Alexandra Dubini, a molecular biologist, discussed the Homeward Bound Project at a SHE@LuxSE event earlier this year. We have deep-dived into the climate change/leadership/algae/sustainable finance topic in a Q&A we held with Alexandra after her presentation.
Q: You have recently taken part in a female-only trip to Antarctica to fight climate change. What were your motivations?
A: Homeward Bound was the opportunity for me and 79 other women to not only discover Antarctica and the direct consequences of climate change, but also to learn more about female leadership.
Q: What led you to have such an interest in climate change?
A: We hear a lot about climate change, but these discussions are not new. An Australian article published in 1912 raised concerns about the 7 billion tons of CO2 released by coal burning every year, and this is only getting worse. I think it is important to educate people on the reasons behind this.
Every day, the earth receives solar energy and converts it into thermal energy thanks to gases in the atmosphere. These gases absorb the thermal energy, and then release a part of it to the earth. This released energy provides just enough heat for us to live. The problem is that the accumulation of gases causes more thermal energy to be sent to the earth and results in an increase in temperature. One way of resolving this is to use renewable energies like biofuel because it releases less CO2. For more than 15 years, I have worked on bioenergy, and more particularly on producing hydrogen from green algae.
Q: So are you saying that we could use algae to produce fuel?
A: That is what we are working on indeed. Algae can produce biofuels such as bioethanol, biodiesel (from lipids) and biohydrogen. The process is simple: algae captivate the sunlight and convert it into energy to grow and survive but when there is too much of this energy, the cells can convert it into lipids, excrete ethanol or release hydrogen.
Hydrogen is the most important renewable fuel because it is the only one that is 100% clean, does not release CO2 into the atmosphere and has the strongest energetic properties compared to any other fuel. It is in fact so powerful that we propel our spaceships with H2. Furthermore, hydrogen can be converted into electricity, which is very useful since we can store H2 but not electricity. Actually, we are already using the combo hydrogen/electricity in some hybrid cars.
Overall, algae are, so far, the best option to produce biofuels as they are very easy to grow, require less land, no fertilizers and do not compete with food production – unlike previous crops that were used to produce biodiesel but were unable to produce H2.
Q: Are there any other uses of algae?
A: Indeed. I have expanded my research to bioremediation. We are growing algae in consortia with bacteria to clean wastewater and at the same time, we are extracting the biomass obtained from those microorganisms to produce bio fertilisers. We hope that in the future we will be able to remove contaminants from any wastewater, as well as replace chemical fertilisers with biological ones, therefore joining the circular bio-economy. Today, we have identified a specific combination that partially cleans agricultural wastewater and extracts its biomass to boost the growth of tomato plants. These preliminary tests were conclusive at the laboratory level. We now have to test our system on a large scale.
Q: Can you comment on the gender aspect in science?
A: Women in science are too often underrepresented because our work does not get the same visibility as that of our male colleagues in the field. If you look at the figures, the number of men and women with PhD qualifications is roughly 50-50. However, when you look at the number of women with high positions or high responsibilities, the rate falls to 11%. In 2018, two women won Nobel Prizes in Physics and Chemistry, something that had not happened for 50 years! This can be explained through historical and cultural habits, but also through our unconscious biases. For instance, we often think that men are better at science than women are. However, if we want to make scientific progress, we have to work together.
Q: After taking part in the Homeward Bound program, what would you like to tell other women?
A: That they can be leaders too. During the training sessions of the programme, we learned about three different aspects: leadership, strategy and visibility. The first step to being a good leader is to know your strengths and weaknesses. Usually, people think about good leaders as high-performing, encouraging and social people so you should work on these aspects.
Then, you need to define your values. Once this is clear, you need a strategy to define your objectives.
Finally, you need to create visibility around your strategy; organise workshops, use social media, etc. I always like to remind my team that even though alone we go faster, together we go further.