Building bridges across disciplines to grow human capacity

Professor Sue Harrison of the University of Cape Town specialises in creating value from waste, for instance from mine waste. (Photo: Michael Hammond)

Professor Sue Harrison of the University of Cape Town specialises in creating value from waste, for instance from mine waste. (Photo: Michael Hammond)

Professor Sue Harrison’s love for science was nurtured over family dinner conversations where she was the youngest of a large family of engineers, chemistry buffs and physicists. She began to realise that different disciplines could intersect to achieve better results.

Fast-forward and Harrison is pioneering the way in the field of bioprocess engineering. It’s a specialty that falls under the chemical engineering banner at the University of Cape Town and bridges faculties and industries.

As Director of the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research, and holding the South African Research (SARChI) Chair in Bioprocess Engineering, Harrison integrates the chemical engineering, mineral processing and biotechnology disciplines.

Her research builds a holistic understanding of the biology, engineering and bioprocesses essential to a sustainable bio-economy. This is based on maximising renewable materials and resource productivity while minimising waste burdens, including the wastewater burden.

Inter-disciplinary approach

Soon after graduation, Harrison started her work in bioprocess engineering. “I recognised this as a key gap in South Africa, with little expertise and few working in the area,” she says.

She set about developing the expertise herself, and then disseminating it through training of postgraduate scientists and engineers.

Harrison explains that she has developed the bioprocess engineering capacity by integrating fundamental knowledge in engineering and the life sciences. 

To enable this inter-disciplinary approach, students and researchers from different disciplines carry out research and training alongside each other to pool expertise.

“This has been my approach for over 15 years,” she says. “It’s only recently becoming the accepted approach globally in this field.”

Formal training of bioprocess engineers and technologists has enabled this approach through the MSc(Eng) specialising in bioprocess engineering, which has run for over 15 years. 

Harrison has also prioritised getting novice postgraduate students research active through training in research methodology and laboratory methods. She offers this to 50-80 engineering students at UCT each year, as well as through inter-university courses.

Water focus

A number of her projects relate to water, addressing such issues as acid mine drainage, as just one example.

“South Africa is a water-poor country — not just in times of drought. We need to make sure that we have potable water that won’t negatively impact human health, and that the water in the environment that people use is of sufficient quality that it won’t harm them,” says Harrison.

At the same time, water released to the environment must sustain it and not affect the natural ecologies. Harrison says we need water efficiencies in all kinds of operations, and to prevent loss.

Harrison notes that polluted water has resources in it that are currently discarded, including organic compounds that could be used to help generate as much as 10% of South Africa’s electricity requirements.

Value from waste

This theme of “value from waste” flows through Harrison’s research into using microorganisms for extracting metals from ores and from e-waste, the handling of mine wastes, the use of by-products in agricultural processes (such as the sugar industry) in generating bio-based products and the use of hydrocarbon fractions as feedstock for higher value chemicals.

Another big focus of her work is using algae to take up carbon dioxide to make biomass and a whole range of products of value.

“We can produce a wide range of health foods from algae as they offer the same kind of nutritional lipids that we get from fish,” she says. “I’m looking into algae as an energy source, an animal or fish feed and as fertiliser. Algae really do have a wide range of potential uses.”

Broader capacity development

Over the course of her research career, Harrison has supervised 97 postgraduate students to completion, as well as training 11 interns, hosting and mentoring 32 post-doctoral researchers and mentoring 20 emerging researchers and academic staff members, many of whom have achieved professional recognition and excellent academic standing.

“The biggest obstacle in the context of South African universities is balancing high teaching loads with a research career. However, I remain absolutely convinced that we teach better when we’re inspired by our own research,” she says.