My PhD project aims to develop innovative technologies to produce sustainable chemicals from crop or forestry residues, thereby replacing those derived from petroleum or palm oil. More specifically, I am developing a microbial platform technology to convert sugars and aromatic residues that can be derived from biomass waste streams into a class of high-value oleochemicals called wax esters.
Our world still relies heavily on unsustainable resources and practices. Lipid-based chemicals, for example, ubiquitously used in foods, fuels, and consumer products, are predominantly derived from palm oil and petroleum. The production of these oleochemicals has significant environmental impacts; and as global demand for the products containing these chemicals rise, so will the associated environmental burden. My PhD project aims to develop innovative technologies to produce sustainable chemicals from crop or forestry residues, thereby replacing those derived from petroleum or palm oil. More specifically, I am developing a microbial platform technology to convert sugars and aromatic residues that can be derived from biomass waste streams into a class of high-value oleochemicals called wax esters. Due to their excellent lubricating and emollient properties, wax esters are widely used in the personal care and chemical lubrication industry.
What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?
Public Scholars understand and value the societal impact of their research and are determined to turn their findings into action. Public Scholars see the bigger picture of their work and do not only communicate it effectively to the public but also act on their results thereby leading the way as Agents of Change. Personally, I aim to transfer my research into technology that can help our society shift towards a bio-based, circular economy. The Public Scholars Initiative is supporting me in my vision to reimagine my PhD by incorporating my entrepreneurial activities into my degree. As a UBC Public Scholar, I am also very excited about the opportunity to leverage the extensive network that the program provides in order for me to get exposure beyond the walls of the university.
In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?
I firmly believe that it is as important to put knowledge into action as it is to discover it. As PhD students within the traditional academic setting, we are expected to publish in the peer-reviewed literature but are often discouraged from engaging in knowledge translation activities beyond that. If we envision our findings to be part of the solution to a problem, we often receive little support in to developing and implementing an impactful knowledge-to-action strategy. By encouraging these activities, the PSI provides crucial support in these non-traditional PhD activities and thereby contributes to a shift in what we perceive as valuable academic efforts. The traditional academic training has essentially not changed for hundreds of years resulting in a gap between the current format of the PhD program and societal developments and the demands of an employment market outside of universities. We are still predominantly trained to enter an academic career were the only goal can be to ultimately become a tenured professor; yet, less than 20% of graduates are choosing this career path. This gap has to be addressed and the PSI is an important step in the evolution form the traditional towards a contemporary academic system. The PhD experience should also include critical and unconventional thinking. To conquer the vast environmental and political challenges we are facing today, I think it is important to re-introduce an emphasis on the ‘Ph’ in the PhD and support PhD students in their activities beyond the requirements of their degree programs.
How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?
I am enthusiastic about creating sustainable biotechnology solutions and my goal in life is to help provide these for the pressing problems of our society. As a scientist, I am studying the capabilities of bacteria to transform waste materials into valuable products. As an entrepreneur, I am trying to scale a technology to replace palm oil, animal fat, and petroleum derived lipids for the personal care and food industry by brewing designer oils with our engineered microbe. Through both my thesis-related and entrepreneurial efforts, I believe I will be well positioned to create or join a biotech start-up which develops innovative technologies and brings new solutions to the market. My entrepreneurial activities during my PhD program have allowed me to expand my horizon outside of the lab and to learn much more than just research skills. For example, I participated in the Lean Launch Pad program of entrepreneurship@UBC and joined the ECOSCOPE program at UBC, an industrial stream of the NSERC CREATE program. These programs equip graduate students with entrepreneurial skills and provide insights from data science, microbial ecosystems, and engineering, respectively, in order to bridge the academy-to-industry training gap.
How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?
The biotechnology solution we are developing in the lab has commercial potential and, together with a lab colleague, I co-founded a company, RhYme Biotechnology, to mobilize this technology beyond the lab. As a team, we participated in the Lean Launch Pad program of entrepreneurship@UBC for market validation and customer discovery purposes for our proposed product. This involved reaching out to various stakeholders including chemical and cosmetic companies to gather interest and to find potential partners. Our entrepreneurial activities have resulted in securing an NSERC Idea-to-Innovation grant and established a collaboration with the National Research Council of Canada as an industry collaborator.
Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?
My career goal has always been to find a leadership position in the biotechnology industry which requires a doctoral degree. The PhD program was also a chance for me to gain more expertise in microbiology in addition to my previous experience in the field of medical research and parasitology. Inspired by scientific rock stars such as Jay Kiesling, I wanted to delve deep into microbial catabolism, engineering, and synthetic biology to design bacteria that can help us solve the environmental crises of today’s world.
Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?
UBC has long been world-leading in sustainability efforts which aligns well with my own values and goals. Moreover, I was drawn to learning and working at a highly-ranked university. Having completed my MSc degree in Germany, I was curious to explore the research environment in North America. Vancouver’s beautiful location and the surrounding nature didn’t hurt either! I also believe that Vancouver has great potential to become the next ‘Silicon Valley’ – although hopefully in a more sustainable way. I can’t think of a better place to venture out into the world of biotech solutions.
Public Scholars understand and value the societal impact of their research and are determined to turn their findings into action. Public Scholars see the bigger picture of their work and do not only communicate it effectively to the public but also act on their results thereby leading the way as agents of change.