The 2023 Letten Prize Finalists

(Listed in alphabetical order)

Athina Anastasaki, ETH Zurich
Peiying Hong, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, University of New South Wales
Joy Wolfram, Australian Institute for Bioengineering and The University of Queensland

Athina Anastasaki – Citation
Athina Anastasaki is a Professor and Head of Polymeric Materials in the Department of Materials at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. In her lab, she leads research on polymer chemistry, polymer self assembly, and depolymerization. Her research has not only explored the fundamentals of polymer synthesis, but has built on this deep understanding of chemistry to begin to tackle the grand challenge of polymer recycling. This research holds the potential to help the globe address the problems posed by mounting plastic waste and improve plastic recyclability. 

Dr. Anastasaki’s research includes fundamental polymer synthesis, aiming to both better understand and control polymeric systems and create tailored polymeric materials. This work extends to engineering smart polymeric nanomaterials that can self-assemble in a given environment. She also focuses on developing efficient polymer and plastic recycling by using depolymerization techniques that break polymer chains back into their constituent monomers, enabling their reuse. This approach—unlike the mechanical approaches that are typically employed wherein plastics are melted down and reshaped—holds the potential to recreate materials of the same quality as the original plastic input. Dr. Anastasaki’s research has focused, in particular, on creating simple and low-temperature chemical recycling processes with inexpensive catalysts, in contrast to other existing approaches.

Dr. Anastasaki belongs to a unique breed of scientist who both drives forward fundamental chemistry research while understanding how such research can truly be informed by global challenges and drive global change. She is motivated to take risks in order to try to answer some of the hardest questions with the greatest potential impact. She collaborates with a broad set of international researchers as well as working with industry to understand the challenges and barriers to scaling polymer recycling approaches. She regularly gives invited scientific talks around the world and values speaking with broader audiences and the media. 

For her excellent research on fundamental polymer chemistry and her application of this research to the worldwide challenge of plastics recycling, Dr. Anastasaki is a very worthy candidate for the Letten Prize. 

Get to Know Athina Anastasaki

Athina Anastasaki, a 35-year old chemist from Greece, could still remember how her mother taught her about recycling back in her childhood time. Even though the idea of turning waste materials into a new usable product had become a trend in the UK and in the US, it was “something highly unusual in the Greek society 30 years ago,” she says. At that time, Anastasaki could not imagine that her mother words would become the crux of her scientific career.

Now she heads Polymeric Materials Laboratory at the ETH Zurich, Switzerland. As a professor of material science, she no longer sees the term “recycling” simply as reusing waste materials. But instead, she dives into the unseen world of the atoms composing the waste, exploring their ability to bond with each other. A set of thousands of atoms could bond together creating a very large molecule called polymer, a uniquely important research object for Anastasaki. “We are surrounded by polymers and some of them, such as natural polymers like DNA or proteins, are essential for staying alive,” she says.

Even the unnatural one has played an important role in human civilization. Plastics, the other name of synthetic polymers we mostly use in our daily life, has shaped modern life since the 20th century. But despite their tremendous benefits, “increasing their sustainability is a long-lasting challenge at the forefront of polymer science,” says Anastasaki. It is widely known that plastic degradation could takes hundreds of years to take place. Anastasaki is now working to offer possible solution: a new method that could easily break down plastics to its building blocks (monomers), a raw material that could be used for a new high-quality plastic.

The common recycling method relies on mechanical process, says Anastasaki. Plastics are usually melted and reshaped to construct a new product. But according to Anastasaki, “these reshaped plastics typically exhibits poorer properties and is used for lower quality materials,”. It is time for chemistry to step in, she says. “Breaking the highly-stable carbon-carbon bonds that the vast majority of polymers consist of is very challenging,” she says. But her research has shown a possibility that these polymers could be broken down to its building blocks.

The group has recently discovered a method to break down polymer of plexiglass, a glass-substitute material. But the process required expensive chemical reagents. Anastasaki is now eyeing to invent the method to break down plastics made by free radical polymerization (FRP), a method that produce around 50% of plastics globally. The current process is challenging, she says, because it requires extreme condition such as more than 400 degree Celcius heat. To invent better method, she would work with her students and colleagues in her lab and those who resides in other parts of the world.

Anastasaki’s scientific career is a global endeavour. Originating from Crete, Greece, she received her PhD from the University of Warwick, UK. She has also spent some years in the US for her post-doctoral research as a Global Marie Curie Fellow in the University of California Santa Barbara. In 2019, she joined ETH Zurich to lead a team of aspiring international chemists. She has also travelled to South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia, Germany, Australia, and many other places to deliver lectures on polymer chemistry.

Anastasaki talks enthusiastically about polymer chemistry. But that doesn’t mean she has a rigid personality like the strong bonds of polymers. She often hangs out with her lab members. She also aspires to be a good teacher to share her love for polymer chemistry. A traditional class or lab meeting is not her only way to teach. On Twitter, she posted a photo of her and her lab members visiting a farmland and proudly posted the achievement of her students. In her spare time, she loves to play cards called “Tichu”. “I play every day, mostly online and sometimes I play with friends in person. This game helps me unwind and makes me very happy.”

In the world of science, it is not rare to see that playing and refreshment trigger creativity that led to scientific discoveries. Science has its own way to find itself. Serendipity is also part of this. Anastasaki says her research focus on chemical recycling was inspired by “a serendipitous recycling discovery made by a colleague”. The method of depolymerization, a process of breaking down polymer to monomers which she is developing now, was also “accidentally  encountered” when she dived into scientific papers of polymer chemistry. It was an “unwanted side reaction”, she says, referring to a scientific paper.

Reflecting on the enormous number of plastics currently polluting the earth, Anastasaki says she still believes that polymer chemistry could offer the solution. It might not happen immediately, but one day it will, she says. “All it takes, even after decades of unfruitful research, is a single experiment to work one day and the planet’s recycling problem may be instantly resolved. “As polymer chemists, our job is to design this magic single experiment.”

Peiying Hong – Citation
Peiying Hong is Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). She held prior academic positions at the  University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and National University of Singapore. Dr. Hong’s research is widely recognized with over 115 scientific publications, in collaborations with global public health and environment organizations such as World Health Organization and United Nations Environment Program, and by numerous young scientists she mentored. Dr. Hong received the James Morgan Environmental Science and Technology Early Career Award in 2019 from the American Chemical Society.

Dr. Hong’s research focuses on alleviating water scarcity and providing high-quality treated wastewater as an alternative water resource, with a strong emphasis on ensuring freshwater availability despite severe challenges imposed by climate change. With an interdisciplinary combination of environmental engineering, microbiology, and genomics, she focuses on understanding and controlling microbial communities in wastewater treatment plants and downstream reuse environment. Her research has important implications for sustainable water management in arid regions and beyond, for sanitation, irrigation and public health. Most recently, her team investigated how COVID-19 treatment can potentially drive antimicrobial resistance threats via untreated hospital wastewater and highlighted the need for proper stewardship of antibiotics use during a pandemic.

In addition to surveillance of the microbial contaminants in wastewater, Dr. Hong is committed to the development and deployment of efficient wastewater treatment plants and processes that can be used in areas with limited technology access. She and her team already developed a treatment plant that runs on solar energy, and working on a decentralized plant that can be situated in remote, off-the-grid locations, hence making water sanitation truly accessible to all.

Dr. Hong’s future research plans include developing a rapid and easy-to-use method to monitor waterborne microbial contaminants in remote locations with no lab access and expensive instruments. She aims at developing a mobile app based on artificial intelligence trained with physical and chemical data her lab has been producing. This app will enable users with predictive measurements of waterborne cell densities once they enter physical or chemical data, without the need to gain access to a lab or expensive equipment. Dr. Hong is working with local organization in Malawi to bring her ideas into life in regions where water surveillance is most needed.

With her strong commitment to global clean water access for better public health and better environment, Dr. Hong is an exemplary runner-up for Letten Prize.

Get to know Peiying Hong
Born and growing up in Singapore, Peiying Hong knows how hardship could spark creativity and innovation. The country, the smallest but the richest in Southeast Asia, has no natural water resources. “Since young, we have been inculcated with the values of how important every single drop of water is,” says the 42-year-old scientist.

But despite the challenge, Singapore can provide clean waters to its 5 million citizens and thriving industries. Recycling wastewater is the key.

With the help of science and technology, Singaporean government processes wastewater into clean water that are accessible for the public. NEWater, the name of the water recycling project, has been a dominant source of clean water for Singapore’s industrial estates and commercial buildings. By 2060, NEWater is expected to fulfill 80% of clean water demand in the country.

Hong was an undergraduate student in the National University of Singapore (NUS) when NEWater was publicly introduced in 2003. “I think that may be the eureka moment when I saw first-hand how research can be translated into something that impacts our daily lives and to aid a country to attain water security,” she says.

Now she is 6785 kilometres away from her hometown and she still strongly believes that science could provide solutions to societal problems. In an arid land like Saudi Arabia where she resides now, water is even more difficult to find. “The MENA region is a water scarce area, and with challenges lie opportunities,” she says. As an associate professor in King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), she has produced a prolific number of research in wastewater management. She has also worked in finding methodologies that needs less energy but yet applicable for all countries regardless of their economic situation.

“I believe I can contribute to alleviating water scarcity through research and innovation, and I wanted to be part of the KAUST team to work towards providing solutions for Saudi Arabia, the region and all water-scarce areas globally,” she says.

Wastewater purification technology is the expertise of Hong. People should start paying attention to the issue, says Hong. It is often seen as something useless, “ a waste stream that should be disposed and forgotten,”. But according to Hong, wastewater is not actually a waste as conventionally believed; “it is an important resource”. Her research demonstrates how it can be transformed into high-quality water for the use of not only drinking, but also sanitation, food production, and industrial activities.

She also regrets that not many countries realize of this potential although they may be using it when it flows to the river around them. “The technology cost is usually correlated with the quality of reclaimed water – that is, the more expensive the technology (and energy requirement), the higher the quality,” she says.

Indeed, water scarcity is a global problem. Technology could provide solutions, but currently, it is a privilege for rich countries like Singapore and Saudi Arabia. Resource-poor countries are struggling to secure clean water for their health. And this is where Hong’s research tries to answer. Inspired by one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which aims to provide access to water and sanitation for all, Hong began to wonder the kind of obstacles that these countries face and how her expertise could help out.

Some of these areas, says Hong, do not have access to electricity. She calls it “off-grid”. With her expertise in microbiology and  environmental engineering, Hong and her team has designed a bioreactor that could purify wastewater using solar energy. It also consumes less energy compared with the common water purification technology. Unlike the majority of existing water purification technologies that uses aerobic microbes,–organisms that need oxygen to degrade pollutants–, this bioreactor uses anaerobic ones. Thus, eliminating the large amount of energy needed to add oxygen in the water. “This means that sanitation can be provided to communities who are living off-grid,” she says.

Another potential solution is to develop an app where people could analyse water quality data from anywhere. Hong is now working to develop an application that could predict the number of bacteria and virus cell numbers in water. “Current methods to monitor waterborne microorganisms rely on cultivation and molecular methods that requires lab access and expensive equipment,” she says. Hong tries to invent a better and cheaper method by training a neural network that process basic chemical data, such as carbon concentration and temperature, to predict the number of microorganisms contained in the sample. This, Hong believes, will strengthen the role of citizen science in achieving global health SDGs.

Hong believes her research is a glimmer of hope amid the global water crisis. She would use supports from Letten Prize to develop wastewater treatment plant that is located in a remote, “off-grid” places. Hence, “making water sanitation accessible to all,” she says.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick – Citation
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick has dedicated her career to studying the drivers and impacts of heatwaves in a rapidly changing climate. She works as an associate professor at the University of New South Wales, in Australia—a country where heat waves are the deadliest natural disaster—and her research has helped shape the global scientific community’s approach to characterizing heatwaves and understanding both their historical and projected future impact.

Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick has both produced a wide body of research on heatwaves and climate extremes and also developed simple metrics for characterizing and communicating the impacts of heat waves. In the first area, she has been at the leading edge of research exploring historical changes to heatwaves, assigning changes in heat wave impacts to anthropogenic drivers, understanding marine heatwaves, and assessing the ability of climate models to predict heat waves accurately. In the second area, she has helped devised simple ways to detect and measure heatwaves, which had no consistent precedent, and therefore provide guidance for her field to align and broadly communicate research findings on the changing patterns of global heat waves.

Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick has collaborated with researchers around the globe, and her work has been integrated into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th assessment report and driven innovation in her scientific field. She also frequently engages with the media and government agencies to translate this science for a broader audience. Her work, looking forward, has an increasingly international and interdisciplinary angle, which promises to help countries across the globe both understand and better prepare for longer, more frequent, and more intense heatwaves in the coming decades.

Dr. Perkins-Kirkpatrick is deeply motivated to address what she considers the greatest challenge of our time—climate change—and these efforts have produced an impressive body of research that not only moves forward climate science but also facilitates scientists’ ability to simply and effectively communicate climate risks and impacts to a broad range of audiences. Her commitment to her research, her scientific record and future goals, and her global perspective make her a worthy runner-up for the Letten Prize.

Get to know Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick
Even in the most optimistic modeling of global temperature increases due to climate change, there is expected to be an increasing number of heatwaves, that is, periods of unusually hot weather, usually lasting two or more days. 

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, Associate Professor and Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow in the School of Science at UNSW Canberra in Australia and a chief investigator on the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes says that gaining precise knowledge on how humid heatwaves will fundamentally affect global habitability is key to mitigating against this deadly consequence of climate change.

Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s interest in heatwaves was fueled by one of the biggest disasters in Australian history, the 2009 “Black Saturday” bushfires.

“Those 2009 bushfires followed a big heatwave, that’s when I realized that we don’t really know too much about heatwaves, that we don’t have an idea how they have changed historically or what drives them,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick says. 

Since then, she’s devised an innovative yet simple metric to assess the ability of climate models in simulating daily events (the timescale that extreme events like heatwaves occur), as well as taking the lead globally in developing a consistent framework to measure heatwaves.

Heatwave data has traditionally relied on temperature recordings alone, but recently, more attention has been paid to “wet bulb” temperature which can be measured by using a thermometer with the bulb wrapped in wet cloth. 

“There was no data on humid heatwaves 10 years ago, that’s changed now,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick says, “There are places where the data is sparse, but it has improved in the last 10-15 years.” 

These measurements are important because a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C is widely considered by the scientific literature to be the upper level of human endurance, meaning that within six hours, even healthy people would be at risk of dying. 

“But this is a theoretical threshold that climate scientists came up with, but it hasn’t really been studied in depth,” Perkins-Kirkpatrick says, adding that the true threshold is extremely likely to be significantly lower than suggested, particularly when accounting for activity and movement.

“This figure assumes you are indoors, sitting still, but in a lot of countries, you have to work outside no matter what,” she says. 

In order to work out what this real figure is, Perkins-Kirkpatrick and her collaborators intend to invite volunteers from a range of ages into a climate lab where they will be subjected to a range of temperatures and humidities that simulare humid heatwaves. The volunteers would also do exercise to simulate outdoor work. 

“We’re not going to push their limits, but we can have a look at how people cope under hot or humid conditions,” she says, adding that the goal is to get a better idea of how someone reacts to heat based on their age, gender and how much work they are doing (in this case treadmill or a exercise bike). 

This study, combining climate science with human health will show how different these impacts may be across lower versus higher emission scenarios, likely highlighting how lower carbon intensive futures are better for human health. 

“There are certain regions and countries that, should follow the high end of climate modeling, will be uninhabitable before the end of the century,” she says, “What we want to know is where the threshold of human habitability is.” 

Perkins-Kirkpatrick says that humid heatwaves are largely unknown in the general community, but there are concrete actions governments and individuals can take, even in low-resource environments. 

“When it comes to the costs of climate adaptation, it is the developing countries that will have to adapt the most, so I think there is an obligation for the wealthier countries to help with these adaptation measures,” she says.  

Perkins-Kirkpatrick says initiatives like greener spaces and reflective roofs can help right away and they can be done in a couple of years without the need for a global agreement. The best case scenario is that governments listen,” she says, “Their response is improving, but we’re not currently doing enough.”

Joy Wolfram – Citation
Joy Wolfram is an Associate Professor with joint appointments at the School of Chemical Engineering and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at The University of Queensland, Australia.

Dr. Wolfram leads a nanomedicine and extracellular vesicle research program with a mission to develop innovative approaches for the next generation of treatments and diagnostics. Her research focus areas include developing improved methods for extracellular vesicle isolation for human biofluids, designing hybrid drug delivery systems with extracellular vesicle and synthetic components to treat cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease, and understanding the role of extracellular vesicles in cancer immunoevasion and metastasis.

Dr. Wolfram’s research has the potential to further a new paradigm of therapeutics using nanotechnology and cell products to treat life-threatening diseases that are major causes of death globally, such as cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease.

Wolfram’s research program has resulted in more than 70 publications in high-impact journals, such as Nature Nanotechnology, Materials Today, and Nature Reviews Materials. Dr. Wolfram’s laboratory has collaborated with 160 universities and industry partners across 45 countries. Dr. Wolfram is also active in community outreach and education and has mentored over 30 individuals at various career stages.

In recognition of her outstanding achievements and contributions to the field, Dr. Wolfram has received more than 30 awards from eight countries, including the 2016 Amgen Scholars Ten to Watch List, the 2019 Forbes 30 under 30 list in US/Canadian Healthcare, and the 2021 Finnish Expatriate of the Year. She is an elected member of the Global Young Academy.

In summary, Dr. Joy Wolfram’s contributions to the field of nanomedicine and extracellular vesicle research are exceptional, and her achievements have the potential to create a lasting impact on society.

Get to know Joy Wolfram
Joy Wolfram, an Associate Professor with joint appointments at the School of Chemical Engineering and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology at The University of Queensland, Australia, says there is an urgent need for new therapies that can simultaneously target multiple disease-causing pathways, while reducing side effects.

Wolfram and her team are working on nanoparticles that can act as “Fire Trucks” in the human body.

“Medicines are like firefighters who put out fires, that is, diseases… but, currently we send out medicines without fire trucks, meaning they lack transportation, a GPS, equipment, etc,” she says, “Once medicines enter the blood, they randomly go to different parts of the body, but by developing smart delivery systems (synthetic or biological nanoparticles) medicines can be targeted to diseased areas for greater outcomes and less side effects.

Wolfram’s main candidate for a “fire truck” is extracellular vesicles, a group of small, lipid-bound nanoparticles assembled from a complex mixture of various fats and surface and membrane proteins, which together aid in targeting and minimizing other interactions.

“I have a background in synthetic nanomedicine, that is, using synthetic nanoparticles as medicine,” she says, “The transition to biological nanomedicine was a logical outgrowth of my work in terms of expanding the complexity; synthetic nanoparticles have up to five components, while biological nanoparticles (such as, extracellular vesicles) have thousands”.

Wolfram explains that these unique, protein and sugar-decorated phospholipid vesicles have been hypothesized to contain specific barcodes needed to find their target, meaning that these molecular decorations on the extracellular vesicles act as a kind of “GPS” system for drug delivery inside the body.

“By finding the extracellular vesicles with the right molecular decorations, we can tap into their GPS system to precisely deliver medicine to the heart,” Wolfram says.

The researchers aim to isolate an extracellular vesicle that already travels from other parts of the body to the heart and then modify that extracellular vesicle to carry the intended medicine.

“Additionally, we can also use extracellular vesicles that have intrinsic therapeutic effects, such as lowering inflammation,” she says, “We have shown that some extracellular vesicles isolated from biofluids of healthy donors can lower inflammation associated with heart disease in preclinical models.”

So, what does success look like for Wolfram and in what ways will this change how we treat heart disease?

“Success entails using extracellular vesicle-based biotherapeutics to prolong the healthy lifespan of individuals with heart disease, that is, save lives and improve quality of life,” she says, adding that extracellular vesicles have several advantages over conventional medicines, including having greater precision and being able to simultaneously target several factors that cause heart disease (for example, inflammation and tissue damage).

“These advantages contribute to the promising potential of extracellular vesicles as new treatments with improved safety and therapeutic effects,” she says.

Wolfram explained that her vision is to leverage the innovations her team has pioneered in manufacturing, biological mechanisms and drug loading of the vesicles to develop treatments that will make an impact on the trajectory of cardiovascular disease, including improve patient outcomes, and prolong healthy lifespan.

Wolfram also says that there are various benefits she hopes will come from being recognised as a runner-up in the Letten Prize, including opportunities to be a role model.

“I’ve been Interacting with inspiring individuals throughout the selection process and beyond,” she says, “as well as raising awareness of the importance of the research that my team is doing and raising support for our research program aimed at helping people with life-threatening diseases.”  

%d bloggers like this: