Yongyuth Yuthavong

Yongyuth Yuthavong
Former Minister of Science and Technology

Professor Dr. Yongyuth Yuthavong is a former Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Science and Technology, Thailand and an outstanding Thai scientist with a particular interest in the broad issues of public policies, especially those concerning the application of science and technology for development – as well as human development in general.

Dr. Yongyuth spent a long career at Mahidol University, conducting research and teaching. He was appointed Professor of Biochemistry in 1983 and was honored with the “Outstanding Scientist of Thailand” Award in 1984, from the Foundation for the Promotion of Science and Technology. During the same period, he was chosen as the Director of the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) from 1985 until 1989.

Dr. Yongyuth became the first President of Thailand’s National Science & Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) from 1992 until 1998 and in 2004, he received the Nikkei Asia Prize for Science, Technology and Innovation from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan, for his outstanding work on antimalarial drug targets, as well as the prestigious “Person of the Year” Award from Thailand’s National Identity Board. Dr. Yongyuth served as the Minister of Science and Technology from 2006 to 2008, when The Nation newspaper named him one of “the 35 most influential Thais over the past 35 years”. Dr. Yongyuth has since returned to his research career with BIOTEC, where he now heads a research group working on the development of new antimalarials.

From science to innovation, development, and sustainability in Thailand

What is the more human side of science like? How is it linked with the human spirit? And what is the role this connection plays in the growth of an entire country?

Professor Yongyuth Yuthavong draws a detailed and thoughtful map on how science inspired him to grow from an avid biochemistry student, to a determined researcher in the fight against Malaria in Thailand, to the country’s very own Deputy Prime Minister.

As a pioneer and an investigator at heart, Yuthavong played an important role in the creation of Thailand’s National Science and Technology Development Agency, focusing his research in the interactions of Malaria and the creation of antimalarial drugs. As a politician and as a professor, he puts sustainable, long-term development at the forefront of his discourse, and continues to dream of a brighter future in which the younger generation gets the chance to learn, experience and contribute to society, within and outside the scientific sphere.

With a life devoted to science, which brightest aspects can be found in his book Sparks of the Spirit, professor Yuthavong remains a shining light in the world of research and politics, reminding us that true passion touches not only ourselves, but those around us.

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Prof. Yongyuth Yuthavong: My name is Yongyuth Yuthawong and I am a scientist, and I’ve been working in science almost all my life. Sometimes, I’m induced to do other things, such as policy, administration and even politics.

Nerina Finetto: Thank you so much for joining me. Science, policy making and politics; how are they related to each other?

Yongyuth: It may due to my nature, but I think everyone is the same, in that I have both a narrow and a broad interest. The narrow interest took me to science – I studied chemistry -, but then the broad interest took me to all sorts of things. I like to talk with people on policy of countries, on international politics and so on. When I was applying for a place in the university, I applied for a place in chemistry, and after the interview I was furious because the interviewer said ‘You are more suited to study general science’. So I thought ‘General science?! I want to be a chemist!’.

So that is how it always is with me. I tried to do work and I stayed true to my profession as a biochemist on my working life, but now and then I’m induced to various things outside of it, but always concerning science.

Nerina: Tell me more about your work as a scientist.

Yongyuth: I would like to say I’m quite successful in my intended career. I did work first of all in just basic biochemistry; enzymes and various membranes, biomenbranes, but I found that there was very little support in Thailand for basic science, so I needed to do something which uses basic science to solve the problems of my country, and at that time, Malaria was a very big problem, so I thought that maybe we should start to study the biochemistry of Malaria, so I’ve been doing that for more than forty years. It’s a bit long, until now Malaria is no longer a big threat in Thailand, but it’s still a big threat in the world.

Many people, many hundreds of thousands still die from Malaria each year, so I think my job is not done, but that is the narrow path which took me to being recognized by being given the Outstanding Scientist of Thailand Award; I was given the Nikkei award from Japan for science, technology and innovation, and I was recognized for various things. Right now, I’m now involved in developing antimalarial drugs, which has now gone into clinical trial, so it’s something that I’m very proud of. I think if the first synthetic drug from Thailand that has gone on to human clinical trials. That’s the narrow path.

Nerina: And how did you find the broader path?

Yongyuth: That probably stemmed from my interest in the broad areas of science and how we could develop science in my country. I think more than forty years ago, there was some friend of mine, I physicist from Oregon, who was a n expert in science policy. He was coming to Thailand, and he asked if some people would like to listen to him, and I said ‘Why not?’. So I organized a conference on science policy where people from all spheres, both the political people and the policy people, the administrative and the scientists came together at the National Research Council of Thailand, and that was the first main introduction for me into the area of science policy. People asking why Thailand had so little in terms of structures to support science, so that really paved the way for a group to be formed; I was part of that group to try to from the Ministry of Science and Technology, and it’s like a miracle. People thought that it would never be possible, but then in the end the Ministry was passed as a law.

We got the Ministry of Science and Technology, and I was induced into working for the Ministry. I was asked to be the director of biotechnology, and then that was the decision. Narrow path or the broad path. At the time I said, ‘Let me do my science first’. So we invited someone else who was more senior to become the director, so I could concentrate on my scientific work. But then I never left the area of policy, it just sort of drew m into all sorts of things.

Indeed, I became the director of biotechnology later on, and the we started to think of big things, like having a national agency for science and technology. This was also in part due to the grant from the United States – USAID -, a loan to the Thai government for science research, and we sort of melted the USAID project together with the Thai attempts to broaden the structure for support. That was how the Science and Technology Development was born around 1992, and I was the first director- now it’s called president – of the National Science and Technology Development Agency.

I could go on from there to build science and not just only for my own narrow interest in chemistry and biochemistry, but across all areas. Not only biotechnology, but also material science, electronics and computers, and various areas.

Nerina: How was your experience and what kind of challenges did you encounter?

Yongyuth: So that gave me an idea to write a book called The Sparks from the Spirit.

Nerina: Sparks from the Spirit. What is it about?

Yongyuth: In Sparks from the Spirit, the spirit is the spirit of science that I’m talking about and I think everyone has, right from childhood, but maybe we lose that spirit as we grow old because there are other distractions. But for other people – for scientists and for inventors and so on -, that spirit is never gone, it’s always with them. They’re like the core of an onion, so they can help to bring about technologies and innovations, and then the people from that outside can work together to lead to what is called development in very broad areas.

For example, the Green Revolution of the 1960’s; that is an example of development that came from science of agriculture, form the science of biology, but also from various areas. From broad areas in agriculture, in farming, in politics and various things that help to bring about water resource management and so on. It helped to bring about the agriculture, the Green Revolution of the 1960’s, but that was not sustainable.

Even though the Green Revolution was big, it was not sustainable, because it was too resource-intensive, so it required a lot of water and well-educated farmers and so on; also, it ignores another green factor, and that is the environmental factor. Son now, there is a kind of Evergreen development, where you take all this things that you forgot to take into account in the 60’s, now bring them together and hopefully this will go toward sustainable development. This is a part of the sustainable development movement that we’re having right now that the UN is really calling for, and we hope to achieve by 2030.

There are seventeen goals of sustainable development. I looked at these seventeen goals and I found that they all really have science as a big component, so I put this in Sparks from the Spirit. The spirit produces sparks that will go on, hopefully, to sustainable development.

Nerina: What is the role of the scientist here? What does it mean to be a scientist?

Yongyuth: Well, I think a scientist is not only useful in the sense that he can work on his narrow area – drug development or cancer -, but a scientist is also useful to the society as someone who appreciates the power knowledge; not only knowledge in his or her own area, but knowledge in general, and have the curiosity to go on to something new. That is really the essence of science: the curiosity and the wonder and the exploration, that’s in the nature and the spirit of humans, so I think a scientist can tell the society in general to keep these characters in you and don’t lose them as you grow up.

Nerina: In your book you wrote also about the fire inside us, right?

Yongyuth: We all have fires within us. Sometimes that fire drives you to your carreer, like a pianist who has a fire of performance, and she can go on to that stage. That fire drives her to something really great in her career and to the world, but in order to grow that fire, you really need to try very hard. It’s not easy to learn your trade very well, and for an artist, you need to practice very well, and not only just practice mechanically, but practice in terms of how you generate something new, something that is different from others, and yet recognizable. It can be out of this world, but it’s recognizable, even though it comes in a new form and new interpretation.

I think science is like that, also. We have the fire of discovery inside us; we always want to know, want to ask questions about this and about that, why not this, why not that, so that’s the fire within us, and if we manage this fire well and don’t quench it before time, I think we can go on to something that is really good.

I’m so sad when, in Thai society, many people, many mothers or fathers will tell their kids ‘Don’t ask too much! ’; you know? I scold you if you ask too many questions. For me, let them ask the questions. Of course, they may bother you a little bit; some questions are nonsense and so on, but we have to be patient we our new generation, and let them really goad their fires. Each one should be able to grow his or her own fires, so that it can really burn brightly and it can give out the sparks that we’ll enjoy later on.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Yongyuth: I think that it will not be radically different from what we’re having now, but I hope that this sustainable development movement will help make a better society, not only in terms of material’s well-being, but in terms of happiness, because in the last chapter of my book I think that society is not just aiming for sustainable development; in a way, sustainable is a little bit defensive, because it means that you get something and you want it to continue.

In the last chapter of my book, I ask what is beyond sustainability. Because what we need really is a happy society, and not only sustainable, but thriving and always going on to better things, so it is not stable, but going on, improving itself, so I hope that the society that we have in the future need not be materially rich, but it’s a society where people live together happily as a family, as an individual, as a group, as a city, as a country, and as the whole world.

I also look forward to the time when humans will go out of this world to other worlds. We are going to Mars already in 2030, and maybe some other worlds beyond Mars, but one thing that is important is that we must not leave this world in shambles, you know? As junk, and then we go on to find some other place. So we must take care of this world and have a sustainable society, or something that is beyond sustainability, here before we go elsewhere.

Nerina: What are the challenges for Thailand’s development, in your opinion?

Yongyuth: I could see that Thailand needs to change from just being an agrarian society to becoming more internationally involved and have a broader area of products and services, and not just agriculture and raw materials. I think the path is clear, that science and technology have to play a bigger role so that we can become more industrialized and also go into de digital society and become an “advanced” country.

There was no doubt science would play a big role, but then, how do you do it? Because there were so few scientists, technology and so few people who appreciate and understand science. I thought the way to do it was to talk to people; both the people who are running the country and the normal people, the students, the young people, the new generation, so we are all together in the sense that we can see that science is very important for the development of our country.

So, we cannot say we’ll go into trade or we’ll go into something that other people are doing well without science. We cannot do that. I think I have some success, but it’s still a hard job, because it’s not very easy to convince people that there is a difference between science and imported technology. Many people say ‘Oh, we don’t need to do basic science. We’ll just import the technology, import the materials, and then we can fabricate. ’; little do they know that in order to do that and be competitive, you have to have the underlying science, you have to have the knowledge in order to know what to import, what kind of things or knowledge or products to import and how would you integrate it into products, and finally, how to make the whole products yourselves.

This all concerns science as the basic infrastructure, and then from science would come the technology, would come innovation, and then, what I call “development”. Of course, development can’t come from just science alone, but it needs things like economic, business, design, and so on. It’s a bigger world, but science has a big role in it, and then if we do things correctly, we’ll have sustainable development, and not just fleeting development, nor just like a flash in the pan and then it’s gone.

I think Thailand is like a teenager growing up, so right now it’s a time of confusion. Sometimes you want to go back to the olds way, sometimes you want new things, and economically, we are right in the middle between developing country and developed country. Like with a teenager growing up, there will be a lot of turbulence, but in the end, but since we have survived and thrived for so long, I’m very confident that we will have a great society, but we are struggling to have one right now.

Nerina: What were you like as a teenager? Did you have a dream?

Yongyuth: I had many dreams. I still have dreams. I had a dream that I would become a very good musician. One day a friend said ‘Hey, let’s go and practice violin’, so I went with two of my friends for one year, but it was too late, I was at the last year of my school. I did learn something to play, when no one was home and no one was hearing, but that really is a dream unfulfilled.

I also have dream of literature and drama that I would like to follow very much. Here my dream is a bit fulfilled, because I found a wife that’s a dramatist, so she kind of fulfills one part of my life. She’s form the art side, I’m from the science side, so we can live together, with some conflicts now and then, of course, but everyone has that.

I still have dreams. Maybe if I could start life all over again, what profession would I choose, what dreams would I follow? In the end, I sort of fell on science again; probably another type of science and just chemistry and molecular biology, because I know a lot of it already. Maybe some other type of science, or maybe economics. Probably economics.

Nerina: And why economics?

Yongyuth: Because it tells you about the human conditions, it tells you about human wants and how do we go about to satisfy those wants, and how do we live with other people, because there is always limited resources; how do you share those resources, and how do you develop those resources? So, economics is an interesting subject. I refused to study it in my childhood because my uncle was such a big economist and I thought ‘Oh, I will never match him’, so I didn’t do this. There was even a scholarship for me; my uncle said I could sit at the scholarship exam, but I didn’t. I chose science.

Nerina: Is there somebody who inspired or inspires you in a special way?

Yongyuth: Well, I was just saying my uncle. My uncle was the longest serving governor of the Bank of Thailand, Dr. Puey Ungpakorn, and he really was responsible for the change of politics, as well, because he was the one who took up the call of democracy during a dictatorship and so on. I talked about him in the introduction to my book, and said he was a leading light for me.

Other heroes for me are Professor Paul Boyer, who was my mentor in University of California Los Angeles. He really started off my research career, and of course, my mother. My father died when I was very young, and my mother had very little education, and yet she brought up four kids – in fact five; she adopted one more. Five kids, with very little education, nut she was reading all the time. She was reading her books, and she managed to bring up five kids going to very good schools, just by being a tailor; she was so famous because she made such good dresses for very good prices.

So these are my heroes; my mother, my uncle, my teacher. Another teacher was Professor *23:14, foreign name, couldn’t find it*, who induced me into the world of science when I was just going on to University. I was a medical student, and he told me ‘You’re not suited for medicine, you’re more suited for science’, and I believed him.

Nerina: Sometimes we take the right path because of a teacher, but what is life about, in your opinion?

Yongyuth: I ask myself all the time. Sometimes it seems meaningless, you know? Although in Buddhism life is about going on from one to the next, to the next, to the next, until you reach Nirvana, the end of life as we now it. But for me, although I am a Buddhist nominally, I think my own life will just disappear, just like when I dream.

When I start to dream, it’s like a life starting. But when I wake up, the dream is gone, so that life is gone. So I think that when I die, my dream is over; it will disappear, I guess. Maybe it’s a pessimistic way of looking at things, but if there’s a good thing, it is that for the people who are still dreaming, part of what I did will be a legacy for them to go on later. But I will be finished.

Nerina: And where does your great passion come from?

Yongyuth: I often talk about passion. I think we need, it really enriches your life. It’s like a motor that drives you; you cannot go on without some kind of passion. I don’t know where the passion came from, but I think it’s something that is both inside you and also given to you from the outside.

I have been fortunate, perhaps by going to good schools and having a good family, so that really maintains my fire and my passion. I liked reading so much when I was young, so that gave me the fuel to go on with various things.

I’m passionate about science in general, not just chemistry. I’m passionate about it because it’s something that allows to go into all sorts of areas without fear; science gives you confidence to explore everything, and just science, but everything at all. That is the main source of my passion; it’s really the science that drives me. But as I said at the beginning, not just science, because this is just one area of human activity, and if you concentrate only in science, you can achieve something, but you will not be able to see the bigger world, and that’s a pity.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Yongyuth: Thank you.

Nerina: And thank you for listening, thank you for watching and thank you for sharing. Keep wondering, and see you next time again. Bye and ciao!


Professor Dr. Yongyuth Yuthavong is a former Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Science and Technology, Thailand and an outstanding Thai scientist with a particular interest in the broad issues of public policies, especially those concerning the application of science and technology for development – as well as human development in general.

Dr. Yongyuth spent a long career at Mahidol University, conducting research and teaching. He was appointed Professor of Biochemistry in 1983 and was honored with the “Outstanding Scientist of Thailand” Award in 1984, from the Foundation for the Promotion of Science and Technology. During the same period, he was chosen as the Director of the National Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) from 1985 until 1989.

Dr. Yongyuth became the first President of Thailand’s National Science & Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) from 1992 until 1998 and in 2004, he received the Nikkei Asia Prize for Science, Technology and Innovation from the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan, for his outstanding work on antimalarial drug targets, as well as the prestigious “Person of the Year” Award from Thailand’s National Identity Board. Dr. Yongyuth served as the Minister of Science and Technology from 2006 to 2008, when The Nation newspaper named him one of “the 35 most influential Thais over the past 35 years”. Dr. Yongyuth has since returned to his research career with BIOTEC, where he now heads a research group working on the development of new antimalarials.

Clarissa Rios Rojas

Clarissa Rios Rojas
Molecular biologist, policymaking advisor

Scientist who after finishing her bachelor in Biology in Peru (UNMSM) decided to look for new avenues of professional development. She did exchange studies in Finland at the University of Turku, got her master in Biomedicine at Karolinska Institutet University in Sweden, worked in a pharmaceutical company in Germany and later got a PhD in Molecular Biology in Australia at the University of Queensland.

While finishing the PhD, she started to feel the urge to contribute to the world with something else than only her scientific work at the laboratory. This feeling pushed her to create an organization called Ekpa’palek that empowers Latin-American young professionals through different free mentorship programs that align with the Sustainable Development Goals of reduction of inequalities, gender equality and education.

Encouraged by the impact these programs had on young professionals, she discovered the need for creating new local, regional, and international policies that could help to tackle global issues. Motivated by this, she applied and was selected to participate in numerous events (international conferences, forums, and workshops) in science policy, citizen engagement in policy relevant to science & innovation, science diplomacy, open science & education, science outreach and global governance in different countries (Argentina, Jordan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, India, Chile, Germany, Thailand and Morocco).

In 2017, she worked at the Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) from the Ministry of Environment in Peru and since May 2018, she works at the EU Science Hub, also known as the Joint Research Center from the European Commission’s science and knowledge service where she provides scientific advice and support to EU policy. Also, as a member of the Global Young Academy, she works on initiatives related to science outreach, women empowerment and science advise.

Empowering Latinos and filling the gap between science and society

What is the social purpose of science today? How are ethics and research linked in the modern world? What are the policies that keep scientific and social paths going in the same direction? Clarissa Rios answers these questions from her position as a molecular Biologist and policy maker at the European Commission, deriving from her experience in both the social and scientific aspects of research the core values of the purpose of science in favor of the smaller communities.

Founder of Ekpa’palek, an organization destined to offer academic help to Latin American students who want to broaden their horizons and stock up on the experience and advice from other professionals before entering their own fields, Clarissa expands on the need for science to hold a truly useful track of investment to help indigenous communities and developing countries through scientific research and the encouragement of young professionals to assist in these projects. The values of growth and development through inclusion and action make Ekpa’palek a unique vision for the young professionals who will contribute to wholesome communities, richer societies and a brighter future.

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Nerina: Thank you, Clarissa, for joining me. Could you please introduce yourself?

Clarissa Rios: I am Clarissa Ríos Rojas, form Peru. I am a molecular biologist, and now I’m working in the interface of science and policy making, the European Commission in Italy and also, I’m the founder and director of Ekpa’palek, which is an organization that empowers Latin-American professionals.

Nerina: Could you tell us a little bit more about your position and your work right now?

Clarissa Rios: My project right now at the European Commission is to write recommendations for citizen engagement initiatives in the topic of social and ethical aspects of emerging technology, in this case, genomics and gene editing, and so on. So, for what I have found on my research so far, is that technology goes faster than policies, and sometimes it’s really hard to keep track of everything that is happening, and to implement the laws and the policies that need to be implemented in order to regulate science, as well.

So science, as we now, is research and innovation, but sometimes it goes to the next steps and becomes a start-up or a company that offers services that can be used for different reasons and by different types of people. I have seen right now that there are, for example, genetic testing companies offering a lot of ancestry testing and health testing, so it would be good to know who’s regulating these companies; are really experts the ones who are providing the information about your genes? What happens with your DNA once it is stored in their company? Is it in store forever or is it sold to another company? Can they trace it was your DNA?

These are things that are happening right now, and people don’t really know much about it. For example, genomics is also working at the interface with blockchain, so now we are having cryptocurrecy that is based on selling your DNA data, so what does that represent for business and society? Again, we have those ethical questions, but does it really help big companies to have more genetic data to have a better analysis of which diseases can come from different types of genes? There are many things that have to be evaluated, but it’s important to citizens to know what is happening, where it’s happening, and what is going to happen in their society if they accept it, or if they are consumers or become users of it.

Nerina: Why did you decide to take this new challenge?

Clarissa: I think that the in the European Commission, the Joined Research Center is the best place to learn about how scientists can contribute to society in terms of policy making, so I thought that this would be the best place to work and learn and contribute to, and I hope that this will be one of the first steps into a career and to a lot of work; I hope to use science-based evidence to create policies and help policy makers to better understand not only the citizens, but also the science behind every decision.

Nerina: Why is this relevant?

Clarissa: I think that the biggest problem that I see right now is that scientists are doing science just because; just because of curiosity and I now that’s a main drive that many of us had to become scientists, but I think we need to build places or spaces where we as scientists can speak with citizens. We can understand what are their needs, because I have seen during my time as a scientist that there are many projects that really don’t have any implications in solving anything at the moment; it’s just knowledge that is being generated with the hope that in the future is going to be used.

We can relocate not only the money, but the human capital, the PhD students that are being put into these projects, into something that society really needs. I think that we should have a priority table and see what the problems to see how we can fix the first hundred, instead of having fifty thousand projects and giving money to all of them and keep going.

I think that basic research is important, but I also think that basic research should be always tailored into fixing something, or producing some kind of technology. Without that, I think trust in science will never be achievable because citizens see this, citizens see their taxes are being used in projects that may never be published, that cannot be replicated, or that are not helping anything in their communities and local problems, and that just one side.

I also see that there is a problem with citizens not learning or trying to have some curiosity about science. I think they could interact more with scientists, see what they are doing, visit open days at universities, see where taxes are being used and have an opinion about it and learn from scientists, what they are producing, how they’re doing and use this scientific knowledge in order to make better decisions on the government they’re going to choose, about the political party they are going to vote for, what is this political party focusing on. Is it correct? Is it based on science, which is the most trustful thing that se have at the moment? Of course, it has its pitfalls, but it’s the best thing that we can work with.

The citizens should also think on how to improve science. If they don’t have faith in science, then tell us how we can improve it, how can science and society and citizens work together in order to make science better , achievable for everyone, and open in a way that everyone can understand it, and use it for the best of society and the environment, because sometimes we are just super anthropocentric and thinking about humans, but we are responsible, whether we want it or not, for all the species that are around us, and the ecosystems and the habitats we have, so I think that we should take our citizens’ role a little bit more responsibly.

Nerina: What would you suggest?

Clarissa: I think that’s why I was mentioning before that we should have these spaces where scientists can talk to other scientists, for example, about social science, as I talk about the ethics. I know that during university we have courses on ethics – animal ethics and human ethics -, but I think that we should have also courses with politics in science. Have courses where we bring politicians and scientist to understand how we’re both working together and making things better.

Other courses could be about scientists and citizens, and scientists and society, and create debate between them, answering questions form both sides, and trying to think how we can work together, because as you said, the theory of science in great, but who is doing the science? Us humans, with our imperfections, with our sometimes poor equipment, and with the limited knowledge that we have. I think it’s very important for scientists and citizens to acknowledge that scientists are not perfect; they are humans and make mistakes, and also the equipment and machines that they use make mistakes from time to time, but then having that as a premise to figure what we can do based on that, and then is when all these interactions with all the different groups take place, and then all three groups together can think about how science can be better, how can it have less errors and less mistakes, and how to bring all the traditional knowledge into it, as well as the ethics and the social aspects.

Sometimes we think that the problem has to be fixed by only one expert. That, for example, climate change has to be fixed by an environmentalist or a biologist, when in reality, problems are fixed by everyone. By economists, lawyers, citizens, biologists; it has to be fixed by everyone, because otherwise we are not creating a solution, we are just fixing a little patch, not the whole picture.

Nerina: You just mentioned traditional knowledge, and this is something that very often comes up when speaking with you. Why this interest in aboriginal culture?

Clarissa: Yes, well, my dad is from the jungle. Of course, he is part of an aboriginal community, but I guess that was my first encounter with aboriginal tribes and with people who are part that whole society. Also, when I was working with one of the agencies in the Ministry of Environment in Peru, one part of my job was to try to understand the narratives and how to bring the projects that the government had for these communities, how to make them learn, and how to learn from them what were their needs and priorities, and I think that all these encounters made me realize that they are not heard enough, their voices are not shared enough, their needs and their priorities are not communicated, and sometimes, with friends, I’ve heard them say things like “No, they should evolve like us, like the city people”, and I’ve been hurt by those comments, because I feel like our opinions are too superficial always, not just in these topic, but in many. It’s just something that has not has been thought through, you have not had an encounter with them, so how come you have a conscious and educated opinion about that?

For example, Ekpa’palek is a way to promote indigenous languages. Ekpa’palek comes from the Shiwilu language, form the Amazon in Peru, and it means to teach a little kid to take his first steps. Trying to translate everything in our programs on indigenous communities is a way to make it more accessible.

Nerina: You are the founder of Ekpa’palek. Can you tell us more about this organization?

Clarissa: We are an organization of around 45 to 50 people, and what we do is to offer programs for free to any Latinamerican students that want it. One of them is the professional mentorship, so we connect the students with professionals that are a little bit advanced in their careers so they can guide them, they can talk, they can tell them how to gain certain scholarships, but also about what’s out there. If I am a psychologist, if I am an economist, I want to know what’s happening in Australia, what’s happening in China, so that person can get inside information, so students in Latinamerica can shape their minds thinking about what’s next, and they should be studying now, or working on, or doing an internship with.

The second program is women empowerment. The first year, we were bringing new women from all over to schools; we had five professional women bringing their stories, bringing their pitfalls, the experiences they had been through and how they got where they are now. That worked for one year and then we had to stop it, so now we are focusing more on campaigns on line; we are doing the same, showing new women role models but in a visual way. We have engineers, economists, from different parts of the world that are Latinamerican women, and then they send a three minute video telling how they are there and why they decided on that career.

The third program will be the empowerment of indigenous languages, so basically we want our programs to reach everyone. We have started translating the articles on our blog into Quechua, which is a language that is spoken in Peru and Bolivia, and it’s a official language in Peru as well. Also, we have tree videos in Quechua, as well; we had one of our mentors make theses videos, telling how he went from a little town in the highlands of Peru to do his Master in France, and to study in Lima, Peru, as well. We are trying to promote translating everything that we are producing into different languages, not only Quechua.

Nerina: What motivated you to start this organization?

Clarissa: Well, because when I started my professional path, I was a bachelor student that really wanted to learn and to go more from theory to practice, and that was something that was not happening in Peru in terms of molecular biology. I think my motivation was to learn more, and I could do it with scholarships and people helping me take the next steps, as you mentioned, and then after ten years of doing my master and my PhD I realized that I was not the only one, and that the case that I had ten years ago where I didn’t have money to pursue studies, I didn’t have connections to create opportunities in professional development were still existing in Latin America, and we were at a disadvantage with the rest of the world.

So I thought about what I could do with this tools that I had gathered over the years, and one of them was my network. So I think it was really personal, because it was not that I was trying to fix something that happens somewhere else to some other people, but I was trying to help someone like me at this moment, someone who didn’t have opportunities, didn’t have the network, didn’t have ideas, or someone from outside to talk to and just get inspired.

Nerina: How did you become what you are now?

Clarissa: I studied Biology and Genetics in Peru; I was very interested and curious about science. Then I went to Finland for exchange studies, and I did a Master in Biomedicine and Neuroscience, which I was also completely in love with, specifying different types of neurons in the brain, and then I decided to move to Australia to do my PhD in sex development; how the sperm cells and the egg cells develop.

When I was finishing my PhD was when I decided to create Ekpa’palek, this organization that empowers Latinamerican professionals. And then, looking at the results and the people that we were helping, I started to realize that a nes passion was growing inside myself, and then I decided to leave the lab where I was doing experiments and start to communicate with citizens and policy makers and start to find a way where I could use my scientific background and I could help society in a different way, and that way is creating better policies for everyone. Now it’s in the European Union, but later I hope it will be in Latinamerica and in Peru.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you have learned?

Clarissa: I started this project thinking that I would help many people, but I’m being helped as well. I’m learning so much, I’m meeting so many people, we are doing so many nice projects outside Ekpa’palek as well. This has also motivated me to change my career; as I said, I was working in the lab as a scientist, and the Ekpa’palek happened, and then I started to pursue new paths within myself that make me happy, so what I would recommend to anyone is that if you always think that there is a problem and you want to fix it, try to do it with one friend, and it may grow and it may not, but you have the satisfaction to learn from it.

Nerina: What is your vision for Ekpa’palek?

Clarissa: When I created Ekpa’palek, it was only for Latinamericans, but in my wild dreams we have Ekpa’palek Asia and Ekpa’palek Africa interacting with each other. But that is also based on the idea of the «brain drain» – I think that’s what they call it in English -, when professionals and all the talent goes from the south to the north and then never go back, or just a few of them. So I thought it would be very interesting to have a blog of developing countries in the south, exchanging professionals, exchanging knowledge, exchanging what we already know how to do best, and empower each other, because the south also need to keep growing, to keep learning, and it would be really good to create these alliances between universities, student associations, and governments, and think about what are the good things and benefits that can come from it.

Of course, going to the north and having the technology to learn is really good, but I think the next step on that path could be to start doing these collaborations.

Nerina: Is there something you believe we should think more about?

Clarissa: I would just like to point out that we are creating so much technology, and these technologies are mostly created in developed countries, and are mostly created to fix and find solutions for local problems, so that means that the problem that, for example, indigenous communities have will never be solved by the technology that we are creating now, and I think they would benefit so much from that.

Sometimes we are talking about gene editing and blockchain, and how does that benefit indigenous communities? They are people who also have struggles and many local problems that they would like to solve; how good would it be if used these technologies to find solutions for those problems as well? So that would be my contribution, to make people think about technology is being biased towards certain problems, certain “local” problems, and not really towards developing countries and indigenous communities.

Nerina: And what is the relation between science and traditional knowledge, in your opinion?

Clarissa: It has always been known about, this traditional knowledge. Sometimes it is treated with respect, and sometimes it’s treated like it’s not science. It’s very curious that you ask me this, because in my group, one of the projects is about mapping arctic communities, so they are mapping every community that is Finland, Norway, Iceland, U.S, Canada, and besides doing the mapping, they are gathering the information that they have in the terms of climate change. They’re voices about climate change and how that’s impacting them in the first place because they are close to the first places where the impact is being observed, and what they have to say about.

I think that nowadays it is taken more seriously, and I’m glad to see that the European Commission, for example, is also taking them seriously and writing reports about it, having their voices heard and their opinions shared with policy makers and with people in the European Union.

I’ve seen this happening in Europe, but I have not seen it in Latinamerica. However, when I was working at the agency of the Ministry of Environment, I could see that the interaction between the experts, the biologists, the chemists was really open when they were informing them about what was happening, I think the efforts are becoming more and more important, and in order to listen from them as well, not just coming and giving a lecture about what is going to happen and what they need to know, but also empowering them in teaching them how to use equipment to measure pollution, how to analyze data so they can have their own data analyzed. Also, I heard that in Bolivia, if you want to be part of the government, you have to speak one of the indigenous languages, and I think that’s important, because, for example, for these types of jobs you can speak in Spanish and then you have a translator, but how would it be if you could speak to them in Quechua, in Aymara, and hear them, so they also feel more comfortable in sharing their ideas in their own language.

I think languages are a very powerful thing. I am going to learn more about different types of languages because I think that is the way to really go into a deeper connection with someone, especially if you’re working in this field, and understand what they want to see in their environment, what they want to contribute to the government, for example, in terms of analyzing the data, letting them know when they see a case of contamination, on the river, on the cause, etc.

Nerina: Do you have a wish or a dream?

Clarissa: Yes. I really dream sometimes that there is a society that is respectful of everyone, but more than anything, they have empathy. Everyone in this society has empathy that makes them really feel how the other person would feel in every situation, not only in how we interact as friends, but in different geographical parts. How these people may feel in different social classes; how these people must feel, what can I do to help this person. I think empathy should be the key factor in this society that I envision.

I think the society that I dream of in one where there is the feeling of connection and belonging with every single part of this habitat; not only humans, but plants, insects, birds, the rivers – I mean, the water we drink comes from the river -, so I think that connection is missing sometimes. We don’t feel like we belong or that we are part of something bigger that needs us to take care of it and to contribute to keep it going in a healthy way, so I think if that could be spread into all citizens and make them feel responsible for each other, for other species, for the soil, for the river, for the climate, it would be my second wish. That feeling of belonging and connection.

Nerina: What was the most beautiful day, and what was the mist awful one?

Clarissa: I think the most beautiful day for me is just being with my family having lunch together. It is something that I haven’t had for many years as a daily thing. I did a little bit when I finished my PhD; I could go back and leave again for six months back in Peru with my family, so I think my most warm and beautiful feeling is to have just that: my mom, my dad, my brother, now my partner as well. Laughing, talking about what happened during the day, maybe complaining about something that happened at university or at our jobs, just sharing and being together in a peaceful, quiet place.

Maybe the most horrible moment has been when sometimes I feel that I’m in a place where there is just too much horror, too much darkness, that all the good things really don’t compensate for the bad things, and that it’s not a nice world. Sometimes I feel like this world is the hell of someone else, or is the imagination of how hell should be, because I see so many awful things, so much suffering, even though I’m not experiencing it myself. I’m not a someone that has been a sex slave, or someone that has been raped, or someone who wakes up with bombs ten meters from them, but I still feel like it could be me, I feel people don’t deserve to grow in an environment like that; they didn’t ask to be born in this world.

I think those have been the hardest moments in my life; just to be overwhelmed by sorrow, by sadness, and to think that there is really nothing that we can do to change it, I’ve had those times as well. I think activists are always in that twilight, where you think that everything can get better if you do something, but you’re also on the other side where you think that everything is horrible and terrible and too much to take in.

Nerina: And what brings you up?

Clarissa: What brings me up is to see people doing amazing things. Because I’m doing Ekpa’palek, for example, I’m in touch with different organizations and meet people that are always doing something, and I see them and I think that there is hope.

There are a lot of amazing people doing things for animals, for the environment, for other humans, and I thin, Yes, things can change. At some point.

Nerina: What is life about, Clarissa?

Clarissa: I think life is about learning, experiencing all the feelings; sadness is part of and part of what we are as humans. I think we should be grateful that we can experience it, although it’s not a nice thing, but sometimes good things come out of it. Sometimes, not always.

It’s about meeting other people; trying to be, as Maya Angelou said, a rainbow in someone else’s cloud, and just to try and make other people happy, because sometimes you’re sad and the other can make you happy. Sometime the other person is sad and you can make them happy.

It’s just about trying to enjoy what we have. Talking as a biologist, we have theses fabulous senses of touch, smelling, seeing. It’s enjoying theses things that we can give ourselves. About learning more about what’s happening in all parts of the world, to see documentaries about the life of animals and how they interact; it’s absolutely beautiful.

I think those are pleasures that even if you cannot travel, you can see it and sort of experience it from afar, and I those are the things that bring me happiness and joy, besides being with my family and friends, and also things like reading books and entering the mind of someone else that you never met but they wrote a book and let you go inside their minds for a little bit and have a taste of it. Like music; humans make music and it’s beautiful, so I think that if we focus on those things, that is what life is, or what life should be.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Clarissa, for this conversation.

Clarissa: Thank you, Nerina.

Nerina: And thank you for listening, thank you for watching and thank you for sharing. Keep wondering and see you next time again. Goodbye and ciao.


Scientist who after finishing her bachelor in Biology in Peru (UNMSM) decided to look for new avenues of professional development. She did exchange studies in Finland at the University of Turku, got her master in Biomedicine at Karolinska Institutet University in Sweden, worked in a pharmaceutical company in Germany and later got a PhD in Molecular Biology in Australia at the University of Queensland.

While finishing the PhD, she started to feel the urge to contribute to the world with something else than only her scientific work at the laboratory. This feeling pushed her to create an organization called Ekpa’palek that empowers Latin-American young professionals through different free mentorship programs that align with the Sustainable Development Goals of reduction of inequalities, gender equality and education.

Encouraged by the impact these programs had on young professionals, she discovered the need for creating new local, regional, and international policies that could help to tackle global issues. Motivated by this, she applied and was selected to participate in numerous events (international conferences, forums, and workshops) in science policy, citizen engagement in policy relevant to science & innovation, science diplomacy, open science & education, science outreach and global governance in different countries (Argentina, Jordan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Canada, India, Chile, Germany, Thailand and Morocco).

In 2017, she worked at the Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA) from the Ministry of Environment in Peru and since May 2018, she works at the EU Science Hub, also known as the Joint Research Center from the European Commission’s science and knowledge service where she provides scientific advice and support to EU policy. Also, as a member of the Global Young Academy, she works on initiatives related to science outreach, women empowerment and science advise.

Youssef Travali

Youssef Travali
Next Einstein Forum Vice-President

Dr. Youssef Travaly (PhD, MBA) is the Next Einstein Forum Vice-President of Science Innovation & Institutional Partnerships. Youssef holds an MBA together with a PhD in Materials Science. He has extensive experience in a variety of sectors including semiconductor and biomedical research, low carbon circular economy and climate change.

Science, innovation, partnerships and the future of Africa

“We are here to celebrate science. The transformative power of science in Africa.” So began this year’s Next Einstein Forum, held in Rwanda at the end of March. This is the largest scientific gathering to ever take place in Africa, and its aim is to link African researchers around the world, and build the beginnings of a knowledge-economy which will transform the entire continent, and nurture its scientific talent.

Dr Youssef Travaly, the Vice President of Science, Innovation, and Partnerships for the Forum, holds a PhD, and has studied in Belgium, the US, and Senegal. Now based in Rwanda, he is an integral part of building this new community of inspiring African scientists.

Dr Travaly spoke to Traces.Dreams about the intricacies of the Next Einstein Forum, and what they are trying to achieve.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Youssef Travali's Video here

Nerina: At the end of March, the African scientific community met in Kigali, Rwanda, for the Next Einstein Forum Global Gathering 2018. Here are some impressions:

Global Gathering Intro:
Listen carefully, and you will hear the voice of an ancient land; sometimes it whispers, sometimes it sings. Its thousand hills tell stories of triumph and dignity. Listen carefully, and you will hear its heart beating—alive with possibility.

Mr. Thierry Zomahoun: We are here to celebrate science—the transformative power of science in Africa. We are here today to celebrate the contributions of Africa to global science. And we are here to celebrate the achievement of some of Africa’s brightest minds, and scientific minds.

Prof. Neil Turok: This is the largest scientific gathering ever held in Africa. The next Einstein must embody both the humanity and wisdom of Mandela—possibly the greatest leader of the 20th century—as well as Einstein.

H.E. Paul Kagame: The gender gap in science is a global phenomenon, but that is no reason to accept it as inevitable. Opportunity will never be equal without equal access to knowledge.

Ms. Temie Giwa-Tubosun: 1 in 22 pregnant women in Africa will die by the time they give birth to their child, so Life Bank is trying to solve that.

Dr. Justus Masa:
It is better to be forward-looking than looking backwards.

Prof. Dr. Klaus Von Klitzing: If you have the freedom to ask questions—this is very important for a scientist—you have the freedom to follow a new direction.

Dr. Tom Kariuki: We want a leader to have ethical behaviour.

Dr. Connie Nshemereirwe: A collaborative leadership is a much better model, so I would like to think that the next generation of leaders are going to appreciate this.

Dr. Genya Dana: When we think about ‘precision medicine’, we often think about it as a developed country kind of approach, and look at: ‘How do you think about precision medicine in low resource environments?’ for example.

Dr. Anne Therese Ndog Jatta: One thing we have in sub-Saharan Africa: the sunlight, bringing nature closer to human beings.

Dr. Rocio A Diaz Chavez: Particularly important for the circular economy is the life-cycle assessment.

Dr. Vincent Biruta: Even if we have very good examples of circular economy in our businesses, in our industries, what we need to do is to be able to have an industrial symbiosis.

Mr. Hans Bolscer: I don’t think industry is against complicated regulations; they know how to handle that. Be fierce to industry, impose your standards, and make a renewable business case a profitable business case.

H.E. Paul Kagame: The future we want is as bright as we want it.

Youssef: We commit to adopt a Pan-African-wide framework for an innovation-led economy. We commit to integrate local culture and stakeholders to build, early on, scientific careers. We commit to integrating digital technologies into education and skills development, so as to accelerate the uptake of digital science on the continent. With that, I would like to thank you for your attention, and I’ll welcome you in 2020 in Nairobi.

Nerina: Thank you, Youssef, for joining me. Could you please introduce yourself?

Youssef: My name is Youssef Travaly; I grew up in Senegal. In ’86 I moved to Belgium where I studied Math, Physics, and Engineering, and in ’97 I got my PhD in Materials Science. And then I moved to the US where I spent two years as a postdoc at Rutgers University, New Jersey; I worked there in biotechnology and quantum mechanics. And then I moved back to Belgium where I spent about 11 years in the semiconductor industry—semiconductor research. And after that, I switched to research and cancer treatment; in that field, I spent about two years before moving to the sector of climate change, energy, and low-carbon circular economy. And then I got the opportunity to move to Rwanda where I currently work as Vice President, and Chief Scientific Officer for the Next Einstein Forum.

Nerina: What is the Next Einstein Forum?

Youssef: The Next Einstein Forum; you can explain that in so many different ways, and I will just take one angle if I look at myself as a researcher when I was abroad. I had the feeling that I was the only researcher—the only African researcher—in the semiconductor area, while there are many African researchers abroad. So, basically, we don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other, and, most importantly, the continent; they don’t know that they have such talented, scientific researchers abroad. So the Next Einstein Forum is a platform, it’s a platform which will basically identify all those top young African scientists; it will connect them, they will get to know each other, and they will get to be known by the continent.

And, for me, what I see as a long-term impact of the Next Einstein Forum is to build an African community of scientists. And this African community of scientists will be so powerful that they will be able to solve all the issues and the challenges that the continent is facing: whether it’s about climate change, whether it’s about health, whether it’s about agriculture, and so on, and so forth. And that, for me, is one of the most impactful outcomes of the Next Einstein Forum.

Nerina: What did it mean to you to go back to Africa?

Youssef: I think, for me, going back to Africa was really a dream. It’s something that I’ve always been looking for, but there was no opportunity; the type of study I was doing, it was difficult to find something here—while it was very easy to find a job, either in the US or in Europe. So then I just followed, let’s say, my path. And then I had this opportunity to come back, which for me was a great opportunity. And I truly believe that most of the African researchers that are evolving abroad, they all dream to come back, and they all dream to give back to the continent what they have learned, and what they have acquired while being abroad.

Nerina: You have been applying your knowledge in Math and Physics to enter different fields and follow your dreams, right?

Youssef: Yeah, I think that’s the beauty of Math and Physics when you do this type of study; you have a kind of general knowledge which enables you to do a bit of everything that you want to do, depending on what you like—depending on your ambition. And for me, I’ve always been driven by research for a purpose; like low-carbon circular economy which enabled the transition to clean energy, cancer treatments, and all these types of technology—and that’s the beauty of Physics and Math. And it’s basically what we want to bring here, to the continent, to make sure that if we train people in Math and Physics, we are sure that we are training the next generation of African leaders, if you want.

Nerina: How do you want to achieve it?

Youssef: The Next Einstein Forum approach is a Pan-African approach, and we try to build this Pan-African identity early on—that’s why we are focusing on youth. For instance, if you look at the work that the NEF Ambassadors are doing—they are science champions that we have in each African country—and basically, already now, we are trying to develop a sense of partnership and collaboration among them. For instance, now, at the time we’re speaking, in Congo, the African science week is starting, led by the NEF ambassador in Congo. And interestingly, we have about six Ambassadors from neighbouring countries that will be attending this event. Already, at this stage of their life, they start to have a collaborative approach across the continent. So if you see those Ambassadors in 10 years from now, if they are in the driving seat in their own countries, we already have a strong partnership across the continent, and this is how you build a true African identity.

Nerina: You are focusing on youth and women, aren’t you?

Youssef: What we are doing in the Next Einstein Forum, together with the AIMs (African Institute for Mathematical Sciences) and the whole equal system is we are really focusing on the education value chain. And when you look at the education value chain as I mentioned, one of the main aspects is a knowledge creation. So basically we need to make sure that we have a pipeline to knowledge creation; so we have enough scientists, young people going into scientific studies, to then build this reservoir of young African scientists. This means that, if you look at the proportion of women going into scientific studies, it’s not 50%. So basically you need to increase the share of women going into scientific studies because, in the end, you want to have enough human capital in your reservoir of knowledge creation. That’s why it’s important to increase the share of women; otherwise, you are basically working with half of your potential—that’s one of the main focuses.

Now, the way we are doing that in the Next Einstein Forum is we work with a KPI, so when we are choosing a NEF Fellow, we make sure that we have at least 40% of women represented as a NEF Fellow. So, this actually enabled us to identify the key challenges we need to address in order to make sure that we can achieve this target of 40%. When we identify all the challenges, then we can work on those challenges, then we can increase this KPI to 50% to make sure that, in the end, we systematically have 50% of female NEF Fellows and male NEF Fellows.

Nerina: What is the role of scientists for the future development of Africa, in your opinion?

Youssef: I think when you transition to a knowledge-led economy, what this clearly means is that you put innovation at the centre of your economic transformation. And putting innovation at the centre of your economic transformation means that you put the brain power, or the human capital, at the centre of the transformation of your economy. And that’s why it’s important to have a community of scientists which is there as a reservoir to generate ideas, to produce new concepts that can, later on, be implemented and serve the purpose of transforming African economies.

Nerina: During the gathering in Kigali, what were the most relevant topics?

Youssef: So the programme of the Global Gathering was built on a white paper—this white paper was entitled: Knowledge-Based Economy, The Foundation for a Pan-African-Led, Knowledge-based Economy. And this white paper was articulated around three pillars. The first one was regulatory; we need a regulative framework whether it’s about policy, whether it’s about science policy. That’s one of the pillars of the white paper. The second pillar of the white paper is human capital; we need to develop a scientific capacity for the continent in order to transition to a knowledge-based economy. And then the third pillar was about finance and partnerships; so if you want to implement knowledge, you need to make sure that you have the right funding in place—that you have the right partnership in place.

So the way the conference was organised was that we had a Presidential Panel. The Presidential Panel was meant to discuss the regulatory framework and the human capital development—so what actions the African nations, altogether, can take in order to enable those recommendations. The third pillar was about partnership and funding, and then we had a very interesting session entitled: ‘Playing catch-up’ (so how to go from lab to market). And the idea is to integrate all the recommendations of those three pillars in order for the continent to implement knowledge.

Beyond that, we had a number of discussions but always articulated around this policy paper. We looked at the future of health, we looked at the energy transition, climate change, food security, and then we also discussed the digital economy. Those are the three main thematics that we discussed, and in all those three thematics, what we mainly discussed is; what are the technologies that we should adopt, what are the policy recommendations that we should put in place, what are the partnerships, and what type of funding we need in order to enable the continent to prosper in all three of those sectors. And if you look at what we did all together, we basically explored about 10 different industrial sectors, and for all the industrial sectors we tried to come up with concrete recommendations that we could implement over the years to come.

Nerina: Knowledge-led economy is the key message for the future, but what are the challenges that you have to cope with?

Youssef: I think that the main challenge that I see is that, when we showcase all those top young African scientists they become valuable assets. And actually, what will happen, to some extent, if we don’t develop a research infrastructure on the continent to be able to leverage on those talents, what will happen is that, actually, they will be hired by Europe, by Asia, and by the US. So it’s important, now that we have a strong community of scientists emerging, that we create a framework condition for those scientists to come back and to work on the continent. That, I think, is probably the main challenge that I see; the only way forward is that we need to build research centres—world-class research centres on the continent.

Nerina: Is this happening?

Youssef: Not yet. It’s not yet happening, and this is something we really need to focus on in the years to come. Otherwise, I think all the effort that we are putting into the Next Einstein Forum will be in danger.

Nerina: Health was also one of the main topics, what are the challenges here?

Youssef: Okay, that’s really critical, and there are many challenges. I think the first one I see, because I worked in the cancer treatment area, using beam physics, is the infrastructure; the ICT infrastructure, the stability of electrical infrastructure—this is very important.

The other aspect is about the IT. So, in the health system, you have to integrate different IT systems. You need to make sure that this integration is possible. So, basically, someone who is going to take an X-ray in one city, then you go to the doctor in another city, and at the time of the treatment, the doctor should be able to access all the relevant information for the patient. So, there are so many challenges that need to be addressed in the health system. That’s one aspect which we need to work on.

The other aspect I think we are pushing for a lot is what we call ‘precision health’—so, how to implement precision health approaches in Africa. And this is not something we should wait to implement because implementing such approaches will reduce the cost when we are treating patients, so this is something we should do as of now.

Nerina: You had a session about inter-generational conversation, what was this about?

YOUSSEF: The reason why we focus on youth is we need to leverage on the dividends, demographic dividends, which are in favour of the continent—that’s one aspect.

The intergenerational conversation is a bit like, how do you transmit some part of your knowledge or your experience to the generation to come? And this is why we put the session together, where you have the Nobel laureates inspiring the next generation of African scientists. So, it’s important to understand what the path is that someone has taken in order to become a Nobel laureate—what that meant for this Nobel laureate. I think it’s important to transfer that knowledge to the next generation because this is something that is missing now. Everything is happening on social media, and so on, but this type of human transmission of knowledge is actually something that is lacking.

Nerina: How is digital technology changing the continent?

Youssef: There are a lot of benefits to the technology on the continent. But my worry and my fear is that with all the buzz that’s around those digital technologies, we are sometimes missing what I call low-hanging fruits. And low-hanging fruit is like sustainable development. Today, for instance, on the continent, to deploy smart cities, we just look at the digital technology to deploy smart cities. But smart cities are also about waste treatment, they’re about smart mobility, they’re about the way we build houses in a very sustainable way, the way we integrate renewable energy when we build houses. And all those opportunities, for me, they are missed opportunities because we are focusing too much on the digital waves. So we need to balance the buzz around the digital technology to make sure that we focus on low-hanging fruits.

Nerina: There are many different pathways to a better future. How important is it, in your opinion, to try, not only to imitate, for example, Europe or America, but to find ways to alternative futures?

YOUSSEF: We can take this example; each country should have its own definition of smart cities. Some countries, they took ‘smart’ as deploying digital technology—and this is what they call smart maybe in Barcelona, or some EU countries. But if I take the example of a country, say Rwanda, for instance, where you have a lot of hills maybe the way you should adopt mobility there is to use hybrid cars. Or, you take a country like Senegal, where you do a lot of, let’s say, construction; you need to make sure that in every house you build, there is the right energy mix, so it’s sustainable in terms of electricity, so that every house that you build is neutral in terms of energy consumption. So this is what I would call smart development. If you take the example of Guinea, maybe you should focus on cleantech for the city of Conakry, so that you really focus on waste treatment, and on waste product technology. What is important is that when we adopt a technology, we need to make sure that the technology we adopt is something that is relevant for the continent, and that we will not necessarily adopt what everybody’s doing. That’s my input on that.

Nerina: If you had all the money, and all the power, what would you like to change tomorrow, or next week?

Youssef: We need really state-of-the-art research centres, for me that’s key. The second thing that we need is, really, an innovation fund, but something that enables us to really implement knowledge. If you take the bio-based industry, you need something like $3 US billion to implement this industry across the continent; this is something that would benefit the continent right away. And there are so many technologies like this—that are ready to be implemented—and for which we just need to have the right innovation funds in place to deploy the technology because I think, in terms of skills, we have the right skills to implement this technology—we need the funding, the partnership, and the leadership.

Nerina: Africans go abroad to study, Africa can learn a lot from other continents, but what can other continents learn from Africa, in your opinion?

Youssef: I think, when I came back to Africa, there was something that I was really impressed by; it’s how dynamic the young African population is. So when you organise a conference, you see the level of attendance, you see the number of questions, you see how they innovate grassroots innovation, the amount of innovation that’s happening on the continent; and this is something that you don’t find anywhere now. Taking the example of Belgium, where I worked, if you organise a conference there, the level of attendance is low, the number of questions that you get is very low; there is not that much curiosity. We organised, once, a public lecture with one of our Fellows at 9 o’clock in the evening in Kigali, and I thought that the room would have been empty, and it was almost full, and at 10 o’clock, young people were still asking questions. So there is such an eagerness to learn new things—something you cannot find anywhere else—and this is something that is unique to Africa.

Nerina: Was there something that surprised you during the gathering?

YOUSSEF: Something that really surprised me was the potential that we have, it’s amazing. And I think we need to go beyond that potential now; for me, that’s the main challenge. We have such a huge potential at all levels; you have the Fellows (this is one case), but then you have the NEF Ambassadors. When you see those NEF Ambassadors, one per country—and today we have two promotions of Ambassadors, so we have 108 Ambassadors—they are so dynamic, they are such entrepreneurs. So this is something that is, for me, an untapped potential that we have and we should really leverage on it.

Nerina: And what is your dream?

Youssef: I think my dream, really, is the energy independence of the continent. I think we need to achieve that because when we have energy independence, there are so many things we can do—and that, for me, is really key.

Nerina: And the most beautiful moment at the gathering?

Youssef: I think for me, I liked the closing ceremony, and I really liked when all those Ambassadors came on stage with the flag of their country. That was, for me, a very strong symbol of unity, of Pan-Africanism, and I think it was a strong message that we were really putting forward. For me, I was really impressed by the very last minutes of this Global Gathering.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Youssef, for this conversation.

Youssef: You’re welcome.

Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening, and feel free to reach out to me if you have any suggestions.

Keep wondering, and see you again next time. Bye, and ciao.


Dr. Youssef Travaly (PhD, MBA) is the Next Einstein Forum Vice-President of Science Innovation & Institutional Partnerships. Youssef holds an MBA together with a PhD in Materials Science. He has extensive experience in a variety of sectors including semiconductor and biomedical research, low carbon circular economy and climate change.

Paul Shrivastava

Paul Shrivastava
Chief Sustainability Officer

The Pennsylvania State University. Director at the Sustainability Institute. Professor in Management and Organization, Smeal College of Business.

Sustainable management – sustainable life

How do we create a more sustainable world? Why should we care? And what parts do management practices have to play, in helping us to create a more stable equilibrium between the human and the natural worlds?

These are some of the questions that Dr Paul Shrivastava, an academic entrepreneur and the Chief Sustainability Officer at Penn State University, is seeking to answer with his research.

Paul advocates for a transdisciplinary approach to the world’s problems, in which we don’t just take an in-depth view of one particular subject, but instead integrate and synthesise our collective understandings, and work holistically to create meaningful change.

Watch our interview to discover the ways in which a new style of management can help lead us closer to an open, creative, and imaginative new world.

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Nerina: Hi Paul, nice to have you here. Would you please introduce yourself?

Paul: Hello, I am Paul Shrivastava. I am the Chief Sustainability Officer of Penn State University, before that I was the Executive Director of Future Earth.

Nerina: Why are you so passionate about sustainability?

Paul: So I’m passionate about sustainability for both some intellectual reasons and for some very personal, practical reasons. So let me talk about the practical reasons first. I have two children they are both grown-up, I have other friends and relatives and neighbors and communities that I am going to leave behind when I’m gone and I would like to be able to say that my life contributed in some positive way to longing the sustainability of the earth. I think a lot of the things that we’re doing in our lives are wrongheaded, they are going in the wrong direction. So I see the need for people who can make some corrective action and I see my work towards that.

On the intellectual side I think you have come to a point in human history where the relationship of humans to nature is in the process of reversal. So for a million years we lived with natural cycles of working in a natural way and defining the world and we humans were sort of part of those natural cycles. Whether it was the water cycle or the carbon cycle or the nitrogen cycle or phosphate cycle nature had its own logic and we were part of that logic.

Since the 1950s there have been such a great expansion of human population and of the social impacts on earth that we are now disturbing the natural cycle, we have become the dominant force of nature and nature is getting broken in a lot of its ecosystems. So it is our intellectual responsibility, as academics it’s our professional responsibility to understand this reversal and try to create a better balance between humans and nature. So I feel my work is trying to understand nature and human relationships in a broad canvas, in a global scale, on a planetary scale and try to develop solutions that will make us more sustainable.

Nerina: You have also worked a lot on management and leadership. What in your opinion is sustainable management?

Paul: So yes, I’ve been a Professor of management in business schools and in schools of arts and science and I see management as a generic function of society. You and I do a lot of management in our own lives: we manage our children, we manage our kitchen, we manage our transportation, we manage our social life etc.

In the world today corporations are the major engine for producing wealth but they are also a major engine for destroying the natural systems. So management is the function in my view it’s not about maximizing profits, it’s not only about creating wealth, it is about managing human-nature relationships in a balanced way so that we can create a system of producing well-being for all of humanity and be able to do it in the long time frame not just for our lifetime. Certainly, not only for this quarter or this year that many corporations focus on but for the next generation and multiple generations afterwards.

So this kind of a planetary management of all the resources of the planet to serve the interests of 10 billion people that will be on earth by 2050 that’s the management that I want to advocate, I want to study and I want to teach.

Nerina: What do we need to implement this?

Paul: So there are a number of things that managers need: they need certain competencies, they need a certain kind of awareness and they need a certain set of values. So in terms of competencies we in the last 50 years have found out a lot of things about how corporations and their activities impact everything around them from the physical landscape and nature to communities and social landscapes. So that’s one set of competencies that managers need to develop. They could be in the form of developing mechanical technological efficiencies, energy conservation and resource conservation, etc. or they could be in the form of ecological efficiencies so that they can do more things with natural products and conserve natural resources or they can be in the form of social efficiencies so that we create communities and society that are more ecologically sensible and economically viable. So that’s at the level of competencies.

Those competencies are based on awareness. So managers need to be aware of the basic principles of how ecosystems operate. They cannot just be economists, they cannot just be technologists, and they need to understand how economy and technology are embedded in the larger natural systems and what technology and economic systems do to the natural system. That relationship and the awareness of it require them to read more broadly, to be multidisciplinary not just economists. So that’s the level of awareness.

Then at the level of values managers need to understand that money is not the only measure of performance, that finances and dollars is not what their own organization performance will be measured by, that we need to value other things in life. We have a world in which that a lot of people living without adequate food. There are 2 billion people who are living under two dollars a day and we need a kind of system in which the whole world can live a meaningful life, and that requires us to valorize and put more value on society, on culture, on arts, on equality and things like that. So they need some kind of reframing of their own values and this is not something that they have to come to it by themselves voluntarily, they have to understand the need for this kind of a broad prosperity and well-being for all and by all I don’t mean just people who might be poor in poor countries. I also mean the natural ecosystems and animals and plants and creating a world in which there is a kind of balance between humans and nature.

Nerina: You often use the word passion when talking about management. How are they related?

Paul: Part about this field of management with relatively a young field of study it originated in the 1920s or so with the idea of technological efficiency and rationality at the heart of it. The factories were being built and they wanted to make it very productive. So the whole field of management studies has focused mostly on sort of scientific rationality, bringing scientific rationality to the industrial workplace to me.

To me life is much broader than just rationality. Being a full human also means being an artist, being a family person, being a father, being a citizen and that’s not all captured within this narrow view of technological rationality. So I wanted to see what was the other side and the other side is emotion and science and rational thinking sort of separates itself from emotional side of things.

So to me, bringing the emotional and the passion into management is a way of expanding the function of management and I think it creates a more holistic way of managing and to the extent that sustainability is about managing holistically across the planet, across all human beings and all other species. I think this kind of an expanded view of management which includes passion and emotion into it is a very helpful thing. So I see this as the next generation of management studies which will allow a deeper emotional engagement and understanding of the phenomenon that we are interested in and helping shape that.

Nerina: What does your job as a Chief Sustainability Officer entail?

Paul: So in my current position my mandate is to incorporate sustainability into all the research programs and educational teaching programs and student life programs and employee programs off the 23 campuses of the University. So it’s like using sustainability as a spice to sprinkle it all around everything that the University does because my University as part of its strategic plan has stewarding of our natural resources as one of the three key pillars. So they have created this new position and my job is to add sustainability across the board.

Nerina: You advocate a lot for a more interdisciplinary approach to reach a more sustainable world: science, humanities and art working together. Could you tell me more about this?

Paul: Yes. So interdisciplinarity is a view that has been around for the last 50 years in an emerging science domain that has broken itself into literally more than 8000 different disciplines. So we have created these bubbles, these isolated conversations that go deep but they’re very small and very narrow. In the world that we are living in we have to think broadly and at a planetary scale, we have to look at the big picture. It’s also important to look at the individual silos and look deep but if everybody just looks deep and nobody is integrating and synthesizing and taking the big picture view then that doesn’t help us. It gets us to optimize at a sub or even sub subcomponent level while ignoring what is going on at the systemic level.

So the idea of interdisciplinarity and I don’t like the term interdisciplinarity I will talk about more about trans disciplinary in a second because that captures more my feelings of how this integration should take place. So it’s not just that biochemistry has to talk to neurochemistry, has to talk to physical chemistry, that is sort of within disciplines but we need to step out of the disciplines altogether because the real problems of the world are cannot be discovered at the bottom of the silo of disciplines.

The real problems with the world are happening in the world. So, we have to take the problem from outside of the disciplines and then bring the disciplines whichever ones are needed to address to solve the problem; that to me the meaning of transdisciplinarity. Where you pick the problem not from a disciplinary gap in knowledge but from the real world, you bring the right disciplines to interact with that problem, you engage stakeholders, communities, people who are affected by the problem to co-design and co-create knowledge that will solve the problem.

The real measure of how good your research is is how well you solve the problem. It’s not about how many papers you write. All the papers are important and you can write papers and books you can stop over there that is not the need of the hour. The need of the hour is solving real problems in real time because we have 20 to 30 years after which there are going to be some really catastrophic changes that are going to kill a lot of people. So, on the one hand we predict that there might be 10 billion people on earth but there are also scenarios that claim that if we don’t change now we might end up with 2 billion people. There will actually be a drastic reduction in population and if we want to avoid that we have this 20 or 30 year period in which we have to act and we have to create solutions.

So I say that yes you can write and think about it in academic silos but you also need to be able to make changes to the real problems. So bring your research to policy makers, bring your research to activists and the public, to the society at large. We want to create these interfaces between science and society, between science and policymaking.

Nerina: What is to biggest problem or challenge we are facing?

Paul: So there are many big challenges. I think the biggest challenge is sort of a self-imposed constraint on imagination. We are because in some ways creatures of habit, we are accustomed to doing things a certain way and we feel that the artificial barriers that are imposed by institutions or by society or by culture that we have to live within them. We need to find internal personal courage to break out of those barriers and do things that we are passionate about that I think is going to lead to solutions that are different, than are more creative, more imaginative and will actually produce solutions.

So the word is structured in a certain way, but God or no other creature told us to do it this way. We collectively decided we are going to be in the University, we are going to teach courses, we are going to do it this way but that’s not the only way to do it. So we have to be really imaginative and creative and find our own pathway into solving the problems that we perceive in our communities, on the ground, in society broadly rather than limit ourselves to the definitions that are handed down to us either by bosses or rules or disciplines.

So I’m not advocating anarchy here. I’m advocating an open, creative, imaginative engagement with the world to solve problems that are very real now and these problems are going to affect… they are already affecting our lives, but they’re definitely going to completely change the lives of our children and our grandchildren.

Nerina: If you change one thing tomorrow and money would not play a role and time wouldn’t matter what would you like to change?

Paul: So I wouldn’t say money plays no role, of course money plays a role and time plays a role, but I have great faith in human ingenuity, I have great faith in the human spirit. I think people need to look at themselves and their mode of living and engaging life and they need to find ways of enlivening. Everything they do, every ordinary thing they do has to be enlivened and made more than it is and it is possible to do this, it is possible to do it in your dining room, it is possible for us to do it in this interview. We can animate ourselves, we can jump up and down, we can create more life right now and we can do it everywhere that we exist. So we need to rethink of how we are going to live so that life is expanded in relationship to others, in relationship to nature, in relationship to our family, to our neighbors, and to our community.

Nerina: Who are the people who influenced you the most?

Paul: Yeah. So we are all sort of an accumulation of our many, many years and I am on the wrong side of 60s now so I’ve had a long time to form myself, and sometimes I even forget what part of me was formed as a child. But I did grow up in household led by a woman, a very strong woman my mother and I think I grasped a lot of things out of the way she ran the family. She was a working person, she was a gynecologist, a doctor in a small town in India which didn’t have any other female doctors, so by the time she retired she was almost like an icon and a big influence on the values that I took away, on the practical need to care. Because she was a doctor and caring for patients this idea of care, the value of care was deeply ingrained. It also gave me the value for education and knowledge because she was trained in the sciences and for her it was very important that her children and anybody that she could influence in the family go to school and college and do all the things that science has to provide.

So I think that the fundamental shaping as a child had happened but I think I also learned equally after reaching my own age of reason and becoming a person on my own and again I have to say a big influence on this has been my wife of 37 years. We have kind of grown together with the mutual understanding and she has shaped a lot of things and I always rely on her. She’s like my “strategic advisor” on times when there are challenges and especially around question of values and meaning. What is that is meaningful to do in life you know.

So I take a lot of guidance from her and then the third big influence is actually my children. So I hear from them. They sometimes ridicule me, they sometimes flatter me, they sometimes make fun of me and sometimes they’re loving to me and I kind of see in them a life that I haven’t passed over, but I’m seeing them and it becomes a form of renewal for me. So I always look forward to meeting them and learning what’s going on in their life, what is important to them, what is not important to them and I’m always surprised that they are thinking so differently from when I was 25 or 28 years old what I was aspiring to. So they have kind of opened up the windows to the next generations for me. So those are the main influencers on my life and they all come from very close and within my family.

And of course then I learned from the books and I like to read a lot and try to gain information from conversations with people and the community around me.

Nerina: What keeps you going?

Paul: I think I’m an optimist at heart. I think that the place that we are now is a place of turmoil and change both at the global society and also in terms of local issues. I feel that there are better answers that can be found and I am eager to be part of that imaginative, creative space and with that we can find better answers.

I’m dissatisfied with the way things are in the world and the way things are in my own community and in my country, which currently is the United States. They are deep sources of dissatisfaction and I think that is a better place and I think that there are solutions. So I’m very eager to contribute those solutions and improve those things that keep me going.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Paul: So what do I dream of? This is a really good question. I think we all live our dreams and we all knowingly or unknowingly interpret dreams on a day-to-day basis. The life that I dream off is one of balance; balance between competing forces. I have experienced life in the form of competition and conflicts and I have always strived for finding the common ground and finding the place where we can bring some equilibrium to the competing forces that evolve us into the next phase.

So my dream for life is that we as a whole global planetary society will be able to achieve balance. A balance amongst us as human beings so we don’t fight with each other, bring peace. A balance with nature with whom we are on a war and we are destroying nature and nature can come and destroy us. It does so regularly in the form of floods and storms and so on. So finding a way of balancing with nature and finding a way of balancing within our communities in our local spaces so that we can create well-being and prosperity in the long run.

Nerina: What makes you happy?

Paul: My wife and I have been dancing Argentine tango for last 15 years and we see that as an embodiment of the passion we have for each other, but the passion we have for the community in which we dance because Argentine tango is a social community dance. You dance with everybody in the community, you become part of the community and you learn together and you become friends and so it embodies many parts of this connectivity. Everything from the body – dancing in between two bodies, the human body and the floor and the environment, the music, the people and the whole sense of community. So to me it’s a very good physical manifestation of the passion that I have for life in general.

Nerina: Difficult question but what is life about?

Paul: What is life about? Yeah, that is sort of a deep question. So to me life is about… It’s a kind of relational thing. It is about everything and it is about the quality of the relationship to everything. So to me life is manifested in ordinary, everyday events and activities and we can make that life bigger by being mindful, by being meaningful, by adding ourselves our enthusiasm, our spirit and connecting it to others, connecting it to nature. So expanding that connectivity expands life.

So instead of thinking about what his life I think about what will enliven. So I try to make it into an activity that will actually expand life rather than thinking about it as a static thing. I like to think about it as a dynamic moving thing that I can engage with and increase so that I can have this conversation with you and if this can be an enlivened conversation it will leave us both at a higher level of understanding and also well-being and joy. So creating the joy and well-being and expansion of life I’m calling that enlivenment is what life is all about.

Nerina: Thank you Paul for this conversation.

Paul: Thank you very much.

Nerina: And thank you for watching, thank you for listening and feel free to reach out to me if you have any comments. Keep wondering and see you next time again. Bye and ciao.


The Pennsylvania State University. Director at the Sustainability Institute. Professor in Management and Organization, Smeal College of Business.

Willa Huston

Willa Huston
Molecular microbiologist

Senior lecturer, School of Life Sciences. Associate Member, ithree – Institute of Infection, Immunity and Innovation, University of Technology, Sidney

What do you know about Chlamydia?

So, you think you know about Chlamydia? There is a lot of stigma surrounding Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and the secrecy around the subject often prevents people from getting tested and seeking help. But how much do we actually know about Chlamydia? And how can better education, more research, and a more equal society help us to tackle the infection?

Willa Hutson, a Senior Lecturer and Research Group Leader at the University of Technology in Sydney, spoke to Traces.Dreams about her research on Chlamydia and its link to female infertility. As a researcher, Willa is preoccupied with discovering why some women become infertile while others don’t, as well as engaging with the reasons why more people in marginalised communities are affected by the infection, and the ways in which outreach work and equality can help prevent the spread.

For her, removing the stigma around STIs is a vital part of helping patients to seek and access treatment, which is why she focuses on both the scientific and social avenues that will help prevent infection. Watch the video to find out more, and join in the conversation.

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Willa: Hi, I am Willa Huston. I am a Senior Lecturer and Research Group Leader at the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia.

Nerina: What is your research focus?

Willa: My research is looking at chlamydia and other infectious diseases and how they lead to infertility in women. So we’re really interested in trying to understand what happens in those women that develop infertility and what we could be better to either prevents or treat the chlamydia at that time so they don’t go on to progress to developing infertility. So we look at treatment and better diagnosis.

Nerina: What is actually chlamydia?

Willa: Chlamydia is a unique, little bacterium. So it’s a microscopic organism and we all know about microbes now, they’re everywhere around us and we hear about them being part of our body. Chlamydia is a bit more special because chlamydia actually lives inside our own cells. So it’s a bacteria but it’s like a virus in that it takes over our own cells, and the only place that the chlamydia that infects human lives is in humans.

Nerina: If I look up what Wikipedia says for example, chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia and most people while infected have no symptoms. The infection can spread to the upper genital tract in women causing pelvic inflammatory disease which may result in future infertility or ectopic pregnancy.

Willa: This is our subculture facility here at UTS. This is where we grow chlamydia and it’s a fully contained room and we use human cells. Here is an incubator and I will show you some cells in flasks where we work on our chlamydia subculture experiments. In here you can see a whole lot of flasks growing chlamydia. At the moment the lab is pretty busy working on some new molecules that might be good new antibiotics against chlamydia and we’re working on some new models of human disease including some patient samples that we’re working on from women with different symptoms of the disease. So it’s an exciting time here in Australia for chlamydia research.

Nerina: Not everyone who is infected react in the same way and gets complications. Why?

Willa: It’s really interesting. So it’s transmitted sexually throughout the population. So lots of people know about it as a sexually transmitted infection and in fact our research is trying to understand how it is that in some women there’s very severe pathology that leads to infertility develops and so we look at those women. We look at the organism in lab models and we think that what happens is a combination of what’s happening in the woman’s body at the time she gets the infection and what are the stages of her cycle and the other organisms there. All of that comes together so that in some unlucky women they go on to develop infertility but that’s about as much as we know at the moment.

Unfortunately, we need to know a lot more. But one of the things we’re trying to do is understand the form of the organism during that infertility development and try to develop better drug treatments to treat that form. And so that’s a high priority for us; it’s treatment early to prevent the infertility developing.

Nerina: How many women are affected by infertility?

Willa: That it’s very hard to pin a number on it. Some studies say as high as 20%. I don’t think it’s that high but it’s certainly the more infections there is severe increase in risk. I think the risk is about every about 1 to 5% of infections will develop infertility at least in one tube. But given that… So for example in Australia there is about 80,000 infections, slightly over half of those are in women and if you think even if it’s only 1% annually that still a significant numbers each year of women who will have tubal infertility that they will not know about.

Nerina: How about men?

Willa: There’s lots of evidence that they also get infertility or at least reduced fertility from the infections, no doubt. We think similar scarring occurs up in the fine tubes in the male reproductive tract and they are pretty good transmitters. So they are often asymptomatic, they’re less likely to seek treatment and testing and they’re very good at transmitting the infection because they often have a good infectious burden. So then because of the nature of sex I guess they’re good transmitters. So they have a big role to play A, they can be compromised in their own infertility but B as key people in the networks that we need to kind of get in for testing and treatment who are not as engaged in the healthcare it’s very important that we look at men.

Nerina: What do we know about chlamydia and what do we not know about it?

Willa: So we know that it’s an ancient organism. There is evidence of trachoma the eye infecting version in hieroglyphics, so from ancient Egypt but we even know from genome sequencing analysis that it’s a very ancient organism. So it’s been around as long as we have. So we know therefore that it’s a very clever at living inside us. It’s almost evolved with us in some ways, and so we do know that is really clever and that it’s a really well adapted to live inside our cells.

What we don’t know is why that goes wrong in some women. So logically if you only live in humans you don’t want to stop them having sex and transmitting on the organism and so one hypothesis is that it actually is advantageous for some proportion of women to be infertile or lower fertility with chlamydia because then than they might have more sex in an evolutionary history and the organism could be transmitted. As long as it’s not causing very many symptoms which often it doesn’t cause many symptoms then the women are not prevented from having sexual contacts but they’re prevented from having babies. So they are more likely to have more sex.

So maybe it’s just evolved this feature to increase its spread in the population, but we actually don’t know if that’s what’s happening or it’s something about the women themselves, their particular type of immune response, perhaps their genetic makeup. Maybe those of the factors that they’ve got the unlucky lottery that when they get the chlamydia infection, they’re the ones that are going to develop the infertility. So that’s one of the unknowns that is a big priority. Is that kind of personalized or precision medicine and chlamydia is it really about that.

Nerina: Are there differences between countries in their infection rates?

Willa: Absolutely, it’s a very high burden in the Pacific Rim. So very poor countries like Samoa have very high burden of chlamydia, mostly because there’s very little health intervention and very little treatment and testing. In most developed or well-to-do countries like in Europe or Australia or the US the baseline prevalence, so the average number people who might have it in reproductively aged individuals is about 4 to 6%. But even in those countries marginalized people or people who have low socioeconomic conditions have a much high percent. So it’s a disease of marginalized populations.

For example, in Australia you may be aware that we have the first people, indigenous people of Australia. They are very marginalized and they very socioeconomically disadvantaged, and in young people – young indigenous people chlamydia can be as high as 24%. So that’s really, really high and so we really worry about the burden of infertility and other sequelae from chlamydia like ectopic pregnancy in those young indigenous people.

It’s worth mentioning that the other form of chlamydia that infects our eyes and can lead to blindness. There’s about 5 million people worldwide who are blind from Chlamydia trachoma and a gain to our national shame. The indigenous people of Australia are one of the few peoples in a developed country where we still have trachoma.

Nerina: How are the chlamydia infections of the eyes and of the genitals related?

Willa: They are very related. So they’re quite similar, there are just a few subtle differences between the eye and the genital infecting chlamydia. In Australia in fact, it may be that those eye infecting strains may have come from genital strains that came in with Caucasian people, when Caucasian people came to the Australia continent just over 200 years ago.

Nerina: And chlamydia does not affect only humans but also animals with severe consequences, right?

Willa: This is a really… it’s an important topic for animals worldwide but it’s a very dear topic to Australians because our national icon, the koala is suffering severely from chlamydia. The chlamydia that infects the koala is called Chlamydia pecorum, it’s a different species from the chlamydia that infects humans but the disease presents almost identically. So they get ocular infections all around the eye that can lead to blindness, very severe blindness. They get your urinal genital infections in their urinary and genital tracts, which can lead to incontinence, which we call wet bottom and it’s really debilitating. They’re in a lot of pain, their whole bottom rump is covered in sort of wee basically that isn’t evacuating properly and that’s from scarring. That also scars all through their reproductive tract.

That scarring in their eyes and in their reproductive tract looks exactly like what happens in humans. So it’s a different chlamydia but present in the animals in the same way and it’s a really sad story. In the koala it’s very hard to treat because we can’t give them oral antibiotics very often for koalas. Most the time we can’t because they have a special complex gut composition that they really need because they eat gum leaves.

So part of our research is actually translated from a human into the koala because we need to find new ways to treat chlamydia in the koala. At the moment it’s one of the major threats to the koala. Habitat loss is the major threat undoubtedly and that’s a real problem, but as soon as we do more habitat loss and the koala populations get more stressed the disease increases. So it’s a disease like our marginalized people, chlamydia in the koalas is associated with stresses and then we already put them under stress from removing more trees or whatever we do and then the chlamydia presents and then they lose fertility. So the koalas are a threatened species right now so it’s not on the extinction list but it is severely threatened and vulnerable in some states and threatened in others. So yeah.

Nerina: But chlamydia in men and women is treatable, correct?

Willa: So in humans we can treat chlamydia and it’s very simple. It’s a simple antibiotic regimen and it’s mostly effective if the people would stick to the antibiotics and take them. The problem is that because it’s often a quiet infection, so it’s often asymptomatic people might not seek treatment and so the problem is that they often don’t get this treatment and then the symptoms develop or the infertility develops, sometimes without them being aware.

So treatment is easy, testing is easy. We can do a PCR from a urine sample or swab. But it’s getting the right people into the clinic and getting them tested and treated in time is the problem.

Nerina: What new information have you learned during your research?

Willa: I knew very little when I started just over about 10 to 12 years ago now. I thought chlamydia was fascinating in a very abstract way and I’ve always loved microbes but chlamydia was kind of interesting. Now I guess I’ve learnt that even though it’s on face value a very simple microbe compared to most of the other microbes it’s an amazingly versatile and niche adapted organism that we really only just beginning to understand.

I think that it’s much more versatile and adaptive than we thought and I think that we are also starting to understand that perhaps it lives in more spots than just the urogenital tract. Perhaps it lives in the gastrointestinal tract. Perhaps it survives longer than we think after treatment. There’s a lot of things that we used to think were simple but they’re not and I think that’s the most exciting thing. Life is always more complex than we think it is.

Nerina: What do you think we need the most: better prevention, treatment or information?

Willa: I love the list that you outlined. So the challenges for the chlamydia field are almost all three of those. Prevention is critical. Most STIs are best controlled with prevention and the best prevention would be a vaccine. Chlamydia is very hard to make a vaccine against but I have no doubt that will happen eventually. Treatment is absolutely a critical aspect of chlamydia control and I think we could do that better, and that’s part of our research is improving the options for treatment. But information really matters. There’s a real stigma around STIs. In lots of populations there’s a real stigma around infertility that might be because you had an STI years ago.

So I think changing our culture around acceptability of sexually transmitted infection but just sexual behavior in general and just more acceptability, more ease of communication. So that it is not so much of a stigma for those women who are infertile and worried that maybe that’s why and they can’t even talk about that, talk about it. So I think all three yeah: prevention, treatment but also change that stigma and open the conversation. Maybe more people will get tested and treated as well.

Nerina: How difficult is it to speak about STI, sexually-transmitted infections?

Willa: There’s been lots of work in many countries around for women, for example, when they come in for the cervical screening to try and get a routine sexual health workup without a stigma. Just you’re already here let’s do that but that’s often in every two years and now that will decrease with the change in cervical screening to PCR.

There’ve been lots of conversations around try to target risk groups to have a broader conversation around healthy sexual behavior and acceptability. But most GPs find it really challenging to have that conversation or they’re just too busy. So there’s lots of activities around the clinic nurse perhaps around targeted screening and outreach in jails, high schools, nightclubs to try and reach the most vulnerable people and screen them more regularly so lots of go to them.

There was a study done by researchers in Australia about postal pee and post. Where they used a special material to dry the pee so they could post it and do a PCR test and then post them the antibiotics later. So there are lots of, lots of research being done in acceptability of seeking, testing and treatment, but I think we’ve got a long way to go.

Having said that, when we talked to our university students about our research and we ran a free sexual health clinic with the doctors, not with our researchers in the campus. The doctors say that lots of young people on university campuses will openly say I’m here for my sexual health checkup. So maybe we’re getting there with some populations.

Nerina: Why did you decide to research this topic? Is it personal?

Willa: I’m really passionate about women’s health. I think that women’s health and particularly the kind of you know that the “vagina” and the reproductive tract are neglected. I think we need to pay them some more attention. You know I think people feel uncomfortable about honest conversations about sex and about reproductive health particularly for women and therefore we do not know as much and I think we need to change that and we need to change the conversations and our comfort levels around talking about our vaginas, our cervix and our own health. It’s deeply important to us at some point to many of us, not to all of us but at some point many of us will deeply care that we would get to reproduce or that we get to be involved in parenthood and so fertility it’s a really personal issue.

It really matters to me that that our research can actually make a difference to individuals that something is so fundamental to many people that is really confronting when they find out they’re not, they’re infertile or they need fertility treatment. We spend a lot of our lives trying to control the pregnancy and plan for pregnancy and prevent pregnancy until we’re ready and then it’s really shocking to some women to find out that they’re not fertile or they’re going to need treatment to achieve their pregnancies and so it is personal.

Yeah, it’s personal. It’s something I am passionate about and I think as a mom and I also I had fertility treatment for my children. My cause of infertility is still not really clear and just as a woman I think that all of those things matter. For me research is something that I really need to care about, I do care about a lot and that’s why I do it.

Nerina: How important is it in your opinion, to have a conversation about women’s bodies?

Willa: I think it’s critically important that we start having open and frank conversations with men and women that we bleed every month, we have pain every month. Some women have very serious pain every month. We go through a normal biological process where our body changes throughout that month and that’s all normal and we quietly hide it. Why? You know it should be celebrated. Can you imagine if men had periods they would be driven through tampon vending machines, they would be at the bar. You could order your gin and tonic and your tampons.

So you know I just think it’s a symptom of patriarchal society that all of a sudden menstrual blood is icky and that we don’t talk about periods and we don’t admit that we are having a bad day because we’ve got period pain but it’s quite fine to say that we’re having a bad day because we have a headache. You know I think it’s really important and I think by keeping it sort of a secret thing that we can’t talk we’re giving some kind of message to our young women that that’s kind of wrong, but it’s not wrong, it’s biology, half the population goes through it. So for me it’s really yeah… I can go on about it for ages. I think it’s really important that we change the conversation and we’re enabling a better attitude to our health, but I think we’re also enabling a better attitude to women as functional, important members of society we just have a different biology.

Nerina: Equality between men and women should not mean that women should become like men, right?

Willa: Absolutely. If we think as a society we can achieve equality by “fixing” the women and making them more like men and fitting in the patriarchal constructs that we’ve made we’re not going to benefit from that. The women will be less happy than they already are and we’re not actually gaining the biological and the wonderful differences that we give and won’t be gained because they’ll be trying to hide them in pretending to be like men. So now I completely agree that yeah I think we just need to really push some pretty uncomfortable and hard barriers around women are different and it’s a really great and you know period blood it’s everywhere, we all have periods, it’s fine. It’s actually fine look at us we’re here. It’s not the scary thing that you think it might be.

Nerina: You’re interested also in equality in your team. Could you tell me more about this?

Willa: Absolutely. So in my work I’m very conscious of those – the gender differences. Equity and diversity in my sector has a long way to go, diversity as well as equity. So the classic white male or even the classic stereotypically math or computation science may be even an Asian male is viewed as being smarter or whatever it is. There are always horrible stereotypes.

So in our team we talk a lot about that, we talk a lot about the fact that our cohorts of participants need to include diverse participants, indigenous participants, people who identify in the LGBTIQ spectrum there needs need to be represented and in our team we’re always open about people who come who have different identities. Whether that’s with respect to their identity or they heritage – ethnic heritage and we’re lucky in fact, that we have a very diverse team of researchers and all those voices in the room creates an amazing, challenging atmosphere, but also it brings so much. It brings us all so much further forward.

We also have a lot of activities in my faculty around championing that diversity and so in my other role within my faculty I am chair of our Equity and Diversity Committee. So we’re constantly calling out for new behaviors and new activities and new ways to change our culture in our sector to support a broader inclusivity within a sector of these different groups and women, but not just women and not just white women it has to be in intersectional approach.

Nerina: You’re really passionate about outreach. Why does outreach matter?

Willa: So I think outreach is a way of giving back to the community. I’m in a position of privilege, I have a permanent university job, I get to do research, and I get to teach undergraduates and postgraduates. I outreach by going into high schools, I outreach by social media and communication. I contribute wherever I can to Internet forums or you know profiles on Internet things like these because I feel if… A, I think the broad exposure of research matters. The community needs to know what research dollars are being spent on in a way that they can understand it so that they see the value of research.

So that’s one reason for doing it, but one of my really main reasons for doing it is if you can’t see role models ahead of you doing things that you think are interesting then how do you know to go into that field. So I think for young women and girls going through high school if all they see in the media which largely they do is men with beards in lab coats then science doesn’t seem like they belong. And so if what if when not out there, pushing ourselves out there how do they know that they belong in science? And so for me that’s why outreach matters.

Nerina: Where do you see your research in 10 years?

Willa: I think I see my research becoming much more holistic and much more engaged with women and looking really at chlamydia and other infectious agents still in the reproductive space but really whole approach it and the whole package. Social factors, their immune response, their body, maybe their genetics and how all of those come into play in some women to have the consequences of infertility and how we can work with the whole woman better earlier to understand her risks and work with her to help prevent her risks of becoming infertile later or knowing that she’s at quite a risk and she can consider how to protect herself.

Nerina: Is there one thing that people should know more about chlamydia?

Willa: I guess the one thing which is that I want people to know is that it’s not their fault, even if they’re positive it’s not their fault. It’s okay, come back for more testing and treating. Don’t hideaway if you think you’re at risk. It’s not your fault. It’s okay to have an STI it’s just better if we can treat you more quickly and prevent it from spreading further but also maybe prevent the disease from getting worse for you.

Nerina: Is there a key message that you would like to tell your children?

Willa: Don’t forget who you are. There’s so much in society that tells you who you should be. Who you are and what your core values are just hang onto that and stick to those and do what you want to do that you feel is the best and the right thing for everyone around you but take who you are into that.

Nerina: Thank you so much Willa for this conversation.

Willa: Not a problem. Thank you. I hope that helped.

Nerina: And thank you for watching. See you next time, bye ciao.


Senior lecturer, School of Life Sciences. Associate Member, ithree – Institute of Infection, Immunity and Innovation, University of Technology, Sidney

Bart Kolodziejczyk

Bart Kolodziejczyk
Nanoscientist and Enterpreneur

Has advised the UN, NATO, OECD, and EU on science, technology, innovation, and policy and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35.

Do you know what nano-waste is?

Who is responsible for establishing whether a new nanomaterial or nanoparticle is dangerous? How do we dispose of and recycle these products safely? And how early in the production process should we ascertain whether or not these materials are toxic?

These are some of the questions that preoccupy researcher Bartlomiej Kolodziejczyk, a material scientist and technologist based in Melbourne, Australia, who’s at the cutting edge of policy making and research regarding nanotechnology.

His most high-profile focus is on how we should dispose of nanowaste, and on examining its long-term effects on biodiversity and human health, at a time when more and more consumer products are beginning to make use of nanoparticles and materials.

In recent years Bart has written several policy briefs for the UN and the G20 on these topics, but just what is nanotechnology, and how vital will it be in our future world? Watch our interview to discover the ways in which this new innovation is bringing with it even newer challenges; and learn about the people who are already trying to tackle them.

Watch the trailer:
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Read the transcript of Bart Kolodziejczyk's Video here

Bart: My name is Bart Kolodziejczyk. I am a material scientist/nanotechnologist and I’m based in Melbourne Australia.

Nerina: And I’m Nerina Finetto. I welcome you to our video podcast. Today we’re going to speak about nanotechnology and nano waste. How did you become a nanotechnologist Bart? 

Bart: I guess it was a long journey because my background is in mechanical engineering and mechatronics. So back in Poland where I am originally from I did that as my bachelors and then I continued for Masters. Then I did another Masters in Renewable Energy because I got interested in renewable energies. I want to explore this field; I wanted to develop new catalysts for solar cells, fuel cells, batteries, etc. Most of these materials are actually nanomaterials and that’s how I became a nanotechnologist. Nano scientists I guess.

Nerina: What is nanotechnology? 

Bart: Nanotechnology deals with very small objects. So nano objects which 10 to -9 of a meter. So they’re very small, you cannot see them with our bare eyes and because of that you need to use very sophisticated equipment. So you want to see a very small world but to do that you need to use large equipment. So it’s quite a paradox. Nanoparticles or nanomaterials behave very differently on such a small scale. So we can develop new functionalities in very old materials, materials that you use every day. They can basically behave very differently if you scale them down to nano level.

Another thing is that dealing with nanotechnology is basically scaling something down. So instead of using big bulk systems you can actually scale them down and achieve the same functions on a much smaller level. Because of that for example your microchips can be the same size but more powerful.

Nerina: The solutions and the opportunities nano technology presents seem too unlimited. But are there any downsides?

Bart: Basically doing research is nanotechnology at one point I realized that this is amazing. We develop all these new things, new solutions but there will be a problem in the future. How do we basically manage nano waste? So waste that originates from nanotechnology. Because nanotechnology and synthetic biology they can potentially change our lives, virtually many applications but we need to think about how we use it. We have to use it safely; we have to dispose it safely.

Nerina: Is this a new situation?

Bart: The story behind nanotechnology can be compared to the story behind computers. We developed computers. We’ve been talking about them for many, many years but it took some time until we actually got our PC. Similar story is with nanotechnology. We’ve been hearing about it for many, many years but that was at laboratory scale mostly. But recently we started seeing products that are based on nanotechnology or nanomaterials.

The tech industrial revolution which is also called e-revolution or electronic revolution brought many different electronic solutions: computers, solutions in telecommunication etc. but we over flooded by e-waste or electronic waste. It’s just too expensive and too complex to basically recycle it or reuse it. I mean we simply dispose it. Unfortunately even if we want to we cannot do the same with nanotechnology. So once nanotechnology product reaches the end of its lifetime we need to think how to dispose it safely and we need to think about it right now because later it might be too late.

Nerina: What makes nano waste so dangerous? Why is there no urgency in this? 

Bart: Many of these nanoparticles and nanomaterials are very chemically active, some of them are even toxic to the environment, ecosystems, biodiversity and human health and they are also invisible for the bare eye. So they can change entire ecosystems or affect our bodies and we won’t even realize why because we simply cannot see it.

So we basically need to think of solutions of how to safely dispose these products when they reach the end of their lifetime or better recycle them if possible. But to do that we need to basically reinforce some regulations and this has to be done using top down approaches. So basically governments need to step up and say, “Oh, we are basically developing this new technology, it is very promising but we need to regulate it. So how do we dispose safely these products? How do we recycle them?”

Nano waste will be growing rapidly with our use of nanotechnology. It is a very different issue to electronic waste or just general waste because you don’t know if it is there but it is there and it’s changing the environments because of the high chemical reactivity and many of them are highly toxic as well. So this our new challenge, completely new type of challenge that we have never come across.

Nerina: How are you involved in this topic? 

Bart: I started getting interested in this topic of nanowaste, management of nanowaste, disposal, safe disposal, recycling etc. and basically I started actively urging the governments and different international organizations trying to develop efficient ways of disposing nanowaste. So I’ve written several different policy briefs and policy papers and I try to basically introduce them to UN, OECD, and European Commission. Secondly I worked with G20. So basically I am a policy maker that acts form bottom up. So I just come up with these ideas and solution and then try to basically introduce my ideas to organizations that can make it happen.

Nerina: What kind of suggestions did you make in this policy papers? 

Bart: I have created a few different policy papers. So different policy papers discuss different issues on the same problem. In some I kind of established debate, in some I proposed specific solutions. So some of the things that I’m asking is who is responsible for establishing whether certain nanomaterial and new nanomaterial is dangerous or not, how toxic it is, how to dispose it safely. So will it be a researcher who develops this material for example in the lab or will it be a company that later on uses this material in commercial products? How early do we have to establish whether this material is toxic, etc.?

And also some of the things that I mentioned in policy papers is that there is a lot of funding to basically take nanotechnology further, to develop new nanomaterials, new applications for them but not much money is put into establishing whether they are safe, how chemically reactive they are etc. We need to establish that. How they basically react when we leave them in the environment? They can react differently to different environments. So for example different environmental conditions will cause different reactions in nanomaterials. If it’s dry environment, if it’s wet environment, how sunny it is etc. all these factors play a role in establishing how these materials can affect our health and ecosystems. So basically my policy papers are more of I try to push a debate and discuss all these issues rather than proposing specific solutions.

Nerina: Could you give me an example about how nanomaterials behave in a different way than normal materials? 

Bart: So when we basically scale one material to a nano level they behave very differently. They have different properties both mechanical, chemical etc. For example, when we speak of silver; we use silver in bulk to basically make different types of jewelry. But when we scale it down silver can become very chemically reactive. So silver nanoparticles are actually used as antimicrobial kind of treatment. So there are for example already socks in the market that have some kind of silver nanoparticle coating and because of that they don’t smell. So you wear them but they don’t smell because they kill all the microbes that produce this odor.

And for example there is one facility in China that produces silver nanoparticles but the safety standards are not that great in this facility and basically everything around this facility is kind of dead. It’s a bare land because silver nanoparticles killed all the microbes, microorganisms in the soil. Without them basically other plants and animals cannot function because these microbes produce some substances that are essential for other forms of life to exist. The entire area around the factory is basically bare land that’s because silver nanoparticles killed some microbes that are actually beneficial for the soil, soil microbes.

Nerina: As a consumer can I see if they’re some nanoparticles in the products that I’m using?

Bart: There is no specific kind of sticker that is put on them saying that nanotechnology inside or something like that. So you really need to be a chemist and read the description, ingredients to distinguish whether you’re dealing with products that contain nanomaterial’s, nanoparticles or not. So for example many people use toothpaste or sunscreen but they’re not aware that there are nanoparticles of Titanium Dioxide, Tio2.

Nerina: Are there any studies about the dangers to our health?

Bart: So for example, the recent studies several of them actually show that Titanium Dioxide can cause cancer or affect our nervous system but no one has banned it as yet. So there’s no governmental policy to ban Titanium Dioxide even though it’s widely used in toothpaste, in sunscreens, as an artificial sweetener for our food products etc. I have not heard so far that any government has basically stepped up and said, “Oh we should ban Titanium Dioxide.” We are using Titanium Dioxide broadly but we’ve never realized that there might be issues associated with that.

Nerina: What has to be done in your opinion? 

Bart: I guess one way is to raise awareness. It has to be a more kind of consolidated action because by myself I cannot do much. It has to be driven by more people and there are actually organizations that are already exploring these issues and trying to address it but the process is slightly slow. Maybe too slow than it should be but previously that was the case with asbestos. So we realized that it is highly toxic, it can cause lung cancer and basically one government after another followed and they banned it. So I guess at one point it will be a similar case with Titanium Dioxide. So basically raising awareness is one way.

The other way is to basically develop effective and efficient ways of disposing different nanomaterials and this has to be regulated with some sort of policies.

Nerina: What would you like the researchers to do, that policy makers do, that consumer do?

Bart: I guess whenever you develop new nanomaterial or new nanoparticle a part of your responsibility is also to at least some basic tests how these new nanomaterial’s can effect environment in different environmental conditions and what can be basically health issues associated with these new nanomaterials, just basic. That will give ideas to whoever wants to use it further to basically to do more in-depth tests. Policymakers to regulate the field, to work together with scientists to develop effective ways for disposing all these nanomaterials and consumers to be more aware and more educated. But again these awareness and education have to come from our scientists again.

Nerina: What will Bart do in the future? 

Bart: I kind of got intrigued by this science policy field, science advice and I now realize it’s very different to just doing scientific research. It is more interdisciplinary because you need to have knowledge in both law and regulations and also your specific field of research. So in that case it is nanotechnology and also synthetic biology because synthetic biology has similar problems to nanotechnology. So we kind of try to explore both.

That was a great journey, just another journey, very different one. But the output and what I’ve read from all these organizations that I worked with was very encouraging. So basically I got really into it, I really got into science policy field and science advice. I’m very interested in science law these days so that’s something I would like to continue in my free time. I do all these nanowaste and synthetic biology kind of activities in my free time. It became in a way my hobby, it’s a bit weird to say my hobby is science policy but I guess that’s what I do in my free time.

Nerina: What do you focus on right now in your research? 

Bart: Well I guess there are many opportunities that arise from research. You have this idea, you develop this idea, you come up with certain solutions. So it’s not only about doing research but doing applicable research that actually helps us to develop further as a community. So I guess that’s why at one point I decided to leave. I’m still kind of doing scientific research but its more hands on, more applicable.

I’m currently with a Singapore based company that manufactures state-of-the-art electrolyzers. Electrolyzer is like an electrochemical basically cell where you apply electricity. You have two electrodes and in our case we are into hydrogen production. So we put these electrodes into the water and we split water particles and on one electrode you get oxygen, on the other one you get hydrogen. So we’re trying to make a shift towards a hydrogen economy.

In our company there is also quite a bit of research, it’s very exciting, very noble. So yeah that’s what I do currently.

Nerina: I guess we have to have one more conversation about this project and the future of energy. Do you see yourself as a change maker? 

Bart: I guess I don’t want to think of myself as a change maker. I do make some change but I get there using very small steps, so step by step and eventually you will get there. So slowly but systematically I guess. In a way you bring change but it’s not like you don’t make a change over a day or over a period of a week but eventually you will make it.

Nerina: Who inspired or inspires you?

Bart: I guess my mom was one of them because she gave birth to me. She was always there when we were young to support us, she was very protective, and she kind of ignited this curiosity in us; I mean in me and my brothers. The second very important person in my life was I guess my PHD supervisor. I have massive respect to him, to my supervisor. He was really like a father to not only to me but also to other PHD students. But I guess right now the most important person is my fiancée Ranthini. We are getting married next year in Malaysia. It will be a Hindu wedding so there’s a lot for me to learn. All the different cultural rituals, all the wedding rituals are very different compared to my European culture, Christian culture. So that will be interesting.

Nerina: Good luck on all your projects and I wish you all the best with the wedding preparations. 

Bart: Thank you Nerina for having me and for your time.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation Bart. 

Bart: Bye.

Nerina: And thank you for watching.

#followup with Bart Kolodziejczyk | Synthetic biology and gene drives

Here a follow-up video with Bart Kolodziejczyk speaking about synthetic biology, gene drives and the need of regulations.

Watch the trailer:
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Has advised the UN, NATO, OECD, and EU on science, technology, innovation, and policy and was named one of MIT Technology Review’s Innovators Under 35.

Gordon McBean

Gordon McBean

Canadian climatologist who serves as chairman of the board of trustees of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. He is a professor at the University of Western Ontario and Chair for Policy in the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. Previously he was the Assistant Deputy Minister of Meteorological Service of Canada.

In addition to his involvement with the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, McBean is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences partnerships committee and since 2014 president of the International Council for Science (ICSU) (before 2014 member of the environment advisory committee). He also acts as a mentor for the Loran Scholars program.

In 1995, McBean gave a speech to the World Meteorological Organization on global warming.

In 2006, McBean, with Andrew Weaver and Ken Denman, authored an open letter, signed by 90 climate scientists, to Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling for an effective national climate change strategy.

The letter was a response to an earlier open letter to Harper from 60 scientists (19 Canadians) arguing against the Kyoto accord and questioning its scientific basis.

Science and scientists for a better world

Watch our video with a fascinating climatologist from Canada. Gordon McBean is professor emeritus, and since 2014 has been the president of the International Council for Science, chairman of the board of trustees of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Partnerships Committee, and he also acts as a mentor for the Loran Scholars’ programme.

We met him at the annual meeting of the Global Young Academy a couple of months ago. When he was a young boy, he saw a tiny moving spot in the sky. It was the first artificial object in space – the Sputnik – and it was this experience that made him curious about science and discoveries.

In this video, Professor Gordon McBean talks about climate change, collaboration among researchers, and of course, his ultimate dream.

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Read the transcript of Gordon McBean's Video here

Gordon: I’m Gordon McBean and I’m an Environmental Scientist from Canada and I work as President of the International Council for Science and Global Issues of Science and Society.

Nerina: What was the 10-year old Gordon like?

Gordon: When I was 10-years old I’m not sure I was thinking about things because it’s a long time ago I’d have to say. I will not admit how old I really am, but I think when I was 10-years old I was fascinated by issues of history and society and actually Geography of the idea of maps and being able to see things and I was very much encouraged by my parents. My father had always wanted to go to university but he never had the chance to. He grew up on a farm and it was his job to work on the farm, but he wanted his sons to go to university. So we had a family environment that encouraged us.

When I was 10 years old and not quite sure what I was thinking but actually only a few years after I was 10 years old – I think I would have been 13. I watched and looked to the skies. Standing on my front porch with my mom, dad, and my two brothers and we looked at the sky and there was a dot of light going through the sky, up there, way up there. It was Sputnik the first time any society had been able to put in space a satellite. A human instrument going up and around the world and it fascinated me. I will always remember that and rather incidentally the reason why Sputnik went up in 1957 I have discovered years later was because it was the International Council for Science organized the International Geophysical year and basically challenged the science community globally who can be the first one to put it there and the Russians won in a sense. But more importantly inspired a lot of people and I think as I said had a very positive influence on me as an example of how scientific groups working together. I didn’t know quite how it was done back then but they put it up there. That’s going around the world like the moon does. Not quite as far up but nonetheless and that I will always remember.

Nerina: How did you become a scientist?

Gordon: I was not quite sure when I was young what I really wanted to be. I studied history, science, and things but as I went to university the sciences, the physics and the chemistry and mathematics kind of intrigued me and I went into that area. Then evolved into studying and applying that information to issues like climate change, weather and that kind of thing. So my Science background evolved more through let’s say exploring different opportunities, possibilities, the way you could do things. So that’s why I became the scientist that I have become.

Nerina: You gave a speech about global warming in 1995, more than 20 years ago. What do you think has changed in the last 20 years?

Gordon: Global warming is an issue that actually from the science community really goes back many decades. In fact, the first paper written on it was written in 1824 by a French mathematician Fourier. But as a science issue that brought the government’s attention started really in the 1980s with the International Council for Science and other organizations convening groups of scientists to say, “Climate is already changing, we should become concerned about it.”

At that time I chaired the World Climate Research Programs International Scientific Committee. So I got involved in these things and help set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and these kinds of things. But in 1995, we put out the first statement in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that said, “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on the climate system.” The idea was to say that it’s there but we’re not totally sure of how and which way.

Over the years since then, more than 20 years now there has been an evolution. First of all of our climate system, it is getting warmer. 2014 was the warmest year on record at that time to ’15 beat it out, 2016 beat it out again. So we’ve had three successive warmest years on record from the time of humans measuring these things.

We also have seen a progression in the science to better understand how the physical, chemical, biological and other processes in the climate system are working in a way that we can actually say yes, that kind of change could not have just been happening by chance. It’s happening directly related to the amount of human-caused carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So the situation has changed dramatically over the last 20 years from a very likely but not it’s a firmly deduced decision to one that where we have to take action.

Nerina: How do you think we can manage it?

Gordon: The climate change situation I think is very, very serious and we need to first of all as scientists explain it better to societies and understand as I said at the presentation I actually made to the Canadian cabinet some years ago. When I was challenged, “Why would we do this?” And I said, “Do you have children and grandchildren? I do because it’s our children and grandchildren which will see the real negative impacts of climate change.”

So, first of all, we have to use the science; the very important and very stable solid base of science that we have to convince the public, convince the policymakers that the issue is something we need to address. By somewhat appealing to them in a more political way that scientists are used to doing and then work with the communities of engineers, the stakeholders, the municipalities, governments at all levels to find the ways of both reducing our emissions so that we don’t have runaway greenhouse gas warming by the end of the century.

But at the same time, we have to recognize that because of the way the climate system works we have to adapt to the fact that over the next 20, 30, 40 years we have already put in place a momentum that will cause the climate to change in ways we need to adapt to it. That means changing the way we build homes, roads, way we use water, worrying about flooding zones and things.

So there’s a number of societal things and that’s where we really also have to deal with the issues of international social issues. Justices as we call them in international and intergenerational equity and ethics that is what I call it. That it’s largely a problem created by the industrialized world. It’s now what we put in last year. It’s what we put in the last hundred years into the atmosphere. That means it’s not just because China did the biggest emissions last year they are the worst. There are not doing well but they are actually addressing the problem much more than certain people seem to think they are and I think we should build with these groups of people to find ways and helping people in developing countries who don’t have the resources, who don’t have the knowledge, the technologies, etc. to give them the assistance to help them adapt, change their ways so they don’t become 40 years from now the developed world of the last 20 years, but instead a different kind of society that is positive and beneficial for all.

Nerina: There are still scientists who deny that climate change is happening or that it is happening because of human impact. How important is the collaboration of the scientific community on this issue? 

Gordon: Yeah. The climate change issue because of its economic importance to certain sectors of our society is one for which there are reasons that certain scientists will speak out in and let’s say cast doubt on that the climate really is changing. I’ve become involved in this much more than I perhaps thought I would’ve decades ago and because I think it’s important. It’s essential that the scientific community work together to communicate the science information we know and occasionally have to be openly critical of certain scientists who claim to be climate scientists. Most of them, in reality, are not highly credential scientists but we have to work together as a community.

One of the things we need to do is learn how to better communicate. We need to learn how to say convey the messages in a way that people can understand it. There’s a rather ironic story. When I was a University of British Columbia Professor in the 80s and 90s I volunteered to a program called the Scientists in the Schools Program. I would go and sit on the floor with kids in grade four, five and six. Whichever the teacher wanted and discuss climate change or ozone depletion or whatever issue, but often climate change, and explain it in a way that they could understand it in their enthusiasm. But give them the kind of things that they could see and understand.

And then later when I became an assistant Deputy Minister I was briefing one of my ministers. And after I briefed the minister the other assistant deputy minister said, “Wow Gordon. How did you learn to brief ministers? You’re just new in the job.” I said, “Whatever you do don’t tell the minister that I did what I did when I taught to kids in grade four, five and six.” You learn to weigh, to explain things in a way that can be understood by… because very few ministers in any government have a science background.

Nerina: You’re are attending the Global Young Academy annual meeting. How important is your collaboration?

Gordon: Well, I think we need to understand as part of this process of learning how to communicate by interacting with scientists of let’s say different backgrounds, different disciplines, different geographies, racial, religion, other backgrounds. Because that’s really important to understand the dimensions of a global issue. In an organization like the Global Young Academy and the International Council for Science in an older general way are organizations that bring together the science community from across the globe that we can learn from each other. We can learn amazing amounts just being here for two or three days now and talking over breakfast and dinner with young scientists. I learned well gosh I didn’t know that.

So organizations like the Global Young Academy can develop that very positive interaction and learning process among younger scientists and they can also because they represent in a sense the next generation. They are part of that, children, grandchildren kind of you sense certainly children and in a way that hopefully will then convey that importance of addressing environmental issues: climate change but others, many others, many others it’s not just climate and also more importantly generally building our governmental policies based on the very best science and the very broad definition of that word. I define science to include psychology, sociology, cultural issues, linguistic issues, as well as maths, physics, and chemistry. Getting those kinds of issues brought together in a way that people in the political world and hopefully the general public overall. Because politicians listen to the public and in most countries, their main objective is to get re-elected and they will get re-elected if they fill they are addressing the issues that the public wants. So we need to work together and the young scientists of GYA, Global Young Academy are very important as part of that process of conveying the importance of these science issues. We have to emphasize the value of evidence-based policy for societies and the fact that there are often are solutions. We just have to find them, work together to implement them, develop them, enhance them as we go along and learn from things.

So I think the Global Young Academy can play a role in clearly helping with doing good science, developing young people to be motivated to do the kind of science we need. Not being motivated by the number of dollars they are going to make but motivated by the societal benefits of the outputs, the outcomes of their programs and research. But if we can then work together Global Young Academy, global old academician can work together in ways that can make a big difference for all.

Nerina: What is the most important lesson that you’ve learned from your research? 

Gordon: Well, I think first of all while I have been studying science for a long time and then I got involved in policy issues quite a while ago. So I’ve learned how to, how we need to as a scientific community work together with the policymakers in a way that doesn’t allow them to overwhelm us, but allows us to understand how they see issues. So we can get the support we need in order to undertake the very best science and we need to work in teams. Some people’s expertise is not in communications. Their expertise is in solving that physics problem and that’s not to be in any way negative, but we need to have them working with teams with those who have communication skills, certain kinds of outreach skills in a way that the team together can make a big difference.

Nerina: What motivates you? 

Gordon: I do have children and grandchildren as I’ve said and I think it’s so important that we as scientists, not just walk away and say, “Okay, I’ve had enough. I’m done for that issue.” I feel motivated and I get a large amount of personal satisfaction out of working with groups of people around the world. I find it very inspiring in a way to meet with people from different countries and learn about them and learn about how their society functions and realize that my background is different, not worse or better, just different. But between us we can bring those things together make us overall better and to me that’s a kind of reward for life.

Nerina: Do you have a dream? 

Nerina: When I look to the future, looking back I think all these things have happened and I look to the future and hope that there will be an evolution in a way that some of the right wing tendencies in society that have been happening recently are not replicated. That they become short-term aberrations, disturbances that happened but let’s look to the future and hope there is a more general sense of a global community working together that people understand that we actually prosper better when we work together than when we counter each other. That we should encourage the interplay or the interaction that working together with different disciplines and more importantly different genders, different groups of racial, religious whatever backgrounds that those shouldn’t be the factors. It should be a common good kind of approach and I’m hoping, I’m relatively optimistic that if we keep working together as the science community and join in with other groups who are also thinking the same way that collectively we can make a very positive difference.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Gordon.

Gordon: Thank you.


Canadian climatologist who serves as chairman of the board of trustees of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. He is a professor at the University of Western Ontario and Chair for Policy in the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction. Previously he was the Assistant Deputy Minister of Meteorological Service of Canada.

In addition to his involvement with the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, McBean is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences partnerships committee and since 2014 president of the International Council for Science (ICSU) (before 2014 member of the environment advisory committee). He also acts as a mentor for the Loran Scholars program.

In 1995, McBean gave a speech to the World Meteorological Organization on global warming.

In 2006, McBean, with Andrew Weaver and Ken Denman, authored an open letter, signed by 90 climate scientists, to Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling for an effective national climate change strategy.

The letter was a response to an earlier open letter to Harper from 60 scientists (19 Canadians) arguing against the Kyoto accord and questioning its scientific basis.

Lucia Mokrà

Lucia Mokrà
Dean for International Relations & Legislation

Junior Professor of European Law in the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Institute of European Studies and International Relations. Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University Bratislava.

A passion for human rights

We all heard the expression: “Human Rights”. In general human rights are fundamental freedoms common to all people, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. But what rights are we talking about? The right for freedom, or maybe the right to life? The definitions of what we call the “Human Rights” is changing. And it’s important to have the clear understanding of what Human Rights are and how to implement this understanding to new policies.

Lucia Mokrá (PhD) from the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences at Comenius University in Bratislava will share her views and ideas on this fascinating topic.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Lucia Mokrà's Video here

Lucia: Hello, my name is Lucia Mokrá, I’m from Comenius University in Bratislava in the faculty of social and economic sciences where I’ve been serving since 2014 as Dean. Originally I’m from the Institute of European Studies and International Relations where I’m teaching and doing research in the area of International and European law with a special focus on human rights protection.

Nerina: What are you passionate about?

Lucia: My passion is human rights; teaching and understanding it. It’s a living mechanism, we understand the concrete rights differently- for example, in 1950 the understanding of the right to life or family life is totally different to today’s understanding. When the UN Charter of Human Rights and the declaration was adopted we weren’t thinking about the rights of environmental protection or right to peace or development, so it means that I’m looking forward at how our world and societies will develop and how we can understand that the rights are there to be implemented and exercised for the benefit of all of us.

Nerina: Could you tell me more about your studies?

Lucia: My research is always connected with the human rights protection. Since 2004 when we became members of the European Union I’ve been dealing with the issues of EU citizenship and the European agenda in the area of human rights and the adoption of the EU charter on fundamental rights. Right now I’m dealing mainly with the protection of migrants rights or the humanitarian management of the European Union, so it means that I’ve moved from the institutional point of human rights protection to the protection of human rights in the EU foreign policy.

Nerina: How did you get into this topic?

Lucia: I was always interested in human rights, and since my Ph.D., I’ve been dealing with the protection of human rights.

Nerina: What was the result of your Ph.D.?

Lucia: At the beginning, it was mainly connected with the electoral rights and first-time voters; I learned that young people have a really great power to contribute to and influence decisions about the government for the following period of time. They also have the enthusiasm to ask many questions and require a lot of explanations before making decisions about their potential future. Of course, young people have to be educated about the principles which govern the current society, this means that education, public awareness, and information on human rights are really important for them, but also for the rest of society.

Nerina: What are you busy with at the moment?

Lucia: For the last 2 years I’ve been working with the rights of migrants and asylum seekers, I have worked with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association project connected with the Schengen border between Slovakia and Ukraine, and the implementation of the Schengen agreement. I worked on this and analysed the national legislation on human rights protection, as well as training the foreign policy officers on the necessity of always considering the principals of human rights protection in their field of work, which is really important not only for those people but for the following administrative procedures, their asylum proceeding and so on.

Nerina: What have you learned during the last 2 years?

Lucia: There were many examples and many cases the foreign policy officers dealt with on the Schengen border. The lesson learned was about the individual approach and the principal of the human rights protection that every case is individual, and how although we have guidelines and legal regulations we have to approximate it to the current situation. Of course, human dignity and protection of people didn’t finish by filing the asylum application; there are many connected issues like the behavior and conduct in refugee camps, the necessity to provide them legal advice, the protection, and education of minors while they are waiting for the decision of their asylum application. Of course from the other side, society should be aware of the position of the asylum seekers and should consider that they are not coming because they have voluntarily left their country but they are forced to move because their lives have been threatened.

Nerina: How do you find a balance between the claims of the people coming to the country and the people living in the country?

Lucia: It’s quite hard but there are two points of view; the first one is that every individual and every state that signed the UN Convention on refugees are obliged to provide the necessary help, so we have the responsibility of the human rights and dignity of those people who are looking for the protection. On the other side, because they are coming and they are probably coming temporarily it means that we always have to consider the human rights of the people who are permanently living in the territory – citizens or inhabitants of the country. When we are talking about human rights protection it’s always about looking for the balance between the rights of individuals and of the community, between the rights of migrants and rights of permanent residents. It means that it’s about how we think, how we are educated, and the promotion of human rights. It’s not only about protection of the human rights because those regulations can be enforced in practice, but it’s also about the promotion of the rights and understanding that people have to be aware of the situation in the migrants home country until it is settled.

Nerina: What is needed now, in your opinion?

Lucia: It depends, some of the countries have already implemented many policies and changes. Generally, there are several policies that have to be changed; the first one is, of course, that the migration policy should not only set the unified standard but the enforcement and implementation should also be efficient. It’s connected with another policy which is education – we are missing experts that have enough experience in the area of migration policy, psychologists who can help people who have had to leave their homes, and medical staff able to deal with different foreign illnesses which are not common to the European continent. Furthering on this point is the education about the history and understanding international relations in the different continents- in Africa, in the Middle East- from which the flows are coming. It means that many times the small changes in our education and social policy, medical policy, healthcare policy, can help to the overall understanding of the complexity of the migration. It is, of course, an individual policy but it is still connected with the other areas. What I see as the biggest problem is not only some kind of missing political will or a problems and obstacles on the European Union level or the financial issues connected with this, but that we are missing people who are able to be experts and help build capacities and train the staff in the congruent countries to understand and deal with the people who are coming from  a different historical regions with a different culture, a different language, and total different understandings of a society as we have in continental Europe.

Nerina: What can we do?

Lucia: I suppose that some guidelines from the European level; not forced legislation but guidelines which can be shared and elaborate on good practice or good examples can help, and of course amendment of the educational policy to get back more information about world development and more about international relations which are normally taught at universities but not at high schools or primary schools where students are aware of just the basics of the existence of the continents and some key dates and years of historical and human development but are not aware of the complexity of the developmental influences of some concrete historical occasions connected to the present and so on. It means that this kind of awareness, critical thinking and understanding that each situation has to be considered from both sides, the existence of different perspectives and that we are all living in one world which means this awareness is important to be implemented to the policies and education, also to people in state administration in the public administration who are dealing with the implementation of these policies.

Nerina: This means that the education and awareness are key, but what have you personally learned?

Lucia: I personally learned that we are different but we can live together, there was a quote – I’m not sure whether it was originally by the UN – but, “diversified within the unity”, which means that we can still live peacefully while we respect each other, it means that we will not try to implement and exercise our rights in a way that will interfere with the rights of others. We should help if we are able to and have capacities for other people who are in need. Our university is contributing to settlement of the situation;  we have students who came to the country as refugees- it took a long time to find documents from their high school which entitled them to study at the university- but now some of them have already graduated and become an integral part of the labour market, however there are very few of them, a tiny percentage, but their destiny was changed and they can be used as a positive example that it is possible if they are interested to change their lives and we are able to help them to do so.

Nerina: What is it like to be a researcher?

Lucia: I’m really happy where I am, I do research in an area I really like and I am not only able to formulate the legislation and paragraphs, but also to concrete policies and projects with my students and colleagues which are another way of implementing the legislation into practice.

Nerina: Why is it relevant?

Lucia: It’s always something nice when I can do something to not only find circumstances to understand the current situation, but also to formulate the recommendations and influence daily life. For me as a researcher, it means that every new situation is a new challenge as we don’t have any identical situations- we cannot compare flows from Africa to flows from the Middle East if we are talking about migration we cannot somehow compare the rights of women to the rights of children. It means that the situation is always developing and the society has to reflect it, not only in daily life but in the elaboration of practices, policies, and legislation. Society needs the researchers to give them data and justification of their future steps.

Nerina: Do you have a dream?

Lucia: I have several of them! Some are personal and some are from the point of research. I would like to help our country become efficient from the point of human rights protection, with a proper settlement of the many crises which we are facing right now that are connected with societal development, and that we can contribute to saving the world in which we are living together for our children.

Nerina: If possible, what would you change tomorrow?

Lucia: I would like to change how European people understand refugees because the negative experiences have resulted in a negative experience for those looking for protection. They are first pushed from their home country and then by the society which they are fleeing to for protection.

Nerina: Thank you so much for this conversation.


Junior Professor of European Law in the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Institute of European Studies and International Relations. Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences, Comenius University Bratislava.

Monir Uddin Ahmed

Monir Uddin Ahmed

Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology, Primeasia University. Executive Editor at Scientific Bangladesh & Member of the Global Young Academy.

Research and leadership for a developed Bangladesh

There is a tiny world around us. The world we can’t see or touch. However, it has a huge influence on us, both negative and positive. Small bacteria protect us and attack us all the time.

Dr. Monir Uddin Ahmed from Primeasia University, Bangladesh, researches these tiny living organisms in order to make better food, and make our lives better and healthier. To make life better is his real passion, and he believes that more research and more effective leaders can improve society, and help Bangladesh to become a more developed country.

Watch our interview with Dr. Monir on microbiology, research, and leadership.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Monir Uddin Ahmed's Video here

Monir: Hi, this is Monir Uddin Ahmed, talking from Bangladesh from the capital of Dhaka city. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in microbiology, a master’s degree in biotechnology, and I did my Ph.D. in microbiology in Australia.

Nerina: What is so interesting about microbiology?

Monir: Microbiology is very interesting because we are dealing with organisms that are not visible to the naked eye—we need a microscope to see them. But these very tiny organisms are very smart and very powerful and mostly have benefits to humans and other animals and plants. Very few cause diseases, but still, we are more concerned about their harmful effects—that is the interesting part.

Nerina: What kind of positive effects do these microorganisms have?

Monir: Microorganisms have a positive role in every sphere of our lives, they live in our body, and we call them normal flora. They prevent pathogenic microorganisms from colonising in our body; they prevent them from attacking our body under normal conditions by occupying a space, fighting for food, and many other things. Some even provide us with vitamins.

Nerina: What was the topic of your dissertation?

Monir: My Ph.D. was on an organism called Campylobacter jejuni which is one of the most frequently encountered microvillus bacterial pathogen in the food industry; especially in milk, water, and meat. Globally, it causes a very large number of infections every year.

Nerina: So, you wrote that you want to make life better by making food better? 

Monir: Yes, because we cannot live without food, so if foods are safer, then our lives become safer. We have to make food safe from microorganisms, especially bacterial pathogens which can easily get into foods—this is a global public health problem in both developing and developed countries. For example, Australia and New Zealand had the highest number of Campylobacter infections in the world; both of them are developed countries, but in our country, we have a slightly different problem. In developed countries, infection comes from meat mostly, but in developing countries like ours, it is from water and milk. My research interest was India—finding the source of infection—if we can find the source of infection, we can find ideas of how to prevent the bacteria from entering foods.

Nerina: You also initiated a science magazine? 

Monir: Yes, I have started a science magazine which is online only and bilingual. I would say that it is the only serious science magazine in Bangladesh. We want to talk more about the policy level and review how our research organisations are performing. Since 2011 we have been publishing a review of science publications in Bangladesh; how many articles are published, which organisation is at the top, and also, which scientist is at the top.

Nerina: What is the purpose of this magazine? 

Monir: I’m dreaming about developed Bangladesh. The theme of our scientific Bangladesh magazine is a science review for developed Bangladesh. Actually, our mission is a science review for developing Bangladesh. We want to see Bangladesh as a developed country; and we believe that in reviewing its scientific performance, and government and non-government associations, we can contribute a lot to that field.

Nerina: How relevant is research for a developing country, like Bangladesh, in your opinion? 

Monir: As far as we can say, research is relevant because research means finding a solution to a problem. In a country, especially a developing one like Bangladesh which is highly populated and overcrowded, we have more problems in comparison to other countries. We have different problems, so we have to find our own solution to those problems—be it social, microbiological, physical science, whatever it is—to reduce the problems and make our lives better, healthier, and prosperous—we don’t have any way other than research.

Nerina: How relevant is research from a developing country, like Bangladesh? 

Monir: Scientists have the same role in both developed and developing countries—they have to play a dual role; one is working in the laboratory finding the solution of the national and global problem, and communicate the solution to the public, to other scientists, and to the policy makers. By playing this dual role, I think scientists can really bring changes. If they don’t emphasise both types of roles, it’s very difficult to bring any changes to the society or the country because there are lots of solutions and findings sitting in the laboratory that are not commercialised or communicated to the people or the policy makers.

Nerina: What are the main challenges that researchers are facing in Bangladesh? 

Monir: First of all, the lack of sufficient funding. Secondly, we have issues with leadership in the scientific area. Thirdly, we are lacking in infrastructure (the technological side) — we have issues with lab facilities, instruments for laboratories, and consumables for laboratories. These are three areas where we have to make improvements.

Nerina: What should or could be done in order to improve the situation? 

Monir: I think we have to focus both on improving the technical facilities in the laboratory and leadership skills of the scientists equally. Because we might have technical facilities, but if we don’t have the leadership to run the laboratories properly, we will not utilise the funds and technical facilities properly. The limited facilities that we have, I’d say we are not utilising with more than 50% efficiency because we have poor leadership everywhere, especially in the scientific area. So if we can improve leadership, we can make better use of our money and human resources—our intelligence and merits. Without focusing on that area, we cannot improve. Actually with whatever area we are talking about, be it politics or science, improvement or progress is proportional to the quality of leadership.

Nerina: What does leadership mean to you?

Monir: In one word; leadership is influence. I have my own definition of leadership; because that’s my area of interest, and I’m writing a book about leadership in Bangladesh. So my definition is leadership is influencing people to act to achieve goals. Whenever a scientist is working they have a goal; to achieve that goal they have to influence other scientists to work because research cannot be done alone. Actually, hardly anything can be done alone.

Nerina: In your opinion, what does a researcher need in order to become a good leader? 

Monir: The first point is communication skills. The second point is specific goal setting—what I want to do and by when. If we don’t have any goals, then things will not actually go anywhere. The third point that’s important is that we want to contribute to our community and the world. If we can find a solution to a problem, it will be used throughout the world. It will not be limited to any specific area or country, though we might try to distribute technology, it’s very difficult, so scientific discovery by anyone of any race, colour, and nationality, that is the asset of the community and the world. We have to think about that one; that we are making a contribution to the community and it has a long lasting impact.

Nerina: If you had all the money and the power you could imagine and you could change something, what would you change?

Monir: I would like to do something that will have impact generation after generation. I’ll increase the investment in research and education as it is said that investment in self-development is the best investment; for individuals and as a nation. I’ll invest that money in the development of people; that is their psychological and intellectual development. In other words, I can say I’ll invest in leadership development in every single person in the country and the whole world.

Nerina: What motivates you?

Monir: Actually, motivation is that… As a Muslim, we believe that we have life after death, and there are two options—either we go to heaven or hell. It depends on our activities. There are two types; one is worshipping God, or Allah—that will be finished when I die—but also if I do anything for humanity that is affecting the lives of humans, I’ll get benefit from that. So people may not be aware of what I’m doing or how my work is affecting their lives, but it will continue. That is called, in my religious language, “Sadqa e Jariah”, which means your charity will continue even after you are dead. So I see it this way, this is the driving force behind trying to bring changes or influencing lives of people.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of? 

Monir: I have a dream of a just society where everyone will be treated with justice because without justice we cannot have peace and prosperity.

Nerina: What would you tell a teenager in Bangladesh who would like to become a researcher?

Monir: I would say try to know your field of interest, find your interest, be it social, political or natural science, and then focus on solving problems in people’s lives. There is no greater contentment than solving problems for people, so if you really want to enjoy that contentment, then you can be a researcher.

Nerina: Thank you so much, Monir. 

Monir: Thank you Nerina for calling from Sweden and giving me the opportunity to share my ideas and experiences, and convey my message to people, politicians, and teenagers in my country. Thank you very much.

Nerina: Thank you, Monir.


Assistant Professor, Department of Microbiology, Primeasia University. Executive Editor at Scientific Bangladesh & Member of the Global Young Academy.

Alexander Kagansky

Alexander Kagansky
Molecular biologist

Working for Global Young Academy, Bio2Bio consortium, the University of Edinburgh, and Far Eastern Federal University.

Cancer research, biodiversity, and the future of medicine

Cancer is still a deadly disease. Sasha Kagansky is trying to understand how cancer cells are different from normal cells on the molecular level, and how they react to natural compounds. How important are natural substances, plants, and mushrooms for the future of medicine?

Find out more from Sasha Kagansky on the importance of biodiversity, ancient traditions, and listen to his personal story.

Watch the video:
Listen to the Audiofile here:
Read the transcript of Alexander Kagansky's Video here

Alexander: My name is Sasha Kagansky, and I work at the university of Edinburgh in research. I am also a member of Global Young Academy.

Nerina: What is your main research topic? 

Alexander: The main research topic is cancer mechanisms. I try to see how- on a molecular level- cancer cells are different from normal cells. Specifically, we try to see what small molecules are different, and then present different small molecules from natural extracts to the cells to see if pathways in the cells can change enough for it to be useful in medicine.

Nerina: Is this a new approach?

Alexander: I think this is quite a traditional approach. The ways to use this approach have changed a little bit and I think we now have the great benefit of being able to take a tumor from the patient and quickly grow a lot of the cells, then test them while they are still like tumor cells. In the model organisms or cell cultures that were traditionally used, there was too much time passage after the tumor and it was only from a particular patient. Because we have miniaturization of everything, and robotization, there are now ways to test many samples at the same time. In the same way, we can try and collect many different medicinal species and make extracts and try them on many different patients derived cell samples and see if they affect a particular cellular activity. It is looking interesting and we are trying to produce some data that could be useful for medical doctors.

Nerina: Do I understand correctly that you use herbs in your research?

Alexander: Some, but it is not limited to herbs. We have used endemic plants of Mauritius which is a small country that has very unique plants and other species some of which were used in medicine in the past. The number of plants remaining from each of these species is dwindling, so it’s high time to try and understand what they could be used for. We have very exciting data and have already published a couple of papers- I hope there will be a couple more on just a few of the plants that we took from there.

There are also other places – for example, in the far east on the Pacific coast of Russia and neighboring China – that have a long tradition in using mushroom extracts. Specifically, there are mushrooms that grow in the trees- a lot of which were used in Chinese traditional medicine and for treating cancer. In Russia there’s a traditional mushroom called Chaga – it’s Latin name is Inonotus obliquus. It doesn’t look very pretty on the birch trees as it creates a black mask- we were joking as kids that it was an ancient mask left by a knight- but it was used by poor people instead of tea because the taste of the extract is a bit like that of tea. There is some anecdotal evidence- and I don’t see why it cannot be true- that there were fewer cases of cancer in this poorer population than in nobles which had tea. Now, modern science also agrees that it is anti-cancerous; there are publications connecting it to the treatment of cancer, and it’s not toxic so I think it should be one of the researched anti-cancer therapies because I’m an advocator of changing cellular mechanisms in a gentle way.

Nerina: You also collaborate with other researchers in order to raise awareness about the necessity of preserving biodiversity?

Alexander: From the looks of things the majority of medicinal plants have not been studied yet in the very exact terms of today’s technological advances. Yet, we are facing a massive extinction of traditionally used medicines around the world. I think that for the future we definitely would like to keep the forests and the sea going, and to try and make a depository of natural extracts. I think that the more we think and talk about it, and the more we agree as scientists from very different disciplines that it’s good to have wildlife, even though we cannot completely understand what it is doing. I think that is what we would like to try and contribute, that’s why art is necessary in order to be able to feel what the data suggests; and, without humanities, there is no way to understand the common language and the culture of the olden days which may be critical for today’s knowledge. Shamanic knowledge was very heavily restricted and punished in some cases, but now I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to try and increase our knowledge. Maybe we are only at the beginning of the road, but I think it’s a very good moment- if not a very late one- to engage with it to find out together. It’s enough of an issue for everyone to be involved in, there’s no time for competition in this.

Nerina: What does the future of cancer treatment look like in your opinion? 

Alexander: I am an advocate of changing cellular mechanisms in a gentle way because a lot of cancer therapies are so invasive. Some of them destroy DNA very intensively- I have to admit the cure will allow prolonged survival of incurable patients, but I think cancer treatment will be complex in the future. I see how fast immunotherapy of cancer is developing, and I also see a lot of future in genomic and epigenomic therapy. I think there is still  a very long way to go in finding molecules that are regulatory- that are changing the fate of the cells- because in a particular metabolic context, if a person has a particular diet and lifestyle, especially an adult, I think that the tissues in the organism-to a varying extent- are experiencing some particular stress. I think we could correct this stress by adding natural molecules. Sometimes it’s almost indistinguishable from food. I think if we understand the mechanism inside us that the molecules from the food and drink undergo, the more we can actually make food our medicine. This is a bit of an idealistic concept proposed very long ago by the Greeks, but I think it isn’t far from where people would like with their own treatment. I think now the crisis with herbal medicine is exaggerated by some members of the public that don’t see the difference between homeopathy and herbal medicine. I’ve heard a lot of people saying ‘Ah, this doesn’t work!’- a lot of educated people- but it’s very important, and it looks like we need help from humanities here as well to try and separate understandings.

Nerina: What motivated you to enter this field of study?

Alexander: It’s difficult to say, but part of it was the trauma of losing people due to deadly diseases. Every time you are in the hospital it tunes your mind into thinking about these things, and somehow trying to think about it and deal with it helps to suppress anxiety and the uneasy feeling that all of life is associated with losing people. Almost everyone is under the constant stress of losing people or expecting to lose a person or expecting personal decline or death. Of course, it is unavoidable and is deeply part of our culture, but I think that it doesn’t allow us to breathe freely, and at times it’s so strong that if people don’t see solutions and feel like they can do competing, it really paralyzes them. I felt paralyzed and sometimes I still do, but my aspiration that through working on this through the related fields trying to connect bits of the puzzle- what are the molecules that can be put inside to try and talk your cells out of becoming cancer cells.

The reason why I’ve chosen the natural compounds is because I associate the death of my father from cancer with the dose of radiation he got while he was cleaning radium at his work. With my mum, she was complaining that she had a chlorine gas leakage at times because of the sophisticated equipment that she was operating at work, and therefore I don’t want to research radiation and its effects. It’s like a burn. Despite a lot of people lacking trust in natural compounds, I think there is a big future in it, and if we pay attention to the different compounds in plants, marine organisms, mushrooms, bacteria, and yeast, there is a chance that we won’t lose them and be left alone as a species. I don’t want a future where my ancestors live in a human-only world, therefore I think we should find reasons for humans to research nature and to be careful with it. Even species that may seem insignificant, like a shrub, may be discovered to be essential for a particular purpose. We should not let the diversity go, we should try to cooperate and share the knowledge and molecules, and we may have a chance.

Nerina: What keeps you going? 

Alexander: It’s very interesting, I just feel that this area really is personal and I’m happy to do it. I’m happy to try and do it. Many people would say that I’m not successful and I can agree that we could be much faster and my mind could be much clearer, but I think it’s such a great opportunity to try and discuss these things with people who have had a different education, and it turns out that some of what I know can be useful or interesting and therefore I think interaction is one of the things that keeps me going; interaction with people, but also nature. I was going for a walk and you already see birds, grass, so many different colors and you feel great that you actually still have forests. It may surprise people in the future to see that there was so much forest, but I hope not- I hope there will still be plenty of forests.

Nerina: To you, what would it mean to be successful?

Alexander: If we are looking for success we may not know what we want, and in what we do we keep going with the information that we have, just trying to produce more of the good thing that you already uncovered. Being able to see different things and to be able to look at the same thing at different angles is what is also very important. I think trying new things is good- of course, you have to spend time and sometimes you feel the time has been wasted, but I think it happens even when you think you know very well what you are doing. We are all experimenting in life, there is no clarity in tomorrow.

Nerina: What makes life meaningful?

Alexander: I find talking about this very difficult because it is different from moment to moment. I think that meaning can change, and the way we look at the same thing can change. Therefore, I think hope is one of the meanings- being hopeful despite knowing how dreadful things are, and how much more dreadful they may be. I think the feeling that things can go in an unexpected way and you may surprise yourself even with the way you think about things and what you do that this feeling of hope becomes like a driving force if not a meaning. Some would say that hope is hollow, that it is only substantiated by the things that may or may not happen, but in my opinion, it is a very nice thing.

Also, of course, there are very fundamental things like friends, family, and I don’t want to be banal and say that love is the meaning, but I think that in a sense this unexplainable feeling of aspiration towards other people and elements of nature and some things that you cannot explain, even some things in your dreams or in impressions that you cannot put in words. They also substantiate life as a meaning I think.

Nerina: What kind of society do you dream of?

Alexander: I wish there would be such a level of trust and mutual understanding between people in different cultures, and so much kindness and hopefulness that the understanding of the disaster of the loss of someone and of death in general, and the understanding of the value of having good health and loving people independently of connection to you by blood. I wish for a future where people could informally meet- like us- and discuss big things that they are anxious about or excited about, and where the sex, race, or discipline of academic knowledge would not matter as much as what it is that we can achieve or aspire to do, and how shall we treat people, how shall we commonly learn from different people? Adults learn from kids, kids learn from adults in different countries, and agreement from everyone on very basic things like that everyone shares the same desire to survive even if you are not human. This sounds like an acceptable future.

Nerina: Do you have a personal dream?

Alexander: Before I die I would like to think that there is something that I knew that was worth knowing- that something that I contributed is helping people. Having the ability to invest energy into something that is very personal and fundamental for my own aspiration of the future- what I mean is, if I put my time, money, effort and attention to finding some drugs or remedies for conditions that not only me or people that I know can suffer from, but that far away in the future or in another culture, there always will be people who may also be helped by this. Chemically we are related in more than just that we share common DNA, on the material level – apart from very nice spiritual feelings of this – we also share metabolism with certain people. I think that the more we can do that, the more energy I put into it and the more I think about it, and the more I exchange knowledge with people who use completely different tools and scientific language, the more we are empowering ourselves for the future, for friendship, for peace building, and we can also share good food and drink together!

Nerina: If you could, what would you tell your younger self?

Alexander: Try to focus on what people around you tell you, especially the ones that you love. Pay attention to what other things that happen around you, especially try to spend more time in nature, and look at birds and animals and learn from them. And also; don’t worry- just do your best.


Working for Global Young Academy, Bio2Bio consortium, the University of Edinburgh, and Far Eastern Federal University.

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