FACULTY IN FOCUS
Synthetic Microalgae: Where Biology Meets Green Chemistry.
Professor Kyle Lauersen was a very curious and inquisitive child, who from a very early age tried to understand the mechanisms of the natural world around him. In his early academic career, he dabbled in engineering, the arts and athletics, before he “came to science, organically.” As a bioengineer his research is still very much focused on the natural world, specifically on tiny organisms called microalgae.
Lauersen’s goal is to develop technology for a future where humanity can couple chemically driven industrial processes with the abundance of biological processes that occur in nature. “We need these innovative solutions,” he explains, “that work with the environment rather than against it.” Lauersen believes microalgae will be a huge contributor; “we love algae because not only are they super-diverse, but they use the energy from sunlight, carbon dioxide from the air, and waste nutrients from water to grow.” Their biomass can be used, similar to plants, to make everyday products like pigments, oils, proteins, lubricants, or bioplastics.
Lauersen says one of the most exciting parts of his work is when a student comes to him having discovered something new, which he’s pleased to report “happens almost every day” at KAUST. He and his research group are always combining genetic parts of different organisms in algae to yield promising results, and the payoff is when they find that a “product is being made by an organism that didn’t naturally make it before.” While he’s thankful that it happens relatively often, he hastens to add that “usually, only one in ten ideas work, so [he and his team] have to be incredibly tenacious and keep trying.”
For someone who enjoys the hands-on aspects of scientific research so much – putting together experiments and testing new products – becoming a faculty member was not without its challenges. “When you are training as a postdoc, you do a bit of everything,” Lauersen remembers fondly, however, he goes on to share that the work of a professor involves “less science, a lot more admin, and a lot of advising,” Thankfully, he finds that some of the most rewarding moments are “when students show that they are thinking scientifically,” and he can see his advice has resonated in a meaningful way.
Around the time he became aware of KAUST, Lauersen was considering a potential move to one of several different countries – Japan, the United States or France. The story of how he ended up on the shores of the Red Sea instead has a short version and a long version. It was Professor Salim Al-Babili from the Center for Desert Agriculture who invited Lauersen to give a talk at KAUST. After his talk and a conversation with Professor Samir Hamdan, now Associate Vice President for Research, he became more intrigued with the potential to move to KAUST.
As with many other Faculty in Focus participants, this visit and the subsequent conversation were a form of academic bait; as soon as Lauersen could see for himself what KAUST has to offer, Hamdan encouraged him to apply for a job. “That’s the short version,” Lauersen says; the long version “involves a conference in Miami and some unusual conversations with random scientists [he] had just met.”
The story for now is clear; Lauersen is using his position at KAUST to make huge strides toward the future he envisages for his branch of science. He credits much of the progress made to-date to the great potential at KAUST for interdisciplinary collaboration. “The real beauty of KAUST,” he believes, “is that because everyone is well supported, they are open to collaboration and being creative.” The risky ideas that might not be explored at other institutions are readily taken on at KAUST because trying and failing is considered preferable to not trying at all. “Creativity and time are the only limiting factors”; Lauersen says with gratitude; “it’s an incredible gift we have here.”