Witri Wahyu Lestari
Sebelas Maret University
AsianScientist (Dec. 14, 2018) – For centuries, socioeconomic development has been attained at the expense of the environment. Dirty energy sources such as oil and coal have powered factories and vehicles but polluted the air, and climate change has become one of the most pressing problems facing the world today.
Fortunately, scientists such as Dr. Witri Lestari of Sebelas Maret University, Indonesia, are seeking out more ecologically-friendly ways to power progress. Her work revolves around designing novel catalysts for obtaining green diesel—fuel produced from non-fossil renewable sources—charting a path towards a sustainable future.
Her innovative and intellectual pursuits have earned her numerous accolades, including the 2016 ASEAN-US Science Prize for Women and, more recently, the 2018 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World. Find out more about her research and ambitions in this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
Our research contributes to the development of functional hybrid porous materials from a molecular level, based on synthetic and natural materials. These materials can be used for environmental protection, energy storage and drug delivery, all of which are focused on sustainable development goals.
- Describe a completed research project that you are most proud of.
I am most proud of a research project which was funded by the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program, where we modified natural zeolite with iron nanoparticles and used it as a catalyst for ecologically-friendly or green diesel production from palm oil. The efficiency of our catalyst was as high as 90 percent in terms of product conversion, and we were able to achieve selective production of the C15-green diesel fraction.
We are going to patent our technology and publish our research in a reputable peer-reviewed journal. Last year, my group published seven papers in Scopus-indexed journals and proceedings.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I hope that my research will change society for the better and make an international impact, especially in the areas of environmental sustainability, alternative energy sources and biomedicine—essentially, fields that are based on the utilization of synthethic and natural materials. I am seeking international grants to support my research, and I have ambitions to one day receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I have loved chemistry since my chemistry classes in senior high school, hence I chose to study chemistry at university. I found my passion for research while studying for my master’s degree and PhD at Leipzig University in Germany. Initially, I found research difficult, but I was inspired by my patient mentor Professor Evamarie Hey-Hawkins. Her mentorship and supervision on many projects has produced many high impact publications. She is my role model and serves as motivation for me to help people in my own way as a scientist.
I believe that being a scientist requires passion, and a career in science can be highly rewarding in many ways. We can contribute towards solving some of the world’s problems, for example, by improving current technology or by gaining a better understanding of important concepts in the fields of energy, food, the environment and so on. Our work also grants us a deeper appreciation of the meaning of life, as we view everything more logically and are more open-minded.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
There are certainly challenges associated with conducting research in my home country [of Indonesia]. Due to some limitations in the areas of chemicals supply, instruments for analysis, access to literature, research progress can be slow. I believe that collaboration will help us transcend these limitations and help accelerate the progress of my research.
Recruiting talented students is another challenge. Students who want to join my research group are selected based on their motivation letter, academic achievements and proficiency in English. I want them to be prepared to conduct research at a high level and to get involved in collaborations as exchange students, as well as present their findings at international seminars.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today, and how can we fix them?
To pursue a career as a scientist in a developing country is a unique challenge. For scientists like myself who graduated from universities in developed countries such as Germany, the US and Japan, returning home can feel like a reset, as the conditions for research are very different.
In developing countries, we have to be resilient, innovative and focus on promising topics. Collaborating with partners both on a national and international level is very important. We also struggle to publish the results of our research in high quality and high impact journals.
Research can be rather expensive, and to pursue high-level research we need funds. I personally learnt a lot from senior researchers, whose research domains were already well established at my home university, on how to design and write research projects to attract funding. They also shared strategies on how to publish in international journals. Each year, I receive financial support from the government and foundations, and many students are interested in conducting their final assignments with me as their supervisor.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have done instead?
I think I would have become a senior high school teacher.
- Outside of work, what do you do to relax?
I cook. I also enjoy going fishing with my husband and children.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
I would focus on tackling sustainability issues, contributing to the development of sustainable energy based on biofuel. This requires the design and creation of new materials for catalysis in biofuel production.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
Stay committed to carrying out research, regardless of the conditions of your field of expertise. Also, dedicate your research activities to helping people, and seek out opportunities to be useful to society.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photos: Witri Wahyu Lestari.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.