Interview: process engineer Dr'in Nina Woicke on bio-based plastics

© Nina Woicke

Nina Woicke is a process engineering engineer, freelance consultant and product developer. She is passionate about very special plastics and their practical applications. Which plastics are involved? why Plastic per se is not "evil" and like Nina Woicke came to study engineering - she discussed this with Sandra Fleckenstein in the #ResearchersFriday Podcast spoken. The podcast is offered by the platform #InnovativeWomen. The platform is in Competence Center Technology Diversity Equal Opportunities e. V settled and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The interview is supplemented by questions from the zdi editorial team.

#researchersfriday – Nina Woicke: What is bioplastic all about?

How do you become a process engineer?

Sandra Fleckenstein: So far in your career you have gone through a wide range of professional stations: you have completed your studies and a doctorate, you have worked in companies, including management positions. And today you are a freelance lecturer and freelance engineer and consultant. How did this path turn out for you?

Nina Woicke: It was clear to me relatively early on that I wanted to be an engineer. I was always interested in technology and my parents supported and encouraged this interest tremendously. When I was 15 or 16, it was already clear to me that I wanted to study process engineering. Everything else, I have to say, was always a bit along the lines of what felt right and good for me at that moment.

You just said your parents supported you on your journey from the start. How did those around you react to your career aspirations?

The closest circle was very, very positive and gave me their full support. For those who knew me well and experienced me, the way was very clear, because I was always interested in technology and inquisitive. But of course there were enough people who then said - in the English-speaking world one would say: "That's different", although one could hear that "different" was not positively connoted at the moment. But rather out of the embarrassment of not knowing what to say or think about it.

What did that do to you back then?

Oh, that's difficult. Of course, as a young person, you always want to somehow belong. And especially during puberty you often deal with this "I'm a bit different now" feeling. But for me it just felt right. And I have to admit, when I started at the university, I immediately noticed that the wavelengths between me and the other women there were absolutely the same. It was an incredibly great feeling to be on the same wavelength with other women. And then I knew that it was the right decision to do it.

Dr'in Nina Woicke at work.
© Nina Woicke

zdi editorial team: How important is the mutual support of women for you? Do you have positive examples?

A good network is always important. Mixed networks are still the norm, especially in a technical environment, because there are simply not that many women in management positions. For my personal development, also in the context of self-employment, I find female-dominated networks particularly valuable. Because here you meet people in similar life situations who have a greater understanding of their own situation due to the common parallels.

I find the mastermind group of the network particularly valuableWomen Entrepreneurs in Science". Here I can exchange ideas with a fixed group of other female founders about the challenges and goals of self-employment. A safe and trusting atmosphere is particularly important for a constructive exchange. This is definitely the case in this group.

Sandra Fleckenstein: What advice would you like to give to your younger self?

Don't be fooled by your intuitions. If something feels right, then do it the same way and don't let anyone put you off.

How plastics can save the environment

Sandra Fleckenstein: Tell us about your lighthouse project.

Nina Woicke: It's a really exciting project: I was still working in my old company as a product developer. Among other things, we made products for waste water technology. We were then approached by a Dutch company that was keen to make a new product with us in the field of environmental theme restoration. It should be about renaturing areas where man has interfered with nature. First it was about the fact that mussels should be resettled as mussel beds. But in nature, mussels usually grow on other mussels, i.e. on mussel beds. However, once the mussel beds have been completely harvested, the mussels find it incredibly difficult to grow back on sand. So we wanted to generate artificial mussel beds so that mussels can grow back on beaches.

BESE-Element® – © BESE products
BESE-Element® in action – © BESE products

And you developed these artificial mussel beds using plastic technology?

Yes, exactly. The idea was to abstract the whole thing. We don't just make small shells, but rather a relatively abstract, matte, lattice-like construct made of plastic. But - and this is what makes it so special - we don't use conventional plastic, but bio-based and biodegradable plastic. Once mussels have settled and mussels can grow back on mussels, the plastic decomposes and after a few years only mussels are left. In this way, the natural state before man intervened is restored.

And do you now feel a change in plastics technology towards sustainability?

My impression is that there has been a lot of movement in recent years and that everyone is thinking about sustainability in all directions. Not only with biodegradable and bio-based plastics, but also with the whole topic of recycling. So: how can I improve the recycling of plastics? There's a lot going on there and I think that's good and right. And I think you need more than one specific solution to change and improve plastics issues.

So the message I can take with me today is: aren't plastics "evil" per se?

Definitive. It has to be said that we can no longer imagine our lives without plastics. The laptop we are sitting in front of consists largely of plastic. If we were to replace it with metal, for example, then we would spend a lot more for it and it wouldn't necessarily be the better solution from an environmental point of view either. This means that in many areas plastic has made products more energy efficient and also affordable for everyone. Various products that used to be accessible only to high society, the top 1%, have now become mass-produced and that is where plastic has been able to bring in its positive aspect. And to that extent: No, plastics are not “evil” per se. Nevertheless, there are enough problems associated with plastic that are far from all solved.

zdi editorial team: What approaches do you see in the field of process engineering that could become important for tomorrow's female researchers?

The process engineering is incredibly broad, the field of plastics technology is rather exotic. From my point of view, two major topics will primarily concern future process engineers: The industrial processing of food in order to be able to feed a steadily growing world population. And the treatment and provision of clean water. The term "industrial" has a rather bad reputation these days, but it basically just means "for many" and it is precisely this supply of food and water to a great many people that must be secured.

The process engineers of the future will certainly also be concerned with the transmission of energy or the provision of hydrogen.

Sandra Fleckenstein: What is your wish for the future, in relation to plastics technology or specifically to bio-plastics technology?

I hope that on the one hand there will continue to be a controversial debate, but also that people will understand that this is an incredibly complex topic. That there will probably not be a one-fits-all solution, but that you always have to look very closely: which material, which composition, which solution is the best? So if I come back to the laptop now, do I absolutely need a biodegradable plastic for a product that ideally is not thrown away, but possibly repaired? That means I don't have to throw away the housing either. And then I might even be able to say: I'll use a higher-quality plastic so that the housing will last ten or 20 years. Because I don't dispose of the computer as a whole, I make sure that it has the longest possible lifespan. Such concepts should be thought of more comprehensively than just looking at the individual material.

zdi editorial team: Do you have any tips on how science transfer can work?

If you succeed in conveying and sharing your own enthusiasm for a topic, then a lot has already been gained. If you get the opportunity - i.e. the time and space - to deal with everyday things in detail and to ask yourself questions about these things, then the fascination for these things is not far away. For example, for many, a toothbrush is just a toothbrush. But if you look at them in detail, see the many small bristles, think about the fact that every single hair has to be produced and processed at some point, and then ask yourself how that works at all... that's how enthusiasm and fascination can arise.

I particularly like the fact that the answers to such questions are often just a mouse click away. The Internet gives you direct access to a lot of information and you can organize the transfer of science yourself and at your own pace.

Exciting STEM courses for girls who want to deal with STEM topics are available on our zdi community platform!

Im #ResearchersFriday Podcast you will find further exciting interviews with actors of the platform #InnovativeWomen. The platform is in Competence Center Technology Diversity Equal Opportunities e. V settled and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. 

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