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Smart Thinker: Dr Alexandra Thomson, renowned marine ecologist

Smart Thinker: Dr Alexandra Thomson, renowned marine ecologist

Marine ecologist and innovator Dr Alexandra Thomson is passionate about bioplastics. She advocates using algae to make everything from jandals to printer ink.

Smart Thinker: Dr Alexandra Thomson, renowned marine ecologist

Dr Alexandra Thomson is a marine ecologist who heads up the Deep Green Biotech Hub, an ‘algae innovation hub’.

She is also one of 60 STEM Superstars for 2019-20 who have been tasked with attracting more women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

Passionate about attracting more women into science-related careers, she is an ideal advocate for the cause.

At just 30 years old, she has already made an impact in her chosen field of marine ecology.

Her Honours and PhD research examined the carbon-capturing potential of seagrass meadows – an area of expertise that has parlayed well into her current role supporting innovation in microalgae and macroalgae research.

Childhood experiments to world-class research

Growing up on a rainforest property, and having a grandfather who was an agricultural scientist for the United Nations were two of the major factors that influenced Dr Thomson’s pursuit of a life in science.

As a child, her grandfather would teach her experiments with magnets, show her parasites on trees, and the pair would regularly go down to the beach to look at the rock pools and stingrays.

She says her family always pushed her to ask questions. “If I didn’t understand something, my parents would say, ‘Go and look it up’ or ‘Go and ask Grandad’,” says Dr Thomson.

When she was in high school, she says that four out of five of her science teachers were female, a coincidence that made a significant difference to the way she viewed her prospects in the field.

Dr Thomson explains: “In a recent experiment, a group of kids were asked to draw a scientist. Most drew a white man because that is the perception. We need to change that.”

A voice for women in science

Alongside working as a lecturer in marine ecology and career management for scientists, and her advocacy work for women in STEM, Dr Thomson leads the Deep Green Biotech Hub at the University of Technology in Sydney (UTS) that forms part of the university’s Climate Change Cluster.

She also helped found an accelerator programme called Green Light.

“Green Light helps small businesses and start-ups innovate with algae. The programme participants go from concept to proof of concept in five months,” she says.

Programmes like this have seen an increase in the number of businesses using algae in the past year.

A perfect example of this is a project Dr Thomson worked on with the Young Henrys brewery. The brewery has installed tanks containing 400 litres of algae to capture the carbon emitted by the company’s brewing process.

From algae to beer

How does this work? The brewing process emits CO2 as a by-product of yeast converting sugars into alcohol.

The Young Henrys brewers have calculated how much CO2 they are currently emitting and the algae, due to their fast-growing nature, sucks an equivalent amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere during photosynthesis.

Current estimates peg Young Henrys as heading towards being carbon neutral, thanks to the team’s use of the algae.

Other projects Dr Thomson has worked on include research into golden kelp farms, with a view to using ocean-based seaweed farms for carbon sequestration schemes, as well as for food, fuel, and as a rubber substitute.

On a recent trip to the US, she saw algae-based products like compostable foams being made into thongs (flip-flops), bioplastics being used to make takeaway containers and algae products being used to make everything from health food supplements to pigments, printer ink, meat alternatives and even pharmaceuticals and vaccines.

“The potential is enormous. Anything you can make using petrochemicals or fossil fuels can be made from algae,” she says.

How is that possible? Dr Thomson says it’s simple.

Fossil fuels are made from algae that have been placed under geological pressure for billions of years and then extracted using various mining techniques.

Cultivated algae have the same properties as those ancient algae reserves with the added benefits that they can be farmed in tanks, grow extremely rapidly, and represent one of the world’s most efficient carbon sinks.

When pressed to identify what she thinks is the most promising algae-based product, Dr Thomson says her money is on bioplastics.

“They can be used to make everything from safe and sterile medical equipment, to bottles for clean drinking water in developing nations.

“It’s a really interesting space to be working in,” she says. “The way careers are changing at the moment, an interest in STEM is going to be hugely advantageous.

“Science gives you such amazing places to work. The possibilities are endless.”

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