's surname became Holman.

In 1986 Holman joined Berkeley Lab as a postdoc. Later, as a staff scientist in the multidisciplinary Center for Environmental Biotechnology, she was asked by its leader, Jennie Hunter-Cevera, to substitute for her at a meeting at the Advanced Light Source.

There Holman learned about the extraordinary capabilities of synchrotron infrared beams, ideal for studying living cells. Thus began a remarkable series of discoveries.

Did You Ever Wonder Web Site
Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory