Selin Kara is professor and head of section at the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University. In this article, you can read more about her academic career in green transition – a journey that was kicked off with a Starting Grant from AUFF in 2018.
By Jesper Bruun
"You have to apply for this..." Selin Kara was putting the final touches on her habilitation thesis at the Hamburg University of Technology, TUHH, when an email from her former supervisor, Professor Frank Hollmann, popped up in her inbox in autumn 2017.
Hollmann had been her supervisor when she worked as a post-doctoral researcher in the Biocatalysis Group within the Department of Biotechnology at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands from 2011 to 2013. Here, she had established a new biocatalytic concept for a more efficient use of redox enzymes as catalysts in both the pharmaceutical industry as well as the agrochemical sector.
At that time, it offered a brand new approach to biocatalytic synthesis, which promised to have a great impact on the green transition of the pharmaceutical industry, and her research therefore won her a ‘Green Chemistry Highlight’ award from the British Royal Society of Chemistry.
Selin read the mail. Hollmann brought her attention to a vacancy at the former Department of Engineering Science at Aarhus University. A position as associate professor in bioprocess engineering, and he was certain that Selin would be perfect for the associate professorship.
Technology in the area was developing rapidly, and Selin had helped kickstart it with her research at both TU Delft, TU Dresden and now in Hamburg. The opportunity could not have come at a better time: Her future was wide open now that she could see an end to her habilitation, and she was actually looking for a university where she could settle. A more permanent position where she would be able to establish and manage a group of researchers and focus on the actual research that in no way lacked any perspective.
“OK, then. But I’ll write your name as reference,” she responded.
Selin Kara is now professor and head of section at the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering at Aarhus University. Here, she is in charge of the research group Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing as well as the industrial biotechnology section.
Selin Kara’s research is about creating green, sustainable and biodegradable chemical compounds using production methods that are solely based on natural processes and do not generate waste. Chemical compounds that can be used as sustainable alternatives in everyday products such as pharmaceuticals, bioplastic and cosmetic ingredients.
Seminal perspectives for an industry that is one of the greatest polluters in the world.
“We combine chemical engineering, biotechnology, molecular biology and organic synthesis in a holistic manner to optimise natural biological processes and to make them as efficient and sustainable as possible. The greatest challenge involves making the biocatalytic processes so efficient that they become more attractive than conventional production methods,” says Selin Kara.
The chemical industry is undergoing rapid growth. In 2017, the current global chemical production capacity was valued at USD 5,000 billion. The UN expects this figure to double by 2030.
That poses a considerable environmental problem, because despite the industry’s commitment to minimise its environmental impact, vast quantities harmful chemicals are still being discharged into the environment.
Chemicals can now be found everywhere in air, water and soil, food and humans, however, it is not just the chemicals that end up in nature that make the industry one of the worst polluters in the world. It is also because of production processes that obtain raw materials from the ground and that traditionally generate more waste than products.
And that is exactly the problem that Selin Kara’s research is intended to counter.
“We try to imitate natural processes that through million years of evolution have proven their worth, and then optimise them so that we can use them on an industrial scale. This will significantly reduce the costs, environmental impact and the size of the areas currently needed for chemical production,” she says.
Selin Kara was born and raised in Ereğli in the Konya province in central Anatolia in Turkey. This is where she went to school until the age of 16 when she travelled south to attend a boarding school that focused on natural sciences.
Her mother was a primary school teacher and her father a high-school chemistry, biology and physics teacher, and it is likely them who made Selin choose to study natural sciences.
“I never considered not going to university after high school. It was just very natural for me. Since I was more interested in natural sciences than human and social sciences and since I had a keen interest in chemistry, biology and mathematics, it seemed a very obvious choice at the time,” she says about her choice of studies, which led to a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a bachelor’s degree in food engineering from the Middle East Technical University (METU), Ankara, Turkey.
During her studies, she became interested in biotechnology and biocatalysis, and thanks to a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, she was able to take her master’s degree in biotechnology at TUHH in 2005-2007.
“This was where I was introduced to the research world in earnest, and I became deeply fascinated. I became part of an extremely inspiring laboratory at the Institute of Technical Biocatalysis under Andreas Liese, and the dynamics of the research environment made me decide to do a PhD and continue working in the academic world with research in biotechnology,” she says.
Her PhD project was an interdisciplinary combination of various specialisms and technologies for designing and developing biotechnological processes, from enzyme production to bioreactor design, online process monitoring and data analyses. The interdisciplinary studies were necessary in order to be able to synthesise chemicals in an efficient and sustainable manner.
Selin Kara defended her PhD thesis in bioprocess engineering at TUHH in 2011. She then worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Biotechnology at TU Delft.
On a rainy Thursday in March 2018, Selin Kara arrived at Aarhus central station together with two of her colleagues. She had applied for the position as associate professor at Aarhus University, and the next day she would be interviewed by the department management for the position and interested peers were keen to learn more about her research.
The Department of Engineering Science was a rather large department. Established in 2011, it gathered all the university’s research activities in technical science. She was attracted to the possibilities of engaging in interdisciplinary work and impacting decisions regarding both research and education in such a relatively new department. And it also offered excellent opportunities for research collaborations in bioprocessing and biocatalysis.
“The department showed great interest in my research. Something I found very motivating, so I was very much looking forward to my interviews that Friday. I had to give a lecture on my current research activities and their perspectives, but was told that since the term had already started and the students had to attend classes, I should not expect a large audience. However, as with so many other areas at Aarhus University, I was pleasantly surprised,” she says.
They ended up having to find a larger lecture hall so that Selin could talk about the possibilities and perspectives of biocatalysis. This only reinforced her desire to move to Aarhus to research and teach.
However, moving her laboratory in Germany to Aarhus was extremely expensive. In fact, it seemed impossible at first, until Professor Lars Ottosen, the former head of section for biotechnology and chemical engineering, took her aside one Friday
“He told me about the AUFF’s Starting Grant and that the dean and department management were prepared to apply for the funds so that I could move to AU. That was a major acknowledgement of me and my research, and I left firmly believing that it was not impossible after all,” she says.
Selin Kara defended her habilitation thesis in May 2018 at TUHH. Shortly after, she went home to her family in Turkey to celebrate her newly acquired doctor’s degree. And that was when she received another email. This time it was from Lars Ottosen, who told her that she had been given the grant from AUFF.
“A huge relief. The Starting Grant was pivotal for my decision to move from Hamburg to Aarhus. I would never have moved without it as it would not have made sense economically. The grant allowed me to move my research activities and the associated researchers and start my own laboratory at AU without having to spend too much time on it,” she says, continuing:”I brought several of my ongoing research projects with me to Aarhus, which meant that the PhD students involved had to come along and start on a Danish PhD salary. That was only possible because of AUFF’s Starting Grant.”
Selin moved to Aarhus in June 2018. The laboratory was up and running in October the same year, and all her four research colleagues, three PhD students and 1 post-doctoral researcher had joined her.
The laboratory now includes three post-doctoral researchers, 6 PhD students, 1 research assistant, 1 project manager and a number of B.Sc. and M.Sc. students. In addition to Selin Kara, of course. She is also in charge of the INTERfaces project granted by the EU’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020. The project involves a total of 10 academic organisations and 13 industrial partners.
Selin Kara started as associate professor in 2018 and was appointed professor on 1 February 2021. In January 2021, the Department of Engineering Sciences was closed, and in its place four new departments were established, including the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering, of which Selin Kara is head of section.
“It is amazing being part of a young department at a university that has such a strong focus on research in engineering sciences. I’m looking forward to continuing the research in green chemistry and chemical and biological engineering and launching lots of new initiatives and collaborations in e.g. protein technology and digitisation. The opportunities are endless, and as long as we stay curious and creative, the answers to the major issues facing the world will be right at our feet.”
A key element of AUFF Starting Grants involves international recruitment to growth areas with a view to establishing new independent research areas and research groups.
With Starting Grants, AUFF wants to ensure excellent researchers good career opportunities at Aarhus University. The target group for Starting Grants is newly employed assistant professors, associate professors and professors.