Published 2020-11-12

This post is also available in Swedish

Rajni Hatti-Kaul on commitment, awareness and academia

Professor Rajni Hatti-Kaul is constantly thinking about the gap between rich and poor countries and how she can help to boost environmental awareness. Her move from India to Sweden, environmental commitment and academic life have given her experience that she intends to use to generate more practical change.

Hatti-Kaul works far too many long days: 12–14 hours daily. She finds it hard to relax. Time is short when there is so much to squeeze in, join, do, create and develop. Much captures her interest, and the sense that she wants to, and can, contribute to change is mounting rapidly. Time is short when the world’s injustices keep coming to mind.

Today, as Programme Director of Mistra STEPS (Sustainable Plastics and Transition Pathways), Hatti-Kaul, is working to create sustainable use of plastic. She is Professor of Biotechnology at Lund University, and has started, and is supporting, several small companies. Brought up in northern India, she and her family had to move fairly often, partly because her father’s work required him to spend a few years in various parts of the country. When Hatti-Kaul completed high school, a year before her peers, she was too young to apply for medical school, which had been her aspiration. When her father was stationed in Bombay, she moved there and began studying biochemistry. After failing the entrance exam for medical training the following year, she shelved the plans and devoted herself to biochemistry, and later biotechnology.

‘Well, my father was a chemist, so maybe it wasn’t just a random choice — perhaps I do have it in my genes a bit. But he worked in India’s fossil-oil industry all his life, and that’s something I avoid in my work,’ Hatti-Kaul says with a laugh.

From tuberculosis to plastic

After taking her PhD in biochemistry in Bombay (now Mumbai), in the mid-1980s Hatti-Kaul went to Lund University as a visiting researcher. After two years in Lund, she returned to India to work at the Astra Research Center India in Bangalore (now Bengaluru).

‘I worked in research and development on diseases in tropical countries, such as malaria, diarrhoea and tuberculosis. The professor I worked with in Lund contacted me and asked me to apply for a position as postdoctoral research fellow that was going to be advertised at Lund University, in the Sida-funded [Sida: the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency] project to create research capacity at universities in Africa and Asia. Since I had research experience from both Sweden and India, they asked me to apply. In 1990, I returned to Lund and I’ve been a fixture here ever since.’

Mistra Programme Directors’ meeting.

Today, Hatti-Kaul is using her ample experience to develop ways of solving some of society’s key problems using biotechnology. As Programme Director of Mistra STEPS, she is mainly active in the practical work of developing green building blocks in the manufacture of bio-based plastics. This is a matter of exploring processes with low environmental impact, using raw materials such as sugar beet and cellulose to replace fossil building blocks. It also involves polymer design — in other words, how to develop the properties of polymers to allow easy recovery and recycling.

Policy issues — about how to use research to influence regulations and create a more sustainable plastic system — are another important element of Mistra STEPS. Here, Hatti-Kaul sees dialogue and communication as essential for reaching out to politicians and other decision-makers. Since plastic is in the news, she sees great opportunities to pave the way forward.

‘In Phase 1 of STEPS, we had about 20 business partners, and we felt that they weren’t all getting involved in an optimal way. Now that we’ve entered Phase 2, we’ll work even more on case studies based on specific interests represented by our industry partners. Our aims are to study problems, develop solutions and hopefully create better products, and the hope is to generate greater participation and engagement. Our current projects include creating a renewable interdental brush for TePe, and working with Tetra Pak, which wants to improve scope for recovering and recycling the barrier layer of their packaging.’

The biggest challenge in plastics, as she sees it, is to bring about a well-functioning chain — from easily recovered and recycled, bio-based plastics to a well-functioning recovery and recycling system — and circular business models with clear plans to reduce plastic use in society.

‘It’s also about raising awareness among consumers. Many theories are now circulating that plastic is awful and must be avoided. To solve today’s plastic problems, we need to build a system for using plastics sustainably,’ she explains.

Research to counteract antibiotic resistance

But plastic does not monopolise Hatti-Kaul’s attention. Another research project she is working on is about using enzymes from bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) to supersede antibiotics in attacking specific bacteria, including the type that causes tuberculosis. According to WHO, TB causes some 1.2 million deaths a year, so this research is especially interesting in terms of avoiding antibiotic resistance.

Another of Hatti-Kaul’s ongoing research areas is the use of microorganisms to produce milk protein.

‘By replacing production from milk with production of the same protein in, say, yeast and fungi, it might be possible to cut greenhouse gas emissions from dairy production,’ Hatti-Kaul explains.

‘Scope to think freely’

She explains that the same basic technology can serve many different purposes. Again, the problem is lack of time. Ideas keep popping up. Hatti-Kaul is applying for funds, appointing postgraduates, expanding collaborations and teaching; she is Programme Director of Mistra STEPS and Director of the internationally oriented Master Programme in Biotechnology. But she constantly has the nagging feeling of not doing practical good — of not contributing as fully as she might.

‘My choice to stay in academia was due to the scope it offers for thinking freely and trying out my ideas. But how much of what I work on is realised and leads to tangible benefits?’

To work more on a practical level, she has started and is supporting some small companies. One of them is Bioextrax, which is working on a technique for producing biodegradable polymers. Using its patented method, Bioextrax is also exploring how feathers from chickens and turkeys — which are largely seen as waste — can be used in, for example, composite materials or feed additives.

The other company is a spin-off from the Greenchem Mistra programme (2003–10), focused on developing, and improving the environmental characteristics of, the technology for polyurethane, a group of versatile plastics used in paints, adhesives, surface treatment, catheters and more. Here, Hatti-Kaul hopes that they can deliver products to market within a few years.

Gap between rich and poor

To unwind, she needs to leave her work surroundings — and preferably Lund or, in fact Sweden. Pottering in the garden, cooking and reading energise and revitalise her, but travel is what provides inspiration and breeds new ideas. Hatti-Kaul describes working to expand capacity in developing countries in South America, Africa and elsewhere.

‘It’s been very interesting and rewarding to see and experience various cultures and the challenges we have in different countries. These trips have affected how I think about both minor and major issues. For example, since 2000 I’ve been working on a project in Bolivia and it’s only now, 20 years later, that they’ve established an infrastructure, created their own doctoral education and can pursue these issues further. It’s about battling administrative and bureaucratic red tape, and changing a whole system.’

Rajni Hatti-Kaul at Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, where she is collaborating with the University of Dar es Salaam.

She believes that her interest in environmental and climate problems is largely due to her upbringing in India. She has personally seen and experienced the gap between rich and poor people, but mainly between rich and poor countries, and the major environmental problems this can create in a country.

‘I’d like to contribute more actively to change. But it’s not that easy; politics plays an even bigger role in countries where people don’t have the same level of education and empowerment as in Sweden, where the population is so large and the culture of reaching out to the population is so different from here. I think constantly about these challenges.’

Her main concern is with identifying initiatives that can help to influence the younger generation and boost their environmental awareness. Here, she returns to the issue of plastic: it is something physical that we can see and relate to in our immediate surroundings. Some day in the future, when she leaves academia, she hopes to do more work on site in India, focusing on communication about environmental problems.

‘Here in Sweden, we need to remember that many people are living in a completely different reality from ours. They have no workable systems for wastewater treatment and waste disposal, and in India, individuals’ environmental commitment depends largely on what they can afford. I want to get people there, in countries with prospects different from ours, to understand why we need to look after our environment and how we can change thought patterns and actions.’

Rajni Hatti-Kaul

In my spare time: Yoga, Zumba, cooking and pottering about in the garden when there’s time. Travelling and experiencing different cultures, both privately and for work. Visiting India a few times a year under normal circumstances.

In five years’ time: I want to leave academia and retire. Be more active and proactive in my companies. Spend more time in India and work on specific measures that can make a difference to people’s environmental awareness, possibly in the area of plastics too.

Dreaming of: Helping the most vulnerable people and communities by raising awareness of the environment and environmental problems in poor countries.

Broadcast from summer 2020.