Integrating ‘Sustainable Development’ into higher education teaching in the life sciences.

Sustainable development

“Sustainable development” (SD) describes a shift in societal attitudes and behaviours, and in industrial practice and norms, towards a more sustainable way of life. In other words, it is the way in which we increase the sustainability of our lifestyles. Sustainability can be defined as a way of living well within our means, without causing harm to the planet. SD has three pillars: environment, society, and the economy. These are inter-dependent sectors, and all must be considered when assessing the sustainability of a certain action or behaviour.

My Master’s degree was in Environmental Biogeochemistry, and my PhD and subsequent research career have focussed on environmentally-relevant biochemistry. In addition, I served on the KTH School of Biotechnology’s environment and sustainability committee for several years, and was involved in a number of diverse efforts to increase the sustainability of our department, such as reducing antibiotic waste from the laboratory and encouraging people to commute to work by public transport rather than by car.

Sustainable development in third cycle education

While maintaining the personal needs of the student as the highest priority, and the education of the student as the primary goal, it is recommended to have considerations of sustainability and environmental impact in mind when designing a course in the life sciences. Graduates need to be responsible global citizens, aware of the impact their choices will make on the planet and the people who live on it. I teach at an engineering-focussed university, and we know that future engineers who will likely go on to design industrial-scale processes must have SD considerations deeply integrated in their thinking. They need to be able to assess their designs from a human and environmental perspective, as well as from a financial viewpoint.

In my experience, Master’s level biotechnology students tend to have a quite good innate understanding of either the economic or the environmental elements of SD (depending on their personal interests and previous courses taken), but very few can define the related societal factors. I think that this is because they all come from technical educational backgrounds, and have usually not studied humanities or social science for a long time (if at all), and are not used to thinking of their field of study in human terms. When we learn about a biological or “green chemistry” alternative to an existing polluting process, they often get frustrated when they realise that the more environmentally sensible option has not been implemented at scale. I see this when we discuss biological control as a replacement for synthetic pesticides, when we discuss using algae instead of plants to make biofuel, when we talk about recombinant production of proteins typically harvested from animal tissues, and so on. It takes them time to realise that the economic cost of shifting to a new process is what most often holds industry back – even though they know this in their personal lives, they have never applied such thinking to their learning at university. But I’ve seen a lot of students become very invigorated and determined to make changes in the world when they realise how their knowledge of fundamental biotechnology and advanced industrial bioprocess design can start to address economic problems as well as environmental ones.

Sustainable development in life science education

In the field of biotechnology, we are often concerned with developing new bio-inspired technologies to replace existing products or manufacturing processes that are non-sustainable. For example, we research biofuels and bioplastics produced from waste plant material, we investigate how to reduce or bioremediate industrial waste, and we look for natural alternatives to chemical pesticides. I think that it is very clear how SD can be integrated into our field of research, if we are willing to re-focus the way we present scientific concepts.

We have recently re-designed several courses for the KTH Master’s programmes in Industrial & Environmental Biotechnology, which try to integrate SD and systems thinking perspectives in all courses, as well as offering a course specifically on life cycle analysis (LCA) methods. Thus, we are pursuing a centralised approach to teaching the fundamentals of SD (Mann et al, 2009), to make sure students are bringing a well-informed sustainability mindset to classes about, for example, vaccine production, enzyme discovery, wastewater treatment, and cell factory techniques. Our LCA-specific course is taught by experts in the technique, and the students work on projects designed by their biotech teachers, so that they are immediately applying mathematical LCA models to processes of relevance to their programme. In later courses we call back on this knowledge to reinforce it. I discuss biofuel production with students in two courses (one focussing on plant vs microbial cell factories, and one discussing how we discover novel enzyme activities), and ask them to perform a sustainability assessment of different techniques, supporting their arguments with rigorous scientific data. Thus, we are using a more distributed approach to teaching the topic (Mann et al, 2009). In fundamental courses on biochemistry I often set reading exercises and ask students to discuss how sustainable a recently published or commercialised product or process really is. For example, in the Cell Factory course we look at a range of industrial uses for plant lipids. We discuss the use of lipids for the production of fuel and plastic materials, as well as their use in processed food and baby formula. For all of these cases we examine the environmental impact (e.g. by comparing the use of petroleum as a fuel), the economic impact (e.g. of taking a potential feed/food-stock out of circulation), and the societal impact (e.g. the unequitable global distribution of petroleum deposits and palm plantations). If this approach is followed in all courses within a programme, then students will feel that SD is truly an integral part of their work, rather than an add-on or something to be calculated after an industrial process is established (Cai, 2010; Sterling, 2004). This is well aligned with the CDIO goals of giving students the chance to practice the design and implementation of a process.

Higher education practitioners and pedagogic developers typically agree that in order to keep students activated, energised, and motivated to learn, it is important to utilise a diverse range of teaching and learning activities within a course and within a programme. As discussed by Mulder et al (2012), active learning and project-based learning (PBL) are the most effective tools for getting engineering students to think beyond their comfort zones and consider the human and societal factors relating to SD. PBL is also a great way of giving students insight into the real current needs of industry, as it is possible to work with partners from outside the university in designing and/or supervising student projects and theses (Hanning et al, 2012). I use peer teaching in a few of my courses, encouraging students to do some reading and share what they’ve learned with the rest of the class. Asking students to take responsibility for leading discussion sessions in this way can be motivating for most of them, as it is vital that they keep up with the reading in order to participate in the class. This is a challenging exercise for students who are used to a more passive style of learning, but they are supported by working in peer groups, and by being allowed plenty of time for the reading and related assignment both during and between classes, as they wish. Flexibility of learning is important for many students, and ensures that people don’t ‘drop off’ unnecessarily.

Reading

Y. Cai, “Integrating sustainability into undergraduate computing education”. In Proc. SIGCSE’10, ACM, 2010, 524-528

A. Hanning, A. P. Abelsson, U. Lundqvist and M. Svanström, “Are we educating engineers for sustainability? Comparison between obtained competences and Swedish industry’s needs”. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2012. Vol: 13 No: 3, p. 305-320

S. Mann, L. Muller, J. Davis, C. Roda and A. Young, “Computing and sustainability: evaluating resources for educators”. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 2009. Vol: 41, No: 4, p. 144-155.

K. F. Mulder, J. Segalas and D. Ferrer-Balas, “How to educate engineers for/in sustainable development. Ten years of discussion, remaining challenges”. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2012. Vol: 13 No: 3, p. 211-218.

S. Sterling, “Higher education, sustainability, and the role of systemic learning”, in Higher education and the challenge of sustainability: Problematics, Promise and Practice, P. B. Corcoran and A. E. J. Wals, Editors. 2004, Springer: Netherlands. p. 49-70.

A scholarly approach to teaching in higher education.

Introducing fundamental concepts of higher education

Constructive alignment

One of the most significant developments in teaching in higher education (HE) over recent decades has been the embrace of constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2011). This concept was formalised by John Biggs (2014), and is based on earlier pedagogical works by Tyler (1949) and Shuell (1986), who argued that a more effective student-oriented approach to course design could be achieved by formulating course objectives that describe what students should learn, rather than what teachers should teach. In simple terms relevant to the design of a course, constructive alignment can be achieved by formulating intended learning outcomes (ILOs) that describe the skills or knowledge a student should have acquired after passing the course, and by directly assessing that particular skill or area of knowledge. Activities during the course should give students the opportunity to practice those specific skills that will be assessed. My own university, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, has embraced the concept heartily, and requires ILOs to be formulated for all new courses, and made available on course websites so students can see what they are signing up for (example from a course I run).

Professional and transferrable skills

Another aspect that educators must place at the heart of HE teaching is professional skills that have relevance in graduates’ future careers (Magnell and Kolmos, 2016). This can include general skills of use in most workplaces, like the ability to work in a team, effective written and oral communication, flexible thinking, and problem solving. It can also include more career-specific skills that will be needed by graduates who move on to a particular vocation. I believe that an engineering education should be particularly focussed on delivering career-specific professional skills, and that this should be integrated with teaching and learning activities in courses, as well as activities outside of courses such as careers advice seminars, site visits, and employer fairs. Recent student evaluations on Master’s level courses in the KTH School of Biotechnology have clearly stated that students wish for a greater awareness of current industrial practices, as they find that the knowledge they gain from courses sometimes has limited immediate relevance to biotechnology companies that are recruiting. This is a major focus of our course development in the near future, and we are integrating systems thinking and life cycle analyses to as many courses as possible, to make the concept of Sustainable Development more tangible. Right now we are delivering lectures and projects to students on the Industrial Biotechnology degree programme that focus on biological/enzymatic advances in wastewater treatment technologies, as this is a major potential route for employment of our students who wish to stay in the Stockholm area. The local water treatment plants host Master’s thesis project students every spring, and this has often led directly to employment for students with relevant skills and knowledge from our courses.

My role as a teacher

How university students learn: The impact and importance of quality teaching

Although the primary signifier of success is the student’s ability and willingness to work hard, the impact of quality teaching must not be under-stated. However, the full impact of a teacher’s behaviour can sometimes be missed. Teachers often underestimate their own contribution to student motivation and demotivation (Gorham and Millette, 2009). But motivation is a major factor in predicting student success. Teachers can enhance students’ intrinsic motivation in a variety of ways, including the use of a wide range of teaching and learning activities (Ryan and Deci, 2000; Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). The teaching and learning experiences I recall most strongly (not necessarily fondly) from my student days all involved a lot of interactivity and non-traditional lectures, something we are trying to increase in our courses at KTH, Covid-pending (Tlhoaele et al, 2014).

Personal insights into teaching in higher education

One major role for teachers in HE is to help students visualise what their future careers may be. Whether a student is studying mostly fundamental or applied subjects, they must be given the opportunity to develop a strong repertoire of skills that increase their employability. In addition, a perhaps more challenging aspect of this is helping students to realise when they have acquired or developed a real professional skill: it is not always obvious to a student what skills or abilities they have gained by exercises such as giving presentations or writing detailed reports. This was certainly lacking in my own university education, and so I try to make students aware of the professional relevance of exercises in my course. An example is a mock-consultancy exercise I have students perform in a course on bioremediation of contaminated land. They have to make a pitch to a potential customer about how they would assess and remediate a contaminated site, including cost projections and an appeal to the civic duty of the imaginary landowners.

My role as a university teacher is to facilitate student learning, rather than to simply provide information as one might with young children. The key thing that students should gain from HE is an ability to learn independently: their time at university should leave them with an ongoing intellectual curiosity, an ability to learn flexibly, an adaptive response to problem solving, and a sound basis of fundamental knowledge in their subject. As a teacher therefore, one of my key roles is to model how to find and access knowledge, and how to connect scientific facts with real-world observations. I can demonstrate by case-studies in lectures how fundamental scientific knowledge has been used to solve real industrial or environmental problems. And in class I can present examples from cutting-edge research to show the importance of staying up to date with new advances, and hopefully inspire students to do the same.

Although I stress that students at a university should be learning how to learn for themselves, I am less enthusiastic about the focus in HE pedagogic training on lifelong learning. I understand the arguments made: if people know how to acquire new knowledge and new skills for themselves, then they are able to follow their own curiosity and passions for the rest of their lives. They will be empowered to be able to change career direction if they want to, safe in the knowledge that we gave them the skills they need to manage that transition. And it is certainly true that people change jobs and even careers much more frequently now than, say, my parents’ generation did. But is that really because young people today are more self-assured and determined to “follow their dreams”? Or is it because most industries now offer more precarious employment?

My father, who trained as a chemist, worked for the same company for over 40 years, and he was extremely proud of all that he achieved and the relationships he forged during his time there. When he retired, he received a generous compensatory package, partly because he was leaving during one of the now-regular waves of redundancy sweeping the organisation. My Dad built his entire career in one company, and was happy to do so. That is unlikely to be possible for many current university students, and research is already showing that millennials have less ‘loyalty’ to employers than older generations. But working conditions for many at the beginning of their careers are pretty crap, employment can be unstable, and short-term contracts are very common, even for highly educated staff. People in this situation need to be ready to move on when something better comes up. Lifelong learning is a pragmatic necessity, not a dream situation. People are likely to have to change jobs, and I think that we are dishonest if we dress this up as “you can do whatever you want whenever you want”. Every professional industry has faced, and will continue to face, tough economic situations and regular rounds of lay-offs, and this includes academia. I want to see people retaining their intellectual curiosity after they leave full-time education, I really really do. But we shouldn’t lie to students by dressing up employment precarity as some sort of personal freedom.

Deliberate pedagogic practice – The importance of teacher’s development

As discussed above, quality teaching can be one of the primary factors in determining the level of a student’s success in HE. Correspondingly, I believe that it is a teacher’s duty to always be aware of the most effective teaching methods available to them. To achieve this, teachers must be up to date on research into innovative teaching methods, and actively work to improve their own pedagogic performance (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). This kind of deliberate scholarly practice can be facilitated by paying close attention to student course evaluations, and by trying to get student feedback on new teaching methods: is this new technique more or less effective and motivating than the traditional method? Of course, even a highly motivated teacher who makes use of current educational research must face the reality of teaching within a broader context. A major factor in this is institutional culture, and whether a teacher feels supported in developing innovative courses or “course moments” (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014). Students can sometimes feel resistant to ‘unusual’ teaching methods if they are accustomed to the traditional lecture-seminar format, and so it is vital that there is a coherent approach to teaching over a whole course and programme. This requires a great deal of institution-level support and communication (Elmgren and Henriksson, 2014).

Another important factor is the teacher’s personal feelings of what kind of teaching they enjoy. Perhaps due to a greater level of experience, I generally feel more comfortable when supervising one or two students in the laboratory, rather than lecturing to a large group in a classroom. I enjoy the interactivity of supervision, where I can see when a student is close to understanding, and I can coach them to their ‘eureka moment’. By contrast, I find it more difficult to gauge how well any given student is coping when I am lecturing to a whole class – and in the Covid era of online lecturing, this is even worse! Normally I can at least see if a student looks bored or confused by scanning the faces in the room or listening for exasperated noises, but with videos and microphones off, I feel like I am talking to myself. Swedish students are notoriously quiet in lectures anyway, very rarely asking questions in front of other students. Online I get nothing from them at all.

Reading

L. Abeysekera and P. Dawson (2015), Motivation and cognitive load in the flipped classroom: definition, rationale and a call for research, Higher Education Research and Development 34, 1-14

K. Bain (2004), What the best college teachers do, 1. ed., Harvard University Press, Cambridge

J. Biggs (2014), Constructive alignment in university teaching, HERDSA Review of Higher Education, vol 1, Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia

J. Biggs and C. Tang (2011), Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does, 4. ed., Higher Education and University Press, Maidenhead

K.M. Bonney (2015), Case study teaching method improves student performance and perceptions of learning gains, Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education 16, 21-28

M. Elmgren and A-S. Henriksson (2014), Academic teaching, 1. ed., Studentlitteratur, Lund

J. Gorham, D.M. Millette (2009), A comparative analysis of teacher and student perceptions of sources of motivation and demotivation in college classes, Communication Education 46, 245-261

A. Hedin (2006), Lärande på hög nivå: Idéer från studenter, lärare, och pedagogisk forskning som stöd för utveckling av universitetsundervisning, Uppsala University, Uppsala

K. Illeris (2007), How we learn: Learning and non-learning in school and beyond, 1. ed., Routledge (Taylor & Francis), London

M. Magnell and A. Kolmos (2017), Employability and work-related learning activities in higher education: how strategies differ across academic environments, Tertiary Education and Management 23, 103-114

B. Miri, B-C. David and Z. Uri (2007), Purposely teaching for the promotion of higher-order thinking skills: a case of critical thinking, Research in Science Education 37, 353-369

M.J. Prince and R.M. Felder (2006), Inductive teaching and learning methods: Definitions, comparisons, and research bases, Journal of Engineering Education 95, 123-138

J.I. Rotgans and H.G. Schmidt (2012), Problem-based learning and student motivation: The role of interest in learning and achievement, in: O’Grady G., Yew E., Goh K., Schmidt H. (eds) One-Day, One-Problem. Springer, Singapore

R. Ryan and E. Deci (2000), Self-determination theory: The facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being, American Psychologist 55, 68-78

T.J. Shuell (1986), Cognitive conceptions of learning, Review of Educational Research 56, 411-436

M. Tlhoaele, A. Hofman, K. Winnips, Y. Beetsma (2014), The impact of interactive engagement methods on students’ academic achievement, Higher Education Research and Development 33, 1020-1034

R.W. Tyler (1949), Basic principles of curriculum and instruction, University of Chicago Press, Chicago

M. Weurlander, M. Söderberg, M. Scheja, H. Hult, A. Wernerson (2012), Exploring formative assessment as a tool for learning: students’ experiences of different methods of formative assessment, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 37, 747-760

Effective supervision and training of research students in the life sciences.

Practical aspects of doctoral student supervision in Sweden

Doctoral education in Sweden is undertaken within a precise framework of third cycle learning outcomes in accordance with the Bologna Process, which ensures comparability of qualifications throughout the European Union. The Swedish framework is built on the Högskolelagen of 1992, while the education provided must follow KTH regulations, and abide by subject-specific study plans.

At KTH Royal Institute of Technology, doctoral education is a 4-year programme, with the greatest variation in actual completion time being at the school level, due to differences between fields in the tractability of research goals, the ease of publication, and different funding models. A doctoral student is enrolled to work in a specific subject area; this places the student within a certain programme (e.g. Doctoral programme in Biotechnology) and within the school that can best provide appropriate education (e.g. School of Biotechnology). It is the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure that the student receives the training, guidance, and support they need, but their subject-specific learning goals are set by the programme’s Director of Research Education (FA). Based on these intended learning outcomes, the student and supervisor must work together to produce an Individual Study Plan (ISP), defining the roles and responsibilities of both parties, and to describe an approximate plan for degree completion.

The Swedish government’s Higher Education Ordinance (Högskoleförordningen) of 1993 states that doctoral students should acquire the ability to formulate clear research goals, plan and perform a rigorous investigation, successfully communicate their results on written and oral platforms, and contribute to societal development and education. All of these skills can be acquired within 4 years by a good student who receives effective supervision, which I will try to define in the following paragraphs.

How doctoral students learn and develop

To become a quality researcher working independently in academia or industry, a student needs to witness first-hand what ‘good’ research looks like. Different students have different preferred modes of learning, and all go through phases where their motivation, interest, and ability fluctuate (Taylor and Beasley 2005). It is therefore necessary for the supervisor to be empathetic and aware of a student’s changing needs, in order to modulate supervision as appropriate throughout their time as a doctoral student. We supervisors are encouraged to consider three main aspects of supervision to optimise our approach to a student:

  • Situational leadership allows me to shift how directive or supportive my supervision is when a student’s ability to work independently wavers. A student can suffer from a loss of confidence if a major experiment fails or a favourite hypothesis is proven wrong, and this can lead to lack of motivation and even some difficult interpersonal behaviours. Students need more emotional support in these situations, and it doesn’t help to be angry with them (Doloriert and Sambrook, 2012).
  • A project management approach focusses on the student’s ability to produce results for their publications and thesis. This requires detailed discussions with new students to ensure that goals are clear, and that steps are laid out to ensure they gain the required skills. A key factor here is to ensure that the student can recognise success, or the need for modifications to an experimental plan. This approach allows students to gain autonomy in their work.
  • Deliberate practice is the notion that a supervisor should constantly work to improve their own performance as a supervisor, while the student is making the same efforts to improve their performance as a researcher. Self-reflection helped me to realise a need to be much more assertive with students and colleagues, to defend my opinions, and to speak up against unethical practices.

The impact and importance of supervision

As discussed by Löfström and Pyhältö (2015), students and supervisors often have different expectations of their roles and responsibilities. I see my role as a supervisor to be an individual who models good practice. As discussed by Gray and Jordan (2012), this includes technical rigour, ethical reporting skills, and an awareness of the consequences of our work. Good ethical behaviour helps to maintain a high level of public trust in science. Every individual scandal damages the whole of science, and so the importance of preventing even minor ethical lapses cannot be over-stated. This must be a primary goal in doctoral education, as we aim to produce future research leaders.

My own past supervisors all had long careers of scientific excellence and modelled the highest standards of research practice. I try to follow their examples with my students, taking the time to teach them the right way of designing an experiment, and the most honest ways of sharing their data. I often find myself telling research students at Master’s and Doctoral levels to slow down – if you rush through an experiment you will only end up repeating it, spending more time in the long run.

One ethical minefield when working in academia is how to maintain relationships between researchers. Globally, researchers in my field form quite a small community, and ethical research behaviour sometimes runs counter to the necessity of maintaining a network of friendly contacts. This most often involves questions of authorship on papers, where senior colleagues are included as a courtesy or because their name carries prestige (Bozeman and Youtie, 2016). I support the ethical requirements for authorship set out by the Vancouver protocol, but I understand the pressure (sometimes coming from ourselves internally) to include senior members of a supervision team who were not technically involved in a piece of work. By contrast, I have seen several instances where students have been reluctant to give due credit to other team members, fearing that their inclusion would ‘dilute’ their own contribution in the eyes of readers. I try hard to explain the importance of honestly acknowledging the contribution of all group members for ethical reasons, as well as ensuring continued positive relationships by not initiating interpersonal conflicts at the beginning of your career! As one of my supervisors once explained to me, it is better to be generous in your interpretation of the Vancouver regulations than to make people feel they have been unfairly left out.

Another important ethical consideration is the relationship of our research to society at large. It can be tough to help a student see the ‘big picture’ around a research project when they are naturally focussed on the short-term goal of completing their own education. I try to give students as much context on their work as possible, to help them make informed decisions about their future career and educational choices. After spending several years in limbo, uncertain of whether the academic path was really for me, I now make an extra effort in my mentoring of female students, who still have limited role models in our field. I have promoted female students to speak at prestigious international conferences and pushed them to stand up for their over-looked contributions to group work to ensure they get sufficient credit. It is an unfortunate truth that female academics in the life sciences still struggle for recognition and representation in positions of authority, including journal editors, conference organisers, and full-time faculty, despite a high proportion of female students (Wennerås and Wold, 1997; Haake, 2011). We need to be honest about this with young students at the beginnings of their research careers, or it can come as a sharp shock to find yourself as the only senior female in an academic or industrial group.

Defining and practicing ‘quality supervision’

Quality supervision requires good communication, and there are several ways to achieve this. At my university, a student’s ISP is an important pedagogical tool that can be used to monitor progress, plan future steps, and detect any problems. It is important to follow the requirements for at least an annual update to the ISP, as it can also guide effective discussion with the student.

Philips and Pugh (2010) discuss how poor communication can lead to students and supervisors having very different perceptions of their relationship. Clearly setting the intended outcomes of all formal communication helps with this. Many students now expect to have formal, structured sessions with their supervisors, something I did not often receive as a student, and something that can be very tough for supervisors who have large groups or who travel a lot. Communication can be impeded when the parties involved have different expectations of how often they should meet, or what meeting outcomes should be. It is useful to plan formal meetings with students by agreeing on topics for discussion, such as asking a student to bring a recent draft or dataset, and allowing them to lead the discussion. With some students who struggle to follow through on meeting discussions, I ask them to type up and circulate brief minutes to check their understanding of our discussion.

A related aspect of quality supervision is regular and effective feedback, either on a student’s written work or on their behaviour more generally (Handal and Lauvås, 2005). With written work, I try to give feedback on structural errors and ‘the big picture’ of a piece of work before critiquing fine details of language, grammar, and syntax. This is because major structural errors in an article are a greater impediment to data communication than poor language but also because, as I have witnessed, this approach is more motivating (I should say: less demotivating) to students (Lee and Murray, 2015).

Giving feedback on a student’s behaviour is much more fraught than assessing written work, but it is required on occasion. Part of shaping a student into an employable researcher is instructing them in the behavioural expectations of a typical workplace. A good recommendation is to describe any problematic behaviour in terms of its impact on other co-workers (which can include you, the supervisor), rather than by direct criticism. This should encourage the student to reflect with empathy on their own attitudes and actions, and then make appropriate changes. I have had some extremely awkward conversations with students who have seemed not to respect certain boundaries or certain (groups of) people. It is not easy but it is so very important – if these social lessons are not learned in the educational institution, then the graduate is not prepared for consequences of their behaviour, and we have failed to get them ready for the world of work.

Tensions and difficulties will arise in all supervisory relationships, and it is important that both student and supervisor continually re-assess the relationship and their own behaviour. Indeed, it is important to be mindful of all facets of interaction with a student. Simple things like the physical environment where a meeting is held are important. If a student and supervisor sit at opposite sides of a large desk, the power dynamic can be traumatic for the student. I try to meet students formally in a ‘neutral space’ near both of our offices, and we sit side-by-side at a round table. This allows much easier discussion and exchange of ideas, and encourages the student to participate actively and to have their own ideas about how to solve problems.

Self-reflection: Strategies to improve my supervision

The most important lessons I have learned are that no two students have the same needs or expectations, and that continual self-assessment is required to provide tailored supervision. Some supervisors have raised concerns that standardised training for doctoral supervisors may lead to less individuated graduates (Halse, 2011), but I consider it important that supervisors are accountable to their school and to their students.

The academics I have spoken to (mostly male, because those are the seniors I have access to) have wildly different opinions on how friendly the relationship with a student should be. Some want to be perceived as a distant authority figure, while others almost want to become best friends with their students. This is a point of some difficulty for me. Philips and Pugh (2010) recommend a very friendly relationship, going for one-on-one lunches, coffee breaks, or evening drinks. Technically, I suppose it is good advice to be friendly, because a hostile relationship will not permit the type of open communication required by quality supervision, but I think they downplay the importance of professionalism in recommending the cultivation of actual friendship. In my experience, it is a mistake to be too friendly with certain students, as it can sometimes lead to a lack of respect for the supervisor’s recommendations, especially (and I say this from bitter personal experience) when there is a female supervisor and a male student, and extra especially when the male student is a little older than the female supervisor. A blanket recommendation to encourage friendship also ignores the risk for inappropriate behaviours, student discomfort, and even abuse that might result when people who have very different levels of power are trying to socialise on equal terms.

A particular issue I have had in supervision is becoming too involved in the writing of students’ manuscripts. Article writing should be an iterative process of incremental improvement, but time constraints can make it tempting to step in to finish a manuscript quickly. Many supervisors experience this overreach due to the same motivating factors (Halse, 2011). I know that a helping hand towards independent action is much more useful to students in the long term than a quick fix to get a paper published, and I want to try to hold back and allow students to take the initiative to improve drafts, so they learn to watch out for their own most common errors. Positive feedback (“this draft is much improved”) is much more motivating than negative criticism (“this still needs a lot of work”). In addition, rather than sending drafts by email between myself and a student, I should take time to sit with the student at a computer and work on improving the first draft together. This will let me ensure that the student understands the changes we are making, as well as allowing me to see their immediate reactions to my comments. I will also recommend students attend a course on academic writing, and suggest that a reflective diary might be a useful way of continually honing their writing skills (Taylor and Beasley, 2005).

One of the main difficulties in my experience as a co-supervisor has been to do with my secondary role in the supervisory team (Gunnarsson et al, 2013). Managing the unequal relationships between student and supervisor, but also between co-supervisors at different career levels, can be very tricky and can also intersect with issues relating to age, gender, and ethnicity/nationality (Watts, 2010). I have found that managing these relationships sometimes takes more time and energy than the actual supervision requires, and it can feel like a burden, although I do believe that a well-rounded supervisory team gives a student a broader education as well as a deeper base of support during their studies. In some cases, the co-supervisor bears the weight of actual daily supervision, while in other cases the co-supervisor never knows what the student is up to – this depends on the main supervisor, and how much influence they want the assistant co-supervisor to have. Either way, the co-supervisor is not involved in student recruitment or project design, which can be frustrating. In future, I should better establish the expectations on each member of the team when a project first begins, which should lead to fewer tensions. I also look forward to being able to recruit my own students to work on projects I have designed.

I think it is extremely important to instil students with a sense of how their work affects the world at large. I have been inspired by the KTH Impact project to think about my own work in a much broader sense, and will produce an impact plan for my group. This will include our hopes for student education and career development. It will enable me to better integrate my research with the education I provide, as well as helping us work towards a positive societal impact. It will also promote ethical behaviour within the group, so that my students contribute to a principled research community.

Taylor and Beasley (2005) describe how the PhD was originally intended to create career-academics, but many graduates now go to work in industry instead. I feel that the career planning needed to navigate this issue is lacking in doctoral training. With future students I will discuss long-term career prospects from the very beginning, even at the recruitment stage. It is important to me to know that the student is aware of what they can realistically gain from their studies in terms of future employability. Similarly, it is important that students gain skills that will prepare them for a non-academic career. ‘Transferrable skills’ are vital, and can be gained by planning projects, supervising younger students, attending conferences, presenting work to diverse audiences, preparing formal reports, and writing popular science pieces. It is also vital that students can recognise the skills they gain, so that they realise their own potential, and so that their view of what they can do with their doctorate does not narrow – I know I could have benefitted from that kind of motivation early on.

Reading

B Bozeman and J Youtie (2016) Science and Engineering Ethics 22 1717-1743

C Doloriert and S Sambrook (2012) European Journal of Training and Development 36 732-750

PW Gray and SR Jordan (2012) Journal of Academic Ethics 10 299-311

R Gunnarsson, G Jonasson and A Billhult (2013) BMC Medical Education 13 134

U Haake (2011) Higher Education 62 113-127

C Halse (2011) Studies in Higher Education 36 557-570

G Handal and P Lauvås (2005) Nordisk Pedagogic 3

A Lee and R Murray (2015) Innovations in Education and Teaching International 52 558-570

E Löfström and K Pyhältö (2015) International Journal of Science Education 37 2721-2739

B Mitchneck, JL Smith and M Latimer (2016) Science 352 148-149

EM Phillips and DS Pugh (2010) How to Get a PhD: A Handbook for Students and their Supervisors (5th edition)

K Sanders, TM Willemsen and CCJM Millar (2009) Sex Roles 60 301-312

S Taylor and N Beasley (2005) A Handbook for Doctoral Supervisors

JH Watts (2010) Teaching in Higher Education 15 35-339

C Wennerås and A Wold (1997) Nature 387 341-343

A promotion of sorts.

After a lengthy multi-phase assessment process, in the spring of 2020 I was appointed as Docent in Biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. “Docentur” is not something I was familiar with before I started working in Sweden, so I’d like to explain what it means for those of you who may not know. In this post I’m going to explain what (I think) the Docentur is, how I achieved the status of Docent, and what it means for my academic career.

What “Docent” used to mean, and what it means now

I hold the permanent employment position of Researcher (Forskare in Swedish). I recently wrote this article for ecrLife explaining what exactly a Researcher position is, so check that out for a detailed description. In essence I perform many of the same tasks as a junior member of the university faculty (e.g. an Assistant Professor), but I am not on the tenure track, so will not be promoted, and my salary is funded entirely by external grants, rather than having a portion of my salary paid by my school.

As I understand it, the role of Docent was originally a promotional step on the academic career ladder in Sweden, allowing one to be directly promoted from post-doc to Researcher to Docent. Many older academics in Sweden still translate “Docent” to “Associate Professor” while writing their CVs in English. However, at some point the tenure track was introduced in Sweden, and the role of Docent was divorced from the Ass Prof → Assoc Prof → Prof pipeline.

Now, if you are employed as a tenure track Assistant Professor at my university, your Docent application often goes hand-in-hand with your application for promotion to Associate Professor, as the requirements are highly similar. If you are non-faculty, like me, then becoming Docent feels less like a promotion and more like a sort of pedagogic qualification. A certificate that acknowledges I have made a substantial contribution to the missions of my university: research, education, and societal outreach. It sure feels good for my achievements to be noticed – but it would’ve been really great to get a pay raise, I guess!

The Docent assessment process

In my case, the formal assessment procedure took almost exactly one year from submission of my written application to formal notice of appointment as Docent. This is longer than it really needs to take, but seems to be a typical duration right now in our university (and others with similar procedures). There are several points along the way where the process gets held up in classic Swedish bureaucracy – a meeting needs to be held for all managers to agree that an application has been received, then another meeting for all managers to agree that a reviewer should be selected to review the application, then another meeting to agree to the choice of reviewer, etc. These management meetings happen once a month, I think nine months of the year. In addition, I spent almost a year preparing and polishing my application before I even submitted it, as I wanted it to be perfect and packed with supporting evidence. The written application is 28 pages long, stretching to 73 pages with all of the appendices, and follows a strict academic CV template that is used by all (most?) Swedish universities.

The written application comprises the following sections:

  • basic CV information (1 page),
  • basic description of higher education completed (1 page),
  • research portfolio, describing my future plans and achievements to date, as well as a personal essay summarising my approach to research (8 pages),
  • pedagogic portfolio, describing every bit of teaching I’ve done for under-grad, post-grad, and PhD students, as well as an essay on what I have learned form my own pedagogical training, and how I apply it to specific instances of my teaching and supervision (12 pages),
  • management portfolio, describing my approach to leadership and the training I have taken in this area (3 pages), and
  • a list of my ten most significant research publications, with paragraphs explaining why each of them was a landmark for my career or personal development.

The following appendices are also included:

  • my degree certificates,
  • evidence of all awarded research funding,
  • every bit of teaching material I have written (syllabi, lab guides, assignment instructions),
  • completion certificates for pedagogic courses, and
  • full copies of my ten most significant research publications.

After submitting the application, the basic information was checked by HR to make sure I had reached the minimum requirements, which is that I had made some contribution to teaching and supervision, and had shown independence in my research. I was sure this would be fine – I had taken an extra year to prepare my application precisely to make sure that the application would be fully assessed. After all, if your application to Docent at KTH fails, you are required to wait 18 months before re-applying!

Next, my application was sent out to an external expert in my field, who reviewed the research portfolio. After receiving a very positive assessment, my application was passed to the internal pedagogic committee. They reviewed my application and decided that, yes, I should be interviewed, hurray! The interview was performed by three faculty members and one student representative, and they grilled me for about an hour about the way that I teach and supervise students, and how I see the next few years playing out.

A few days later they told me they were satisfied that I could pass to the final stage of the assessment – giving a public pedagogic lecture about my research! At this point, it was early April 2020, so of course the lecture had to be given online – I think I might have given the first online Docent lecture at KTH. It was a really nice chance to talk about the topics I’m passionate about in a “popular science” way, lots of my colleagues past and present attended, and many asked really interesting questions. I felt genuinely very supported, and was only sad not to be able to celebrate with them in person after the lecture! The slideshow below gives you a very condensed view of the lecture I gave, using Mike Morrison’s Twitter Poster gif template.

So how is my job different now?

Day to day not much has changed. I didn’t get a pay raise when I became Docent, but it will be a major plus for me when I have my next annual salary revision. I still teach and supervise as I did before the assessment, and have the same financial and managerial levels of responsibility as before. But I am now eligible to recruit a PhD student and be their main supervisor, and I am now eligible to serve on PhD defence committees or as a PhD examiner. I feel like some people maybe take me more seriously now I am Docent, and in the next few months I’ll learn if it has an impact on how I am viewed by the research councils when applying for funding.

The biggest change is simply how I feel about my job. Although becoming Docent was not a promotion for me, I really do feel seen by the university now in a way that I didn’t before. I know I have gone the extra mile the past few years in organising and performing teaching duties and events that promoted the university or department, and never really felt that those efforts were acknowledged. Now I do. That feeling of being seen, and that the work I do is noticed, has carried me through some weird and dark moments in this weird and dark year.

This much I have learned – How to ask for funding for your research.

Acquiring your own independent line of research funding is key to the beginning of an academic career, whether you will pursue fellowships, the tenure track, or something else. Having your own research funding shows that you can lead a project, and that you have good, big ideas.

But funding applications are very different from probably anything you’ve written before, and for most Early Career Researchers (ECRs), there is a steep learning curve while we figure out how to write successful ones. For many, myself included, this means a lot of rejections before the first award of funding. Learning to deal with that rejection is not the topic of discussion here. Instead, I want to talk about moving on from a failed proposal so you can write a better one next time. After some recent successes I’m very happy and excited about, I will here try to summarise how I changed my approach in writing funding applications, and the specific lessons I took from some spectacular early failures. Some of these tips may be more specific to the Swedish context in which I am working, but I hope that they are universal enough that most ECR readers can take some inspiration from this list.

In Sweden, the two major research councils offer early career “starter” grants that fund 3-4 year projects. Anyone working in a university who obtained their PhD 2-7 years ago is eligible to apply for funding. If you are an Assistant Professor receiving salary support from your school, this funding should allow you to recruit a post-doc. If, like me, you are a non-faculty Researcher, it will just about let you pay your own salary, granting you financial independence from your supervisor and giving you breathing room to apply for additional funding to recruit personnel whom you will supervise.

Lesson 1 – You have to actually try

I started applying for independent funding a few years after most of my lab-mates who are at the same career age as me (yes they are men how did you know). In the beginning, I didn’t think I was ready to stand on my own. I didn’t think my ideas were very interesting or impressive. I didn’t think I had a large enough network of contacts to propose collaborative work to anyone. I didn’t think my CV was strong enough, or that I had published enough papers, or that my papers had been cited enough, or that anyone on the reviewing panel would recognise my name. I probably waited 3 years longer than I really needed to before I gained the confidence to start applying for funds, and looking back at this of nervousness, I’m really annoyed at my former self for all of that wasted time.

Unless you are very lucky*, your first few funding applications probably will be rejected. But, depending on the type of application, you should get some feedback as to the major problems with your proposal. If you don’t get comments from the panel, I recommend showing an unsuccessful funding application to a trusted colleague who has had more success. It is never a fun experience being told everything that is wrong with your proposal, but you must learn to take those criticisms in a constructive way. Use the feedback to write a better proposal for the next relevant funding call that comes around. If you don’t try that first time, you won’t get to make your much-improved second or third attempt! And if you don’t take the criticism on board, then your chances of success won’t increase over time.

*Luck in this context can come in many forms. For example, it helps to have published in a very high impact journal (and we can debate the logic and merits of that fact another day), but if you are an ECR, and if you’re honest with yourself, it’s likely that your Nature or Science paper was accepted on the strength of your boss’s name. Or that it was a result of a large collaborative effort directed by well-known academics you were lucky enough to work under. It also helps if your current supervisor or mentor is a big name in their field (see Lesson 3 below). You can also be lucky in the case that someone on the reviewing panel sees promise in your early work and decides to fight for you – but you will never know if this happened, so don’t count on it.

Lesson 2 – Stand on your own, as part of a community

If you are the main or sole applicant, then it needs to be very clear that you are the driving force behind the project, in terms of the creative thinking, the analytical work (data evaluation and drawing conclusions), and the recruitment of staff or students. You need to explain how you yourself will take charge of dissemination and outreach, to make sure you reach all of your impact goals (see Tips #4 and #5 in the list at the bottom of this, erm, list.) You need to show how your new work will step beyond and away from what you have done with your supervisors so far, so it is clear that your new project is genuinely yours – but you should also show that you will make a valuable contribution to a broader research community.

I always include a statement describing how my new project will fit the broad goals of my Division at KTH, how it will contribute to the sustainability initiatives of my University, and how it will feed into the educational programmes at my School. You want to show that you can work with international collaborators and have a global mindset, so talk about attending major conferences in your field, and networking across continents where possible. But you also belong to a local community of scientific researchers and educators, and the work you are proposing is for them, as well as you. It is possible to write some very powerful impact statements about how the research you propose will integrate into education at your university. For example, I involve under- and post-grad students in my research programmes when they work on their thesis projects with me. I also include examples from my own research in lectures I give on enzyme discovery and carbohydrate technology.

Lesson 3 – Invite impressive co-applicants from a variety of disciplines

I believe that ECRs can afford to be somewhat cynical when it comes to inviting co-applicants with big names, as the odds are against us, and it makes a huge difference to the likely success of a proposal to have a co-applicant who is more recognisable to the panel than you are yourself. This is NOT to say that you should invite any random famous scientist who is remotely connected to your field. But if you have a senior colleague or collaborator who could offer solid and relevant advice as you work on the project, invite them to be a co-applicant. Discuss with them in detail so that they know whether or not they should expect to be co-authors on papers. If their role will be advisory, discuss it with them, and make it clear in the application.

Lesson 4 – Include preliminary data

This was not obvious to me when I started out. Since I was specifically applying for funding to initiate a new project, I didn’t include any data in my first proposals. I discussed previous work I had done that used similar techniques, to show I could perform the proposed experiments, but I didn’t provide any new (unpublished) data.

I suspect that this may be a sticking point for a lot of ECRs, who are working as post-docs on someone else’s projects, and therefore don’t have time to work on experiments in support of their own proposals. As early as possible, you should discuss with your current supervisor about your eventual desire to apply for your own financial support. My second post-doc supervisor was generous in that he let me pursue projects in addition to the work he assigned to me, and this is what led to my eventual funding success, as I included data I had generated over several years in my “starter” grant applications.

Lesson 5 – Use a personal writing style

I noticed a drastic change in my proposal success rate when, in what I admit was a fit of frustration and pettiness, I decided on the spur of a moment to fundamentally change the tone of language I was using in my proposals. I now use a very personal writing style, referring explicitly to myself, my skills, and my achievements at several points in proposals. Example sentence: “The work I propose will greatly advance my research towards commercialisation of my biomaterial formation process, by achieving the following goals.

I also include discussions of my own career advancement in the “outcomes” section of all proposals. I believe that, since I am asking the research councils to invest in me, they should know a bit about me, and what I want to do long term. This is I think especially effective in “early career”/”future leader”-type applications, where the main successful outcome of the project will be that you have a job.

My final list of tips that might improve your chances of obtaining research funding

  1. Already have some funding (sorry, but this seems to be the biggest boon to any CV. Not having any prior awards makes research councils wary of granting you an award. So frustrating!! Start by applying for small grants from small foundations. My first win was a ~€10k foundation award to pay for gene synthesis; I later used the characterisation of those genes as preliminary data to support my first successful proper project grant.)
  2. Invite some impressive (but appropriate) co-applicants who are well-funded and well-known in your country as well as internationally. Involve different disciplines (humanities!!) wherever possible and appropriate. I have a co-applicant on a current project who is an Industrial Ecologist and life cycle expert, and the panel’s feedback confirmed that his expertise made a huge difference to our proposal.
  3. (Possibly most relevant in Sweden, where innovation and application are very important.) Have a specific product or application in mind. Present an actual business case if you can. At my university, we have an innovation office that can help with these things, undertaking market research and exploring patent space for researchers, among other services.
  4. (Again, vital in Sweden in particular, but hopefully important everywhere by now.) Take sustainability and community outreach seriously – they’re more than just buzzwords, they should be the ultimate end goal and purpose of all of your work. This is especially important if you are applying for funds that derive from taxpayers money – if your work has no societal benefit whatsoever, it should not be funded from the public purse. If your work has purely commercial goals, look for financial support from industry or private foundations instead.
  5. Know how the funder defines and measures impact and output. Mention all of the papers you expect to publish, the popular science press you intend to engage with, the patents you will apply for, the collaborations you will initiate, the conferences you will attend, etc. But also mention all of the students at Bachelor’s and Master’s level who you will supervise as they work on small parts of this new project. Think about how you might integrate your new research findings into lectures or seminars you give to students at your university – the next generation of ECRs, perhaps.
  6. Keep trying, and be ambitious – writing the “big” applications is amazing practice. I applied for an ERC Starter Grant and failed massively. But I worked on the application, submitted to the Swedish Research Council the following spring, and was awarded the Starter Grant that, well, started my independence!

How my research is funded.

Here you can read about the different sources of funding that support my research at KTH Glycoscience, including the goals and timelines of each funded project. The paragraphs below are taken directly from my successful funding applications, and lay out my plans for each research project. Check my academic publication record to see how each project is actually going!!

A new sustainable route to polysaccharide hydrogel formation for medical and cosmetic applications.

Funded by Formas, the Swedish research council for sustainability. 2020-2023.

Photo by RF._.studio on Pexels.com

Hydrogels are an extremely versatile class of material, and have found relevance in cosmetic, medical, pharmaceutical, and industrial processes. A hydrogel has a low solid content, often comprising at least 90% water. Although hydrogels are increasingly used in cosmetics and drug manufacture, the production process is far from sustainable, relying on fossil-based polymers and chemical synthesis steps, using compounds that are harmful to human health. I have discovered that certain proteins can be used to cross-link polysaccharides (complex carbohydrate polymers), thereby creating a hydrogel network. The process avoids all chemical solvents, and allows us to use renewable biopolymers of natural origin, rather than fossil-based polymers. The polysaccharides we can use derive from biomass processing waste streams, promoting a circular bioeconomy and smart use of resources.

Engineering improved stability and substrate binding into enzymes for efficient hydrolysis of lignocellulosic biomass.

Funded by the Swedish energy agency. 2020-2025.

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

The overall aim of this project is to enhance the efficiency of industrial biomass saccharification for biofuel production by designing and engineering new enzymes with enhanced hydrolytic capabilities and high thermostability. In my Vetenskapsrådet-funded Etableringsbidrag (Starter Grant) project, I have discovered a new class of small domains found in some bacterial enzymes, and have demonstrated that they provide a truly significant boost to enzyme thermostability and hydrolytic capacity on complex biomass.

INTENT: INducible TransgENic Technology for disease resistance in plants

Funded by Vetenskapsrådet, the Swedish research council for basic science. 2017-2021.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The overall aim of INTENT is to improve crop plant defences against emerging infectious fungal diseases. This multi-disciplinary project will combine biochemistry, molecular biology, and plant pathology. I will design and implement a new method of plant biotechnology where transgene expression for plant defence is induced by the specific fungal glycans encountered in the early stages of pathogen exposure. This will offer greater efficiency and specificity than innate plant defence systems.

In the next phase of my career, I look forward to applying my skills to the challenges of food security, soil conservation, and climate change. With the support of Vetenskapsrådet, my goal with INTENT is to gain autonomy, and begin to establish a competitive new research team. I will create a niche for us to lead in a new area of environmental science. My long-term ambition is to understand the roles of soil bacteria in biomass recycling and plant health, and to be inspired by these species to develop new technologies for sustainable agriculture and forestry, built on a strong foundation of molecular science.

Enzymatic epoxidation of suberin monomers for thermoset production.

Funded by the Wallenberg Wood Science Centre. 2018-2020.

Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

The epoxidation of suberin and cutin to increase the content of epoxidised compounds would increase the yield of polymers available for the lipase-based production of thermosetting bioplastics. This would valorise a waste-stream from the wood biorefinery, as bark is always removed from the wood prior to processing. We will characterise newly identified epoxidase enzymes from plants and microorganisms that introduce epoxy groups to long chain fatty acids, and use them to epoxidise the monomers of suberin/cutin. These will be used to make new materials produced without the use of petroleum-derived chemicals, which will therefore represent a sustainable high-value product.

New approaches to the prevention of fungal disease in young trees inspired by beneficial soil bacteria.

Funded by the Anna and Nils Håkansson Foundation. 2017.

Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

Soil bacteria produce enzymes that attack the cell walls of pathogenic fungi. I will discover new anti-fungal enzymes for disease prevention in young trees. The enzymes will be applied directly or be incorporated into new bio-active materials. The use of natural soil-bacterial enzymes prevents the introduction of ‘foreign’ proteins to the forest ecosystem and reduces pesticide use. The project will involve gene cloning, protein production, enzyme characterisation, and material chemistry.

Talking hydrogels with Elin Viksten at Extrakt.

Towards the end of 2019 I received the exciting news that a project of mine would be funded by Formas, the Swedish research council that supports work in the broadly defined area of sustainable development. Shortly after receiving the notice of funding, I was contacted by Elin Viksten, a reporter for the Swedish language online magazine Extrakt.se, which publishes popular science articles about new and ongoing research, including many projects supported by Formas.

In Sweden, the summary (Abstract) for every project awarded funding by the national research councils Formas and Vetenskapsrådet must by law be visible online. This is a matter of accountability, as it makes sure the general public can read about the projects they are funding, and can get in touch with the responsible researchers if they wish to. Elin had read the Abstract of my new Formas project when the notice of award was given, and she was intrigued by the work I was proposing. She contacted me in November and we spoke over the phone about my work. This was very exciting for me, as I had never been interviewed about my research before! You can find her full Swedish language article here at this link. What follows is a condensed English translation of the article, paraphrasing the original, including quotes from my own answers to Elin’s questions.

New protein can change the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

They are ideal for moisturising and wound dressing, among other applications. Hydrogels have desirable properties for both the beauty and pharmaceutical industries. But their manufacturer requires harmful chemicals and non-renewable polymers. Now chemistry researcher Lauren McKee may have found a protein that can completely change production – in the pine forest.

Moisturising face masks, including sheet masks, have become a popular form of skin care. The moisturising component is a hydrogel material, which has also proved very useful in wound dressings. But most hydrogels are not produced in sustainable ways.

“Hydrogel effectively moisturises the skin as it contains 95 percent water. It’s a popular material, but I don’t think people generally know what it is and how it works. It can be daunting to look at the long list of ingredients on some cosmetics,” says Lauren McKee, researcher in biochemistry at the Royal Institute of Technology, KTH.

Toxic chemicals

The problem is that production today either involves non-renewable petroleum-based polymers or chemical modifications with hazardous chemicals. A hydrogel is always formed from a polymer that binds water in a three-dimensional structure that can also contain bio-active molecules with cosmetic or medical applications.

Often sodium polyacrylate, polyvinyl acetate, and similar petroleum-based polymers are used. However, because they are not sustainable, they are not ideal starting materials. So, carbohydrate biopolymers have begun to be used. The problem with using carbohydrates is that chemical modifications are required to get the 3D structures you are looking for.

“In this process, you get large amounts of chemical waste and the end product can also contain unwanted molecules. Borax, for example, is not an ingredient in the hydrogel, but is used in preparation. And it’s hard to get rid of all of these molecules once the hydrogel has formed,” says Lauren McKee.

Proteins discovered in the soil

This is where Lauren McKee’s discovery comes into play. She is a researcher in biochemistry and is mainly focused on natural microbial processes in the soil, such as the proteins and enzymes that affect biodegradation processes. It was also there, in the pine forest’s top soil, that she found entirely new proteins. They can be used to make hydrogel in a sustainable way. She accidentally discovered this function of the proteins in the laboratory and now she collaborates with researchers focused on materials research, quite far from her own research area.

“This is a whole new concept. Nobody has understood that these proteins can be used in this way. That is exciting to say the least.”

Produced by bacteria

What Lauren McKee found was proteins with the ability to cross-link natural carbohydrates to form the 3D structures that are so good at binding water – without the harmful chemicals used today. So far, she has explored two of the proteins and their ability to form hydrogels. The proteins are produced naturally by bacteria found in the soil, but they can also be produced easily in the laboratory.

“After that we mix a carbohydrate with the protein in a water solution – and that’s all. It sounds too easy, and it is a very simple process. The proteins and carbohydrates interact in the same way as they do in nature, what we call biomimicry.”

Must have long durability

The challenges ahead include, among other things, obtaining hydrogel with a sufficiently long shelf life. All components are naturally occurring molecules and for hydrogel to be used in cosmetic products, a minimum durability of 6-12 months is required.

“We need to make sure the gel is stable and resists microbial growth, but it is also important that it is allergy-proof. Since we are using proteins we have to be very careful about application to humans, so we need to test for every possible reaction.”

The few proteins of this type that have been observed previously have not shown this gel-forming property and Lauren McKee is the first to see this use. She believes that the soil is a very underrated environment for finding new enzymes and proteins.

“A lot of resources are invested in research on the human gut and its bacteria. But there is an equal or even greater species richness and as many enzymes in the soil.”

Translated from an original Swedish text by Elin Viksten of Extrakt.se