Monthly Archives: February 2019

Bioplastics and Lab Meat

Your pantry has everything you need to make plastic

The best thing about a city is all the people that it brings together. Diversity of people = exchange of ideas = BAM! progress. This formula has persisted through hundreds of generations: when people get together they really do have the power to drive change. This makes a city a great place for people to collaborate on ways to make improvements to how we use our resources.

On a whim, a friend and I went to a workshop lead by a women who is interested in making bioplastics: materials made from natural ingredients. Her “lab” is located among many other labs that are all inside of shipping containers. While my attention was drawn to the word “bio”, what we found in that room were not biologists but artistically minded people who were passionate about creating things in a way that was environmentally friendly. I listened intently as they shared their recipes for creating natural dyes and a wide range of natural materials.

Apparently you can make plastic-like materials from ingredients as simple and natural as these.

As I sat there trying to process how exactly I had ended up in a discussion about such a niche subject in such an intimate environment, I also realized that I was insanely lucky to have ended up here, deeply immersed in a world that was completely out of my element. I can’t say that cooking up bioplastics in my kitchen is my passion or my calling, yet I left feeling inspired by the passion that filled that room. Sitting there, I learned that age old lesson: it’s not about how much power you have, but about the belief that you have it and how you use it. While I had to actively silence the cynical part of myself that wanted more scientific proofs and a larger scale agenda, I have to acknowledge that sometimes a person has to be a little bit crazy to do anything meaningful. These people realize that to make progress you have to start somewhere, and what better place to start than in a pink shipping container?

The container park, each crate housed a different lab or office space (our workshop was in a pink one).

To truly quiet that cynicism in all of us, this little shipping container park has already produced some success stories. Chips Board uses potato scraps from the McCain potato company and use it to make cardboard like materials that are used to make clothes, furniture and a variety of other products.

Lab grown meat (but like, is it vegan?)

In part two of the saga “Mika Ventures Into Niche Scientific Communities She Doesn’t Belong To”, my friend invited me to a launch event for a company called Cellular Agriculture UK. Not knowing exactly what this event would be, I found myself among many similar looking young professionals with round glasses and pressed collared shirts, and women wearing an assortment of “vegan” themed shirts. Looking up and down at myself, dressed in nice but unassuming clothes, I figured I could disguise myself as vegan if necessary.

Cellular Agriculture in a nutshell, is a company which is looking towards developing what is known as “Clean Meat”, that is, meat that has been grown from animal cells in a lab, but that does not require actually killing the animal. The biologist in me was fascinated by the science behind this, and the concepts of developmental biology that are being utilized towards essentially growing meat outside of the animal that it comes from. While many strides have been made, this process has yet to be fully conceived and perfected, making this area of research ripe for investigation.

The Cellular Agriculture logo looks like a little cell, enough to draw me to the event which was mostly non-scientific.

The bigger focus of the talks were about the implications of Clean Meat, and what regulations and industries would need to be in place for it to become a feasible, practical practice. Clean Meat in its ideal form would mean a reduced carbon footprint, less animal harm, less waste, and could also have various health benefits. Thus, a variety of people are interested in the cause, and not all of them vegan, much to my relief.

Sitting there, it began to dawn on me that while it may sound far-fetched at the moment, Clean Meat truly has the power to revolutionize the meat industry and agriculture around the world. As a biologist, I know that the science will get there eventually, just as it always does. With today’s tools, growing meat in a lab is not a theoretical concept but a reality, simply requiring more streamlining and studies to perfect its quality. However, to make Clean Meat accessible and cheap to the entire population, many industrial changes would have to occur. Ultimately, butchering animals could become a thing of the past, which could mean that animals could be grown in better conditions without the industrial pressure to reproduce often, and without feeding them outrageous amounts of cheap corn to ensure they are “meaty”. However, this requires a fair bit of reimagining, since it is hard to picture our world today in the absence of mass producing cattle farms. Along with reimagining a world without the current system, Clean Meat requires its own set of industries and regulations, many of which are still unknown. Finally, there is the issue of public acceptance, which, when it comes to food has been known to waver as was seen with the rejection of GMO’s.

Ultimately, I was largely convinced that Clean Meat, if done right, holds a lot of promise for solving many of the environmental, ethical, and health problems that are exacerbated by the current meat industry. For Clean Meat to become feasible, the system would have to be completely reimagined, however as is seen across history with the invention of earth changing technologies, humans are much more adaptable than we often give ourselves credit for.

Not in Walla Walla anymore…

I dedicated my last post to thoroughly proving how London and UCL’s diversity have granted me culture shock immunity. A month in, I am prepared to admit that there are things specific to London and the British education system that have required a substantial amount of adjustment.

The most dramatic adjustment has been academically, as the university environment here at UCL is drastically different to the liberal arts education that I have grown to know and love at Whitman. I pride myself on the liberal arts education I receive which exposes me to a variety of subjects outside my major granting me a more holistic understanding of the world. While that is all very well, my professors here would most likely roll their eyes at the “value of a liberal arts education” spiel we all know and love. The British academic system is much more limited in the breadth of knowledge that is pursued, and goes much deeper into your chosen degree beginning in your first year of university. During our orientation, we met with our department head who warned us that even though we are third year students, if we come from the “American System” we are most likely “not prepared” to take a third year module (aka course) at UCL. I was not ecstatic about this claim, as many of the classes I was intent on taking in coming here are third year modules, and my stubborn self decided to ignore this completely. The validity of his claim and the outcomes of my stubbornness are still pending, I’ll report back in six months.

Unknowingly, this feature of depth is what drew me to UCL, when I saw the specific biology classes that they offered, which went far beyond the scope of Whitman’s biology class selection. However, as I am still a liberal arts student, with distribution credits that I have yet to fulfill, I came to UCL expecting to take at least two classes outside my major. I found this much more difficult than I had expected. One reason for the difficulty I faced in taking classes outside of the biology department was due to the extra hoops I had to jump through to take classes in another department. The process involved talking to my tutor (aka advisor) within the biology department, talking to the lecturer of the class I wanted to take, emailing the European Studies department, getting rejected from said class, and finally having to go to the office of the European Studies department to figure out which classes I wouldn’t be rejected from and how I could go about enrolling in one. A month into school, and I still haven’t been officially approved for my non-major class. The other barrier, was my own excitement, as I began to choose biology classes like a kid in a candy store, and having selected three that I just had to take, I literally couldn’t bare to part with a single one of them. So here I am, at the end of my module selection with three upper level biology classes, and (hopefully) a European Studies course about literature and film in London. I’m pretty sure neither one of my advisors (Whitman or UCL) are entirely thrilled about this.

A few other things I have had to adjust to during my time here:

My keys are actually important here. In Walla Walla, we left the door to our house unlocked, and most of my housemates didn’t even have a copy of the house key. I could walk into my friend’s houses unannounced and sit on their couch waiting for them to come home. Now, to get into my room I must swipe into the main courtyard, then swipe into my building, unlock the door to my flat, and finally unlock my room door. That’s four extra levels of security than I’m used to. Along the same lines, I can’t just leave my laptop in the library and walk off for an hour knowing it will still be there when I return.

Walking and travel time. I have to leave my room a full 30 minutes before my classes start, while at Whitman I could leave 5 minutes before any class and still arrive on time. Although accounting for the extra time is a bit of a hassle, I do love the lifestyle in which my own two feet can get me anywhere. Of course, where my feet can’t take me, the tube can.Thankfully, the tube is pretty easy to navigate. That being said, I have managed to get horribly lost many many times. On one occasion I arrived to an event over an hour late because I managed to not only take the wrong tube line but I also took it in the wrong direction very very far out. I get most homesick for the Wallas when I’m lost in the depths of the city surrounded by identical looking buildings and twisting streets. Google Maps and Citymapper have simultaneously become my best friends and worst enemies.

The pound. Everything here costs just as much as you would expect something to cost if it was in dollars. But then I have to stop and remind myself, it’s not dollars, its pounds. The pound is just a little bit steeper, making it easy to trick yourself into thinking things are cheaper than they really are.

Where is campus? Turns out the campus is any building with a UCL sign on it within a 2 mile radius of the main UCL building. Google maps has become my best friend and worst enemy (when it sends me to the other Gordon Square, which happens to be a mile from the one I’m supposed to go to).

And finally… the way they write the date here (day.month.year). Really hoping I don’t miss any important deadlines or exams because of this.