Sweet success in South Africa

Anne Stark's Success

Above: In South Africa, Dr. Annegret Stark (far left) and graduate students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal are working on using sugarcane biowaste to make new, sustainable products.

Some scientists are driven by curiosity or the passion of solving the world’s biggest problems. But for Dr. Annegret Stark, PhD, it isn’t enough to work in chemical engineering, a field that can produce world-changing innovations.

Rather, she is pulled to innovate in ways that improve the lives of people living and working in South Africa.

Dr. Stark, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, shows this commitment by working to support one of South Africa’s most important sectors: the sugar industry.

In her role as a Research Chair for Sugarcane Biorefining, co-funded by the Sugar Milling Research Institute NPC in collaboration with the National Research Foundation through the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI), she dedicates her time and talent to supporting the sugar industry’s innovation efforts.

The provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga are the heart of South Africa’s billion-dollar sugar industry.

The livelihoods of more than 1 million people depend on this industry, but in recent years, any excess sugar produced but not consumed domestically creates a conundrum.

“Any sugar we can’t sell locally we have to sell on the world market below the cost of production,” Dr. Stark explains.

Between 25 and 40% of South Africa’s sugar is exported at below the cost of production every year, to the detriment of thousands of local growers as well as the milling companies who depend on the income.

In addition to the excess of available sugar, Dr. Stark focuses on bagasse, the straw-like residue remaining after sugar is extracted from sugarcane.

For her, the bagasse is yet another potential feedstock to turn into bioproducts. An estimated 6 million tons of bagasse are produced as a by-product of the industry, but not all of it is required to provide energy for the sugar milling and refining processes.

Building a Bridge Between Academia and Industry

Is there a better way to use the excess sugarcane crop that isn’t generating a profit? Can the manufacturing of byproducts such as bagasse be repurposed for good?

Simply, the answer is yes. This is where Dr. Stark finds inspiration.

“There is so much more that we can make from sugarcane besides candy and soft drinks,” she says. “And we can take advantage of it for the people who live here.”

To make the most of this potential, her research chair builds a bridge between academia and industry, working directly with local sugar cane growers and millers to use their residues and products more sustainably.

Starting a research group to beneficiate sugarcane products and residues doesn’t happen overnight.

This kind of research requires apparatus and instrumentation that Dr. Stark’s department did not have 5 years ago. So she innovated, using her connections in the sugar industry to help acquire the tools she needed.

In September 2018, more than 150 pieces of Instrumental Access equipment arrived on campus in Durban, which Dr. Stark immediately put to use.

“It’s nearly impossible for academics to find the money for equipment, let alone several pieces of large equipment in one go,” she says. “The Instrumental Access program hugely helped to improve our research infrastructure at our department, benefitting many more researchers than just my research group directly.”

Anne Stark
"It’s nearly impossible for academics to find the money for equipment, let alone several pieces of large equipment in one go. The Instrumental Access program hugely helped to improve our research infrastructure at our department."

Annegret Stark, PhD,
University of KwaZulu-Natal

Research at Full Capacity

With new instrumentation in place, Dr. Stark was able to get her research agenda running at full capacity.

Now, she works closely with 10 postgraduate students to find novel approaches to using sugarcane-based biomass and agricultural wastes.

She is leading several new studies with her cohort of graduate students, all of who focus on using sugarcane-based biomass in alternative industries:

  • Producing resin-free fiber boards with excellent properties from the sugarcane bagasse with chemical pre-treatment, which can be used in construction.
  • Recovering lignin from bagasse, which is a kind of adhesive used in linoleum applications and can also act as a binder for fiber boards or charcoal briquettes.
  • Using bagasse to produce glucose and a wide range of alcohols and carboxylic acids that glucose can be converted to through fermentation.
  • Determining the potential of producing sugarcane wax for everyday applications. The plant’s natural wax covers the surface of the sugarcane plant and protects it from microbial infestation; when isolated, it can be turned into wax products that are organic and natural.
  • Turning bagasse into fuel through pyrolysis, which converts the biomass to liquid that can then be refined into fuel.

The influx of equipment has been important for Dr. Stark and her students to investigate these complex chemical transformations. But the story doesn’t end here. At least, not in Dr. Stark’s mind.

“In all our projects, we focus on products and design processes that will have as little impact on our environment as possible,” she says. “Furthermore, the technologies used to convert biomass to products must be affordable in the South African context, result in products that can be sold mostly within the country, and create job opportunities for local people.”

Opportunities for local farmers

The goal has always been to provide additional opportunities to the local sugar industry.

Farming and producing only sugarcane do not necessarily make for a lucrative business. Many farmers struggle to survive, and Dr. Stark is insistent that producing these additional products can serve as a model to show other uses for sugarcane.

“Sugarcane is really a good example of the many opportunities nature supplies us with. My commitment is to show people the potential of using the materials that surround us. Residues from the local forestry industry, other agricultural or even municipal wastes, it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “What matters is to encourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking. Instrumental Access equipment has been a big part of this. When you have wonderful equipment, people are inspired by what they can do with it.”

Dr. Stark’s example shows that science and engineering can be a brilliant vehicle to enhance responsible and sustainable production.

With the necessary instruments and equipment in place, she and her team have proven that even in the unlikeliest places, amazing things can happen.

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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.

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Christina Viola Srivastava

Vice President of Programs

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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

Please direct speaking requests to media@seedinglabs.org

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.