Innovation That Matters

Three lessons for driving change through diversity

Features

How empowering women from a range of scientific backgrounds can deliver scalable change

To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we sat down with Dr. Zara Summers, Chief Science Officer of carbon recycling company LanzaTech to discuss why our understanding of what it means to be a scientist or engineer needs to be broadened.

Today, steel mills can make cocktail dresses. Let’s just let that one sink in…

It’s possible thanks to cleantech success story LanzaTech, a one-time-startup, now NASDAQ-listed company that takes carbon pollution from industrial point sources and uses a bacterial biocatalyst to turn those emissions into chemical building blocks for a range of products.

To be a fraction more technical, the company pushes captured carbon emissions through a bioreactor, where clever engineering creates tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen that feed the bacteria as efficiently as possible. The bacteria then create ethanol, which can be made into sustainable aviation fuel through LanzaTech’s sister company LanzaJet. Alternatively, the ethanol can be further processed to create ingredients for material goods, such as polyesters for clothing, EVA soles for shoes, and even extremely pure ethanol for perfume. Crucially, these products provide a lower-footprint alternative to virgin fossil-based ingredients.

According to LanzaTech’s Chief Science Officer, Zara Summers: “The microbes are the star of the show.” But the company’s real differentiator is the marriage of biology and hard engineering. “While the bacteria are the star, without the stage, they’re maybe not as useful. Our bioreactors – the steel around our microbes – really make it work as well.”

Zara has spent her entire career working in traditionally male industries. At LanzaTech she works with steel and landfill companies, and before she took up her current post, she spent nearly 10 years working in the oil and gas industry as a climate solutions researcher at ExxonMobil. So she has a unique perspective on how we can get a more diverse set of scientists and engineers into key positions in industrial businesses.

From our fascinating conversation, we’ve picked out three learnings about the importance of not only getting more women into scientific roles in industry, but also scientists from a more diverse range of disciplines.

1. Science can take you to unexpected places

Zara has a PhD in microbiology and her scientific career began by studying weird and wonderful microbes deep within the earth’s crust. These tiny organisms live without oxygen and derive energy from minerals and other unexpected sources. Although this alien world beneath our feet seems completely detached from anything practical in our daily lives, it actually proved to be the gateway to her current carbon recycling work at LanzaTech.

Oil and gas companies, by definition, do a lot of things beneath the earth, so working at ExxonMobil gave Zara the opportunity “to see all the unique microbial life that lives underground.” And her work exploring how biology could one day create new products for the company ultimately brought her into contact with LanzaTech. “In that role, I got to know a lot of other smaller companies. I got to know LanzaTech really well – I got to look under the hood,” she explains. “As someone who has loved bacteria for years, getting to see billions of them running in a commercial site making products like shirts you can wear, perfume you can wear, shoes you can wear, it was just love at first sight.”

2. We need to change how young people picture a scientist or an engineer

Zara’s own career trajectory shows how scientific inquiry can lead to career pathways an outsider would never imagine. This fits neatly with one of her most important arguments about what needs to be done to boost female involvement in the science of decarbonisation. “I’ve done a lot of events where I go and meet with even junior high school girls about their awareness of what being an engineer or being a scientist could mean,” she explains.

“If you look at kids’ books, they say, ‘this is an engineer,’ and it’s someone building a bridge. I have a lot of engineers who wouldn’t know how to build a bridge at all. But we have engineers that are engineering microbial metabolisms, and we have engineers that are using data and combining that with machine learning to come up with new predictive tools.”

For Zara, the key to driving greater diversity in biology – and science more broadly – is to make clear that it’s not just ‘one thing.’ “You can be out in the world, you can be out in the field, so raising awareness of the diversity of jobs that can come from being a scientist or an engineer is crucial,” she argues.

3. Seeing more people like you lets you focus on the job at hand

LanzaTech not only has a female Chief Science Officer, but also a female CEO, and there are often “meetings where everyone who’s representing LanzaTech at the table is a woman.” For Zara, this has created a different and positive dynamic.

“Bringing your whole self to work really lets you put all of your mental energy into the problems at work, not the baseline level of stress of ‘I’m the only women in a meeting of 30 people,’” she told us.

“Seeing people like you, and not being so aware of ‘I’m the only female in the room’ or ‘I’m the only person who looks like me in the room,’ takes a weight off. The more we can set up situations like that, the more mental energy people get to spend on things that really matter.”

LanzaTech operates in a traditionally conservative and male-dominated space, but Zara has been encouraged by the industry’s reaction to what the company is doing. “What we offer in some instances is hope, and a new business opportunity because it’s not just carbon management, it’s a new revenue stream,” she explains.

“We have steel mills making cocktail dresses, so it’s kind of changing the way we see things, and I think it’s for the better.”