"For many years during my career, I had been involved in Equity, Diversity & Inclusion work. It dawned on me that as a white male within academia not only was I the norm, but I also possessed a lot of privilege that had enabled my career..."
The EPSRC awarded a grant (£1.6m) to Professor Steve Eichhorn in the Bristol Composites Institute for a fellowship on “Realising Functional Cellulosic Bio-based Composites”. Fellowships are schemes that allow academics at all levels to focus on research, to make a difference in a field. The fellowship includes Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I).
The technical work of the fellowship will focus on biobased and sustainable composites using cellulose towards functional materials. The ED&I aspect of the work will aim to improve the experiences and inclusion of Black students and staff. ED&I in Engineering Recent studies have highlighted that fewer than 1% of UK university professors are Black, with previous research showing that there are only 25 Black female professors in the UK.
For the last 20 years, Professor Eichhorn has been researching the structure-property relationships of cellulose. His research groups have always been diverse, but he has recently realise that certain aspects could still be improved. “My group over the years has included a wide range of people, with a very good gender balance, but also diverse ethnic, religious, class and cultural backgrounds. This has been a strength to the work we have produced over the last two decades. However, it is evident that people of Black and Black heritage have not been well represented in my group.
"This is something I have reflected on. This ED&I fellowship gave me a unique opportunity to address this issue and be part of a process of change.”
The fellowship aims to realise the true potential of cellulosic bio-based composites in new and novel ways. This will be done by forming their structures using novel aqueous in-situ processing.
The formation of these composite structures will render multifunctional properties, while enabling them to be incorporated into thermoplastic composites.
The fellowship will address three fundamental questions:
This transformative research will bring about a new paradigm in the production of cellulose based thermoplastic composites, leading to much wider adoption of sustainable materials into the production of bio-based composites.
Onajite Theresa Diejomaoh Abafe, obtained a Bachelors in Science degree with a Second class honours (Upper division) in Chemistry at Delta State University, Abraka Nigeria in 2008. Thereafter, I obtained a Master’s degree in Chemistry at the University of Port Harcourt Nigeria in which I graduated with distinction. I then proceeded to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa for a fully funded PhD study in the School of Chemistry and Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal under the supervision of Professor Bice Martincigh and Professor Annegret Stark and graduated in 2020.
My PhD study received funding from the National Research Foundation/Sugarcane Biorefining Research Chair and was based on investigating the effect of fluoro-alkyl chain on the physicochemical properties of cation-fluorinated ionic liquids and binary mixtures with their non-fluorinated analogues.
In 2022, I took up a Postdoctoral Research Assistant position with the Energy and Bioproducts Research Institute (EBRI) at Aston University, Birmingham United Kingdom to work on a project based on the catalytic conversion of bio-derived feedstock to bio-based liquefied petroleum gas (bio-LPG). This project was supervised by Dr. Jude Onwudili and jointly funded by Biomass Biorefinery Network (BBNET) and Calor gas (UK), a subsidiary of SHV Energy, The Netherlands. Afterwards at the start of 2023 I was employed as a Research Associate in bio-based composite and Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol, United Kingdom under the supervision of Professor Steve Eichhorn on an EPSRC funded project project aimed at realising functional cellulosic biobased composite materials suitable for the production of sustainable biobased plastics.
My research interest is in the broad area of sustainable chemistry and includes but not limited to catalysis, carbon dioxide capture, conversion of biomass or waste to fuel and valuable bio-products.
I obtained a bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Caxias do Sul, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil in 2013, where I would later get a Master's degree in Processes Engineering. I then went to the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul for a fully funded PhD position in Materials Engineering under the supervision of Professor Sandro Campos Amico and Professor Ademir Jose Zattera, and graduated in 2019.
During both my undergraduate research project and master's, funded by the Foundation for the Support of Research in the State of Rio Grande do Sul (FAPERGS), I investigated the mechanical properties of polymer composites reinforced with natural fibres and nanocellulose, including feasible ways to modify the surface of cellulose nanofibers to obtain hydrophobic materials. My PhD, funded by the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES), was based on the incorporation of surface-modified graphitic nanofillers in epoxy resins and other polymeric matrices, which I later continued to work on during my first postdoctoral position at the University of Caxias do Sul.
In 2022 I became a visiting researcher at the Luleå University of Technology, Luleå, Sweden, in a project funded by CAPES and The Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT), where I investigated the effect of water sorption on the mechanical and viscoelastic properties of epoxy resin/microcrystalline cellulose composites, supervised by Professor Roberts Joffe and Professor Sandro Amico.
In 2023, I took up a Research Associate position in Biobased Composites and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Bristol (United Kingdom), supervised by Professor Stephen J. Eichhorn on an EPSRC funded project aimed at realising the potential of cellulosic biobased composites.
My research interests lie in the broad area of polymer composites reinforced with nanofillers, nanocellulose and natural fibres, including the surface modification of fibres and nanofillers to improve their dispersion and adhesion in polymer matrices.
Drs Anita Etale, and Amaka Onyianta have outstanding track records in cellulose research and the lived experience and passion to address Equity, Diversity & Inclusion with respect to Black and Black heritage staff and students. They combine these two passions and expertise and are already making an impact in the field.
Contributing to the series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment , Anita Etale, a Research Associate in Aerospace Engineering and the MMB Early Career Representative, writes about how water stress – especially that related to climate change – is driving people away from some areas and towards others, and how measures need to be taken in both rural and urban areas to help people cope with increasing water extremes.