Behind the Breakthroughs: Laura Fernandez, Fermentation Maven

Laura Fernandez, senior scientific engineering associate, poses by the 300-liter reactors at the ABPDU.(Credit: Thor Swift/Berkeley Lab)

Laura Fernandez likes to think there are two types of people in the world: bakers and cooks. “Bakers are very exact. Their measurements matter; they think on a gram-to-gram basis,” she said. “Cooks are figuring it out as they go: tasting, adding a bit of salt, going on feel.”

While Fernandez considers herself a cook by nature, she’s embraced the precision of baking in her current role as the senior fermentation engineer and safety liaison for Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Biofuels and Bioproducts Process Development Unit (ABPDU). The ABPDU serves as a testbed for emerging technologies that tweak the metabolic pathways of microbes so they can transform raw materials—like plants and waste—into sustainable everyday products. Fernandez executes external collaborations with companies, helping them to scale up their experimental fermentation processes and explore how lab-bench prototypes can become commercial reality. Most of her collaborators are start-ups ramping up the bioeconomy with next-generation biofuels, biochemicals, and other bioproducts—with the end goal of decarbonizing transportation, food, manufacturing, and other industrial sectors.

“They give us a recipe, and we try to recreate that and think through some of the challenges they might see at scale,” said Fernandez.

Much of Fernandez’s day-to-day hinges on meticulous efficiency, with her main task being to zero in on a predictable, replicable formula for taking her collaborator’s idea to the next level. But she finds ways to balance that with her iterative, cook-style creativity, both on and off the job.

“Fermentation, in general, is a mix of both art and science. There are so many unknowns you’re attempting to control in this evolving, growing culture,” said Fernandez.

Read the full profile on the Biosciences Area’s website. This story is part of the Biosciences Area’s Behind the Breakthroughs Series.