Melissa Tille Leads from the Heart
If Melissa Tille has her way, when elementary and high school students in the Sioux Falls area are asked that age-old question of what they want to be when they grow up, one common response — among the parroted responses of doctors, lawyers and teachers — will be “scientist.”
Tille is the Analytical Laboratory Manager at POET and works primarily in POET’s Research and Development arm. Both in and outside of her work at POET, she’s dedicated to sharing with students and community members how chemistry and science impacts their world.
You can often find her doing hands- on chemistry demonstrations with students at local elementary schools like Annie Sullivan Elementary School, or working with the Augustana University Chemistry Club on a presentation for students at Fred Assem Elementary School in Sioux Falls.
It’s especially important for elementary and high school students to have role models who are scientists as they are forming ideas about their future careers, Tille says.
“It’s a lot easier to think about being a doctor for people interested in science because they see doctors all the time, but it’s harder to see scientists, so I think it’s important for scientists to be visible in the community in some way,” she says. “Kids form opinions about science when they’re really young. That first impression can pack a punch. I had great experiences with chemistry mentors who encouraged my interest in science. I always look for opportunities to encourage others to enjoy science.”
Jetty Duffy-Matzner, PhD, Professor of Organic Chemistry at Augustana University, has worked with Tille through the Sioux Valley local section of the American Chemical Society (ACS), a national scientific society whose vision is to improve people’s lives through the “transforming power of chemistry.”
Duffy-Matzner says the work that Tille and others are doing through ACS is critical to showing the general public the positive side of chemistry.
“I think the problem with chemistry in particular is that the public thinks that it’s a bad thing. When they see ‘chemistry,’ they think it’s confusing or hard. They don’t see how it impacts your everyday life. ... It’s just important to let them know it’s not scary — it’s something you need to be educated about — and to let people know that it does impact their world and has a lot of benefits.”
Tille’s work during her 13-year tenure at POET certainly fits that criteria of enacting positive change for the community and world at large. In her experience as a chemist, Tille supports research efforts for groundbreaking projects such as Project LIBERTY and also works on tasks to support POET’s 27 other bioprocessing locations. Project LIBERTY, a joint venture between POET and the Dutch biosciences company DSM, is located in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and produces biofuels out of biowaste such as corn cobs and husks.
Her research on cellulosic biofuels has been a thread throughout her career at POET. Tille has been involved with research around Project LIBERTY since 2007 and has worked on methods to help monitor the biofuels process. She cites the launch of the commercial scale facility and being on site in Emmetsburg, Iowa, for the groundbreaking ceremony in 2012 as a highlight of her tenure at POET.
“It was a stretch goal to try and make ethanol out of a waste product. It was an innovation. We had to put in a lot of the hard work and blaze the trail,” she says. “It has been exciting to see Project LIBERTY move from research to commercial scale.”
A PASSION FOR HELPING PEOPLE WITHIN, OUTSIDE OF POET
At POET, colleagues say that Tille leads with compassion and an attention to detail and has helped improve technology developments and analytical capabilities for POET’s research team.
“Melissa leads from the heart,” says Dave Bushong, Senior Vice President of Research, POET. “She has a passion for helping people both within POET and outside POET. Melissa has taken leadership positions for activities such as the American Cancer Society Relay for Life, taught Sunday school and has been a foster parent. Her devotion to making people successful has a powerful impact as a POET Research leader.”
Shon Van Hulzen, Director of Quality Control, POET, reiterates that Tille is resilient and has a calm demeanor — two great qualities to have in the fast- paced realm of POET Research.
“Melissa has a gentle, kind and pleasant spirit,” Van Hulzen says. “She is thoroughly enjoyable to work with and is always willing to jump in and help. She maintains a positive attitude even in difficult circumstances.”
Tille started out as a chemist at POET in 2005 after a stint in Minneapolis working on method development and product testing for a pharmaceutical company.
As an analytical chemist, Tille draws upon her knowledge of chemistry and applies it to the natural world. Analytical chemists work with instruments and methods to measure components in a sample. An analytical chemist, for example, would find a way to test a polymer (a large molecule) instead of creating one.
Tille has done research on both cellulosic and starch-based biofuels, along with developing and rolling out new test methods to POET’s bioprocessing facilities. She has worked on test methods to evaluate how new ingredients or mechanical changes can impact the process to produce biofuels and on testing for mycotoxins, which are chemical toxins that can be formed by mold on the grain.
In 2016, she began leading a team of six researchers within POET’s Research and Development (R&D) wing. Her work continues to fulfill her love of learning, she says, since as a manager she has the opportunity to be involved in many projects.
She has also been learning more about leading people and is enjoying this new aspect of her career. “POET has trusted me with an important job, and I have enjoyed the new challenge. I am happy to do all I can to help my team be successful.”
Even though her current management role involves more meetings that often takes her out of the laboratory, she’s never too far away from her lab coat. “I like to learn when I get in the lab,” she says.
As a scientist, POET is the prime environment to fulfill her joy of learning. The company esteems innovation and pursues new projects at every corner.
“It’s been very dynamic; I’m always learning and exploring new things.”