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Emily Stoler on Developing Sustainable Solutions

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as professionals, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

Emily Stoler on Developing Sustainable Solutions
Emily Stoler, Principal Scientist, Sustainable Materials. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

When Emily Stoler was eighteen years old, she described her dreams for the future to a taxi driver. Now, after studying chemistry and working across academia and industry, she finally has the role she envisioned as the Principal Scientist in Sustainable Materials at the Wyss. She’s building up the Institute’s sustainability initiative by making connections and collaborating across disciplines with the ultimate goal of more quickly translating green technology out of the lab to mitigate climate change. Learn more about Emily and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss. 

What is your role at the Wyss Institute and what does it entail? 

I am the Principal Scientist in Sustainable Materials. I’m helping to build up our sustainability initiative at large. To do that, I’m talking to researchers to figure out which types of projects we’re already strongest in, and which types of projects we’d like to grow our capacity to work on. I’m also meeting and collaborating with industry and venture capitalist contacts in this space to expand our network and gain important insights. Finally, I’m figuring out which Wyss faculty have a strong sustainability portfolio and how we can bring more faculty and projects to the Wyss that are focused in this area.  

Within the sustainability initiative, I’m directly involved with a few projects, for example AquaPulse, the micro-engineered electric field water purifier that can kill bacteria, parasites, and viruses.     

What real-world problems are you hoping to solve through this work? 

Emily Stoler on Developing Sustainable Solutions
Emily presenting some of the Wyss’ sustainability projects during the poster and demo session at the 2023 Wyss Retreat. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Broadly, the issue we’re trying to address is climate change. However, we cannot save the planet with a single action, so there are a couple of areas we’re particularly interested in.  

Through our alliance with Collaborative Fund, we’re developing sustainable materials across a number of sectors, from high fashion to energy to construction.    

We also have strong synthetic biology capacities. We plan to use those tools to develop solutions in biomanufacturing, remediation, and sensing. For example, researchers are using synthetic biology to develop sensors to detect dangerous algae species earlier to help mitigate the negative effects of algal blooms.  

We also have an interesting set of skills for food and agriculture technologies, which is an area where we’ve already seen success. Tender Foods is commercializing technology developed at the Wyss to produce alternative meats. Kula Bio was spun out of the Wyss to develop sustainable fertilizer. We have current projects around reducing food spoilage and protecting crops from drought.  

What inspired you to get into this field? 

I’ve always loved chemistry – I just enjoy doing the work. When I was 18, I basically described the job I have now to a taxi driver as what I dreamed of doing – using science knowledge to build a more sustainable future The more I realize the effect that humans are having on this planet, the more I’ve felt a responsibility to clean up the mess we’ve made and provide more sustainable solutions to meet our needs.  

What continues to motivate you? 

There’s a real responsibility to use your knowledge wisely. This is especially true as someone living in a country that has really made a lot of the mess – we have to clean it up.    

I love humans and I think we have the capacity to develop a better relationship with the environment than we have now.

Emily Stoler

Obviously, I’m worried about the fate of the planet, but I also feel really optimistic. I love humans and I think we have the capacity to develop a better relationship with the environment than we have now.

What excites you most about your work? 

There’s enormous potential! I particularly love being at the Wyss because there are so many interesting ideas, so many talented people, and so many different skills that we could bring to bear on the problem. This extends even beyond our walls – being within the Harvard ecosystem means there are people at SEAS thinking about technical approaches, people at the business school thinking about the economics, and people at the Kennedy School thinking about policy. It’s a very fertile place to be in when you’re thinking about the climate problem.  

What are some of the challenges that you face? 

Emily Stoler on Developing Sustainable Solutions
Emily appreciates the Wyss’ connection with industry and proven track record of getting innovations out of the lab. Recently, she went on a tour of Wyss startup Kula Bio that is developing a sustainable fertilizer. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Thankfully there’s a broader belief in climate change, but there’s still pushback. Even as more people understand the issue, there’s not enough economic incentive to get some incredible projects adopted. So, you must come up with something that’s functional and financially viable that just happens to be environmentally responsible. Getting people to change their ways and adopt new technology is the biggest challenge.   

Why did you initially want to work at the Wyss? Why did you want to return? 

My husband worked at the Wyss for a fellowship when he finished his Ph.D., so I was familiar with the organization. I’ve always been really interested in technology translation but spent much of my career in industry. The Wyss appealed to me because it sits at the intersection of academia and industry. When I started here as a Scientist, I worked with David Mooney on biopolymers – it was such a great experience.

The Wyss is fantastic, and the only reason I left is because I wanted to focus more on sustainability and got pulled into a biomanufacturing project in industry. When I heard about the alliance with Collaborative Fund and the increased efforts in sustainability at the Wyss, I realized I could have the best of both worlds by coming back and focusing in that area.  

What is unique about the Wyss and how has that impacted your work? 

The amount of freedom and opportunity we have is unique. People are given the resources and space to follow what they’re interested in. When you have people working on projects they’re passionate about, they are energized about pushing them forward.

At the Wyss, people are given the resources and space to follow what they’re interested in. When you have people working on projects they’re passionate about, they are energized about pushing them forward.

Emily Stoler

The idea of self-assembly is also interesting. To a degree, we’re letting the sustainability pipeline self-assemble and seeing what crystalizes out, culturing this initiative within the existing system.  

How else do you collaborate with and receive support from teams across the Wyss Institute? 

Emily Stoler on Developing Sustainable Solutions
Emily spoke and led a panel discussion at the Reimagining Sustainability event in March. She knows this day would not have been possible without the efforts of multiple teams. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Collaboration is essential because the climate problem cannot be solved through a single discipline or by any one person. I enjoy engaging with people in the community and seeing how we can work together.  

There’s also a lot of players helping us achieve our sustainability goals. Last month, we put on a sustainability event, and I couldn’t believe the wonderful efforts of everyone involved. The events team, the communications team, the faculty leads, and the executive team all had a hand in making that happen. The support of the administrative and operations teams allows me to really think big. 

How does your industry experience inform the way you work now? 

One of the major reasons I wanted to come back to the Wyss is that after a lot of experience in industry, I got concerned that we weren’t translating fast enough. Industry has money for research and development, but their need to make a profit limits their ability to take risks. On the other hand, my experience in academia told me that there are innovative technology solutions in the lab that aren’t getting out. Since the Wyss sits at the crossroads between academia and industry, working here gives me the opportunity to use my understanding of how companies think to translate some of those ideas into real-world products more rapidly. 

Climate change is happening faster than any of us expected, and it’s not going to slow down. We need to pick up the pace and figure out how we can bridge the gap between academia and industry more quickly and wisely.

Emily Stoler

Climate change is happening faster than any of us expected, and it’s not going to slow down. We need to pick up the pace and figure out how we can bridge the gap between academia and industry more quickly and wisely. Time and resources cannot be wasted.    

The Wyss gives us the space to bring the connection to industry into people’s early-stage research. We look at the problems we’re trying to address, and I try to explore with researchers the bounds in which they can create a solution that is applicable. They need to be thinking about scale and cost. I’ve seen firsthand what it’s like to be in a conversation with Proctor & Gamble or Dow, Inc. I know what questions they’re going to ask, so I can get our researchers better prepared to answer. Hopefully that will cut down on the translation time and ultimately protect our planet. 

When you’re not at the Wyss, how do you like to spend your time? 

Well, I have two children, an old house, and a dog – so they take up a lot of my time. If I have extra time, I enjoy hiking, traveling, painting, knitting, and cooking. One of my favorite things to do is to get people together to share a meal and talk for a long time.  

I’ve traveled to a lot of places that I love. I recently came back from Lisbon, and it was spectacular. The food was amazing. The music was marvelous. The architecture was gorgeous. It’s just such a wonderful city.   

With cooking, I go through phases, trying to find things that I like. For example, when my husband was in school in France, I focused on French food. He’s Persian, so I cook a lot of Persian food.  

What’s something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume? 

When I was a little girl, I danced with the Colorado Ballet Company. 

If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be? 

A painter! I almost did that instead of what I do now. The decision came down to two things – one is that I wasn’t sure I could make a living and the other was that I realized I could paint in my free time, but I probably couldn’t do science in my free time if I didn’t have the education. Painting makes a better hobby than chemistry, but I hope that someday I can devote more time to painting too – maybe when I retire.    

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society? 

It’s such a privilege! I’m so excited and proud of the work we’ve done and can do in the future. I feel lucky that I get to be in this position, because it’s amazing to do a job that you truly love, and if it also allows you to make a positive impact, that’s even better.  


Emily Stoler on Developing Sustainable Solutions

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