Microbiologist, Dr Tracy White, works on developing environmentally friendly packaging, using natural waste products from the food and fisheries industry.
Find out more about her career path and current work as Head of Science at CuanTec.
Please introduce yourself and give a brief description of your role?
I am Dr. Tracy White of CuanTec where I work as Head of Science. As a microbiologist by background, I lead and support CuanTec’s science team to develop an environmentally friendly way of creating high-demand products from fisheries waste.
Could you tell us about the project you are currently working on?
CuanTec take the waste shell from fisheries and food processing and through a fermentation process are able to extract the structural component of the shell – chitin. This chitin which would often be lost to landfill has many potential uses within the food, medical, cosmetic, agriculture and environment sectors.
What is bioplastic and why is it important?
CuanTec are working to develop a home compostable packaging from the chitin extracted from waste shells. This would provide an alternative to traditional petrochemical based plastic packaging which can simply be composted at home, therefore reducing single use plastics from being discarded at landfill or subsequently entering our oceans.
What problems or challenges can bioplastic solve? What other benefits are there to using bioplastic?
By using natural waste products such as the shell waste of the shellfish processing industry we are able to make the maximum use of the harvest rather than only making use of the meat therefore increasing the sustainability of the fisheries sector. This will reduce both the environmental and economical impact of discarding food waste to landfill. By using these natural waste materials for the creation of high demand products we are able to offer retail a compostable alternative to petrochemical based single use plastic packaging. Therefore further reducing environmental impact of these traditional plastic packaging, which are often in use for a very limited time period, on our land and seas and associated wildlife.
Where did the idea of making bioplastics in this way originate from?
The founder of CuanTec was driven by the need to find a use for the sheer volumes of waste food from the processing industry. Through research they were able to identify potentially valuable materials which could be extracted from the waste and used to create high-demand products. CuanTec was formed to develop this technology through a novel biologically derived process for chitin extraction and downstream produce creation.
Who do you collaborate with and why is collaboration important for your work?
CuanTec work with a number of collaborating partners including academia who are able to assist within the research and development of CuanTec’s processing and product development. We also work with various commercial partners from food processors interested in reducing their waste and making the maximum use of their harvest to retailers who are looking for greener alternatives to single use plastics.
What potential problems are there of using bioplastic in the packaging industry and how can these problems be addressed?
Packaging is far more complex than you would first imagine. It is developed with key properties to protect the food during transit and storage. It has to be tough enough to withstand shipping and protect the food, it often prevents the food from drying out, or allowing oxygen to enter the packaging which would promote food-spoiling bacterial growth. These are all factors that have to be incorporated into the design of compostable packaging too. These are aspects that CuanTec are currently working to achieve by formulating packaging with other food ingredients to ensuring food quality is maintained while allowing for compostable alternatives to single use plastic packaging.
What are the next steps for your project / CuanTec?
CuanTec are working towards increasing the scale at which we are able to handle food processing waste and extracting chitin. This will mean we have much more material to develop our compostable packaging. The resulting prototype packaging are subjected to testing to ensure it can protect our food during transportation and storage. Once we are happy with the packaging it will be put through rigorous regulatory testing and obtain approval for use on food products. We will then be able to make our home compostable packaging available for use to retail as an alternative to single use plastic packaging.
What or who inspired your interest in your chosen field?
On leaving school I studied Marine Science where I learned about our seas and oceans from all aspects; physically, chemically, and biologically. I remember as a student being particularly blown away with the microscopic organisms that were present in the world around us. They may be small, we can’t see them with the naked eye, but they have a massive impact! They help regulate our climate; provide nutrients to larger creatures, supporting the food chain; and even playing important roles in the function of our own bodies.
Through scientific development we have been able to harness their potential in a whole range of applications from creating ingredients for medicines, helping to process food products, such as bread and cheese, to cleaning up waste or in CuanTec’s case, extract valuable products from waste.
Can you tell us a bit about your training?
I became fascinated by the marine environment as I grew up, and was lucky enough to get an undergraduate placement at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, who host the University of the Highlands and Islands Marine Science degree course. This course was very practical with loads of hands-on experience within the local coastal location of Oban on the west coast of Scotland. We were taught not only about the biology of our seas and oceans but also from a chemical and physical perspective as well. I was able to carry out some summer work looking at how bacteria found in the oceans can help to clean up oil pollution, giving some insight into oil remediation after a spill.
On leaving university I was able to work in my field of interest, in a pharmaceutical discovery company where I screened marine micro-organisms for new anti-infective properties that could be of use in antibiotics. After a few years I decided I wanted to learn some more and advance my skills and I managed to secure a PhD studentship at Queen’s University Belfast. My PhD research looked into the tools bacteria can use during infection and how different treatments could be used to target this attack on our systems.
What do you wish people knew about your job?
Scientist don’t have all the answers!…but they’re an inquisitive bunch and are driven to find answers no matter how difficult the process can be.
Science is a case of trial and error and pushing back the boundaries of the unknown. When working at the cutting edge of scientific development there isn’t an instruction manual that can be followed, we rely on highly trained people to use their experience in guessing the best route forward to understand more about the unanswered questions on the world around us. This can lead to the highest of highs when you get a significant breakthrough but it can be tough having to go back to the drawing board to think of another way to figure out the answer to the particular problem we are faced with.
What is your favourite part of your job?
My job is different every day of the week, often thinking through challenges we haven’t figured out how to solve yet. I love working as part of a team, seeing various different scientists in action in a bid to come up with a way of solving a problem and finding a way of pushing our development forward. It can be a very rewarding experience when we find a solution to the problem at hand.
What do you think are the key skills needed to be an innovator or to work in your field?
Resilience is a must! Being able to think outside of the box and consider new ideas is key to being an innovator. However to push those ideas forward to creating something of significance be that environmental, commercial, social, etc, takes resilience. There are the highest of highs when you are making great strides forward, but there are also lows when things don’t work or go according to plan. You must be resilient enough to pick yourself up and dust yourself down and come back at it with determination to succeed.