Bioengineers-in-training looking to strike gold

Elena Rosca

Above: Dr. Elena Rosca (center) and students in the Department of Engineering at Ashesi University work to engineer bacteria that can detect the presence of gold.

Ghana is a hub for gold mining in West Africa. Small-scale mining is a big operation throughout the country, and for the 1 million people working in the sector, it’s a risky business venture with little certainty of success.

The consequences of small-scale mining are equally precarious. Illegal mining operations have emerged, with hefty environmental consequences to the region’s land and waterways.

The same can be said for open-pit mining, which is easy for small-scale miners to get started but can lead to enormous environmental risks.

Elena Rosca, PhD, of Ashesi University is aiming to reduce all of the risks affecting the environment and the miners themselves.

Engineering Solutions

Dr. Rosca is a bioengineer in Ashesi’s Department of Engineering, which received an Instrumental Access award in 2020. In 2017, she led a handful of her undergraduate students in a project targeting Ghana’s small-scale gold mining.

The group was selected as an entry into the prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, a global event that focuses on using synthetic biology to solve complex problems.

Because mining is so prevalent throughout Ghana, Dr. Rosca’s team focused its initial efforts on aiding the recovery of refractory ore, a notoriously difficult source of gold to extract and refine.

The team of students engineered a strain of E. coli capable of facilitating gold extraction from refractory ores. The biological processing was designed to be cleaner and safer than standard industrial processes involving toxic chemicals.

Sadly, the engineered bacterium could not be kept alive after the competition due to a lack of equipment.

In 2022, a new team from Ashesi is entering the competition, this time focusing on the detection of gold above the surface rather than refining the ore below. Dr. Rosca is excited to guide 10 students through their iGEM project; they have already been awarded two grants to support their work.

A new way to detect gold

The team is focused on detecting what are called pathfinder elements—elements that are typically found in conjunction with gold but are far easier to detect than the gold itself.

It is a two-step process where one synthesized bacterium notes the presence of gold in the soil while another bacterium looks for traces of iron and arsenic. When both iron and arsenic are detected, the chances of finding gold increase dramatically.

The long-term plans for this project are to develop a portable system for small-scale miners to detect gold in the earth before they start digging.

With greater certainty that gold is beneath the surface, Dr. Rosca believes that open-pit mines will be less frequently dug, especially near residential areas.

Reducing the number of open-pit mines would benefit the environment and the communities near mining sites—fewer open pits would mean cleaner water and air.

Elena Rosca
"We can make the landscape much safer by giving miners the tools to understand where to dig."

Elena Rosca, PhD
Ashesi University
Department of Engineering

“Often, people will just start digging without knowing if there is gold in the area and then leave the hole open,” she says. “We can make the landscape much safer by giving miners the tools to understand where to dig.”

Though Ashesi does not yet have a dedicated bioengineering major, student interest in the specialty is extremely high, and the iGEM team has pounced on the opportunity to use the department’s resources. Their successes are powerful reminders of what can happen when students have the necessary tools to pursue their passions.

“We have already begun the process of bacterial transformation,” says Dr. Rosca. “Soon, students will move to more complex procedures for this project, including ligation and microencapsulation. It’s exciting to see them grow and develop!”

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Paul Hohenberger

Paul Hohenberger

Director of Individual Giving

Paul is responsible for individual outreach to increase philanthropic support for Seeding Labs. He is an experienced fundraising professional with broad knowledge and understanding of resource development and advancement in major research universities and public trusts. 

In previous roles at The University of Massachusetts, MIT, Harvard University, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, Paul cultivated relationships within the philanthropic community, garnering support for programs and priorities spanning nuclear engineering, global health, climate science/energy, and demographic and survey research.

Paul’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in political science and history from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He is active in his alma mater, serving on the Department of Political Science Advisory Board, and was a former board member of the UMass Alumni Association. 

Additionally, he has completed professional certificate programs at the T.H. Chan Harvard School of Public Health and MIT, enhancing his expertise in policy, politics, and innovation.

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Alyssa Tran
Logistics Intern

Alyssa Tran started working for Seeding Labs in Summer 2024 in the Instrumental Access Program. She is pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Biology at Clark University (Class of 2026).

Being a Biology major has allowed her to develop skills within research labs and understand various types of laboratory equipment, which gives support to the program.

Jennifer Raymond

Jennifer Raymond
Director of Corporate Relations

Jennifer builds and stewards Seeding Labs’ partnerships with corporations and other life science institutions. Our partners’ financial and lab equipment contributions help support universities and research institutions in under-resourced settings.

When these talented scientists, researchers, and educators have the resources they need to create and maintain strong scientific institutions, new solutions are created for both local development needs and global challenges.

Before joining Seeding Labs, Jennifer raised funds and engaged constituents for

the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Brandeis University. She graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in French studies.

Manisha Patel

Manisha Patel
Scientific Director

Manisha uses her scientific expertise to implement the equipment-related aspects of Seeding Labs’ programs and plays a key role in Instrumental Access.

She provides support to Instrumental Access awardees, helping them choose the instruments that best meet their research and teaching goals. She also advises the Corporate Relations team on equipment that would be useful in our awardees’ labs.

Manisha has extensive experience in managing academic research labs with knowledge spanning lab setup, compliance, and equipment training. Most recently, she oversaw labs at Harvard University.

For the past decade, Manisha directed an undergraduate internship program focused on one of her passions:  diversity and inclusion in STEM. She holds a BS in ecology from Rutgers University and an MS in ecology from the University of Vermont.

Micaela Leaska

Micalea Leaska
Programs Specialist,
Metrics & Evaluation

Micalea works with the Programs team to develop and implement metrics and evaluation tools, and to monitor the worldwide impact of Instrumental Access. She compiles and analyzes quantitative data and qualitative stories that exemplify our mantra, “talent is everywhere.”

Her prior work experience includes consulting for the World Bank, working on Water Security Assessments for Peru and Central America, and improving access to safe water in rural Ecuadorian communities with the nonprofit WaterStep.

Micalea holds a BA from Saint Michael’s College and completed her Master’s degree in Climate Change and Global Sustainability from SIT Graduate Institute, where she studied global science issues alongside scientists, stakeholders, and community members in Iceland, Tanzania, and Ecuador.

Chiudo Ehirim

Chiudo Ehirim
Instrumental Access

After completing an Atlas Corps Fellowship with Seeding Labs, Chiudo now provides support to our Instrumental Access partners from his Rumines Ltd. office in Lagos, Nigeria. Chiudo is CEO of Rumines, an environmental technology and management consulting company.

Prior to his fellowship, Chiudo was a country manager for Nigeria with Climate Scorecard, a US-based organization that monitors how the top 25 greenhouse gas-emitting countries implement the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Chiudo earned a BS in pure and industrial chemistry from the University of Nigeria and a Master’s of Science in environmental technology and management from the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria.

David Borman

David Borman, PhD

David works to highlight the innovation and scientific successes of Instrumental Access awardees. In telling these scientists’ stories, he helps to show the global impact of the Seeding Labs mission.

Prior to joining Seeding Labs, David worked as the alumni affairs director for Brevard College in North Carolina and managed communications for Kids Center for Pediatric Therapies, a nonprofit in Louisville, Kentucky, that provides services to children with special needs.

David earned his PhD in English from the University of Miami. He holds an MA in English from the University of Louisville and a BA in English from Bellarmine University.

Christine Srivastava

Christina Viola Srivastava

Vice President of Programs

Christina is responsible for program development, planning, and implementation at Seeding Labs. 

Christina has experience as a research program evaluator and science policy analyst. She’s held roles with the consulting firm Abt Associates, Inc. and the Science and Technology Policy Institute.

Prior to entering the consulting world, Christina worked for the Boston-area nonprofits Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics and Urban Ecology Institute. She holds an undergraduate degree in biology from Swarthmore College

Rick Sherman

Rick Sherman

Vice President of Philanthropy

Rick is responsible for the fundraising activities at Seeding Labs, engaging with corporations, foundations, and individuals to increase their financial and equipment donations to the organization.

Prior to joining Seeding Labs, Rick spent 17 years working in a similar capacity at a number of science-focused organizations, including Keystone Symposia, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now the Science History Institute).

Rick earned an MS in Finance from Drexel University, and a BS in Paper Science and Engineering from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

David Qualter

Vice President of Operations

David is responsible for global logistics at Seeding Labs, overseeing the efficient movement of lab equipment worldwide.

He joined Seeding Labs from Image Arts, a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards, where he provided logistics direction for the company with $110 million in annual sales.

He brings 20 years of supply chain management experience with in-depth knowledge of international logistics, warehouse execution, and distribution center operations.

Originally an art student at Southeastern Massachusetts University, David now uses his creative talents to develop logistics strategies that produce operational efficiencies and quality customer service.

Melissa P. Wu, PhD

Melissa P. Wu, PhD

Chief Executive Officer

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Melissa is the CEO and a co-founder of Seeding Labs. She began as a volunteer leader of the Harvard Medical School student group; later, as a founding board member, she supported its transition to a nonprofit organization. In 2014, she joined the staff of Seeding Labs, leading the USAID-sponsored $3M scale-up of the Instrumental Access program. In 2019, Melissa became CEO, committed to increasing capacity for developing countries to use science. 

Operating with a deep belief in the power of science to transform lives, Melissa has dedicated her career to creating scientific research opportunities for historically underrepresented and excluded communities. In addition to roles at Harvard and the BioBuilder Educational Foundation, Melissa has mentored many students in the sciences through programs at the Journal of Emerging Investigators, Harvard University, Boston Children’s Hospital, and MIT.

Melissa earned a PhD in Cellular and Developmental Biology from Harvard University and holds an SB in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.