Hemanshi Galaiya: STEM for kids, synthetic bio, and building a future for Kenya

19 September 2023

It is with frustration that Hemanshi Galaiya watches climate change shape the fortunes of her home nation, Kenya.

First of all – despite contributing little to the global problem – Kenya’s regions and agricultural sector are being disproportionately savaged by increasingly extreme rain, floods and unseasonal heatwaves.

Hemanshi is completing her PhD as a member of the Marcellin Group, which has a strong focus on sustainability, working with industry partners from across the globe to create sustainable biofuels, sustainable food options and much, much more.

Another of Hemanshi’s bugbears is that Kenyans are too often unable to access the education that could help them address the issue.

“I am incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunities I have had, but in Kenya there are few pathways to build the expertise to address these issues, unless you leave the country,” she says.

“And then it becomes a bit of a repeating problem - the best and brightest young people are leaving and therefore building a strong scientific culture becomes quite difficult.

Hemanshi’s own academic journey has taken her from Nairobi to Sheffield in the UK, and now to the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology where - as a member of UQ's 2023 Global Change Scholars cohort - she is studying how gas fermentation can be better used to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Supervising Hemanshi is Marcellin Group leader Associate Professor Esteban Marcellin whose lab has a strong focus on sustainability, working with industry partners from across the globe to create sustainable biofuels, sustainable food options and much, much more.

But Hemanshi's work in synthetic biology is just part of the wider picture of how she is changing the world.

Through her entrepreneurial education program Young Stripes Hemanshi is hoping to improve a system that didn’t necessarily work for her as a science-obsessed youngster.

“Young Stripes is a social enterprise that delivers practical STEM education to raise the aspirations and life chances of young Kenyans,” Hemanshi says.

“From making aeroplanes and slime using household materials, to playing with robots and upskilling their leadership skills, each week is different from the next.”

“I never expected it to get as big as it has – and there is still a lot to do - but it is something I wish I had access to when I was younger.”

Such is the promise of Young Stripes that Hemanshi has taken the idea all the way to the national finals of Falling Walls Lab Australia in Canberra, where she placed third and secured herself a spot on the national team that will compete in Berlin in November. 

Read on to find out more about Hemanshi’s work and how she is combining it with her social venture to make a real difference.


Hemanshi would you say you have always been a scientist? Even as a kid?

I always say I was a bit of an engineer because I loved to tweak around with things. We had a pool table in the house and my brother and I, would use my skateboard to glide underneath the pool table and pretend we were mechanics who were ‘fixing’ it. That ‘it’ would change everyday as we thought of new and imaginative challenges: someday the table was a car with leaking oil, other days an aeroplane with lose bolts and sometimes even a futuristic space ship where the robots had started to act out… and then we would swoop in like engineering heroes and it was all okay again

It's still a running joke in my house that I studied engineering so I could carry around a screwdriver in my pencil case and fix all the appliances in the house!

I think also because of how I grew up helped me with a scientific mindset. We weren’t forced to study but instead encouraged to try new things and understood that if you fail – it’s okay. I believe that’s what pushed me towards science because science is a lot of failure before you find out a better result.

What are you working on here at the AIBN?

"We had a pool table in the house and my brother and I, would use my skateboard to glide underneath the pool table and pretend we were mechanics who were ‘fixing’ it."

I am basically focused on gas fermentation.

There are bacterial strains that have shown promise to eat carbon dioxide waste, and produce bioplastics. So I'm investigating how we can actually look at the natural pathways and enhance them to make this happen at an industrial scale.

We're working with companies that are is heavily invested in next generation technologies to create a circular bioeconomy out of waste that comes out of their processes. If we can take that industrial waste and convert it into a bio plastic, we're able to actually solve two problems. One is carbon storage, and the second is producing bio plastics to compete with conventional plastics.

Why did you choose synthetic biology?

Green tech has always interested me from a science perspective but also when I look at Kenya, we are one of the countries that is right at the forefront of the consequences of climate change despite not being a major contributor to pollution. We definitely see the effects of climate change and what it is doing to our soils, our crops, our weather patterns… everything. And that trickles down into how our economy is impacted.

And I realise, obviously, that my research and ideas could take so many years to become viable products. But for me, if I can make even one advancement, I feel that's very worthwhile.

You moved from Kenya to England to start your research career?

That’s right. And for various reasons, I found it quite difficult.

Where I come from, the career guidance is very poor. When you're a young person in Kenya, you determine which career is great not always based on its merit but more often than not based on how large the eventual paycheck would be or which part of the world you could someday move to based on that degree. You don't have insights to look at exactly what it entails to study a particular discipline. In fact, we are not exposed to different aspects of science or engineering. No one tells you the different types of specialisations in it, or that you can be something else - an Astronaut, Marine Biologist or an AI specialist - it’s just engineering or medicine.

So, a lot of scientific options are not available in our country. We have to leave and develop elsewhere both academically and individually.

"Throughout my degree I was seeing that my peers from other parts of the world had a head start when it came to learning about different kinds of science and how to apply them." 

I chose chemical engineering, thinking it would be a lot of green tech and new energy and - while it is in some parts - a lot is still about pharma and oil and gas, but I do realise that we can’t do without these right away. I did manage to make my final project more about genetics, evolution and metabolic engineering because that’s where I wanted to focus on in the future. I saw a potential in bioengineering as a new age technology that could solve some deeper intellectual challenges that I wasn’t seeing solved as a pure chemical engineer.

However, throughout my degree I was seeing that my peers from other parts of the world had a head start when it came to learning about different kinds of science and how to apply them. I on the other hand found it very challenging to translate my knowledge into a prototype or imagine a physical solution due to the lack of exposure to science applications. And that's sort of what drew me to this whole idea of taking practical STEM back to my country. It's because I didn't want anyone else to go through that feeling of not being prepared for the real world.

Can you tell us about the program you’ve set up in Kenya? Young Stripes?  

Absolutely. We're focused on getting kids excited about science using practical lessons and activities. At the moment our program teaches STEM and coding to about 200 students a week across different schools in Kenya.

I wanted to start a science education initiative because that's what I didn't have growing up. Initially it was supposed to just be something small that I do for my community, a little bit of outreach during my gap year after graduating but my gap year got prolonged owing to the pandemic and so Young Stripes picked momentum too.

Right now, it’s much bigger than I ever thought it would be.

I basically started it during the pandemic. A lot of schools went into online learning but in Kenya we didn’t have the infrastructure for that, especially in the public sector. This meant some students were out of education for almost two years.

To start with it was just cataloguing topics for teachers and parents and putting them on our website. I had to spend a bit of time upskilling myself, building networks and contacts in the education sector.  

I was supported by a few different fellowships. There’s one called the Metis Fellowship, which is for educators and entrepreneurs. And another is called YALI, the US government’s Young African Leadership Initiative, and a Korean-based NGO called Africa Insight. Through them I got like my first $2,000 of funding using which we bought STEM kits and then piloted our project in a school.

What do lessons in the Young Stripes curriculum involve?

Each week is different from the next. One week they would be making indicators, another week they are building circuits and yet another week they design prosthetic arm models. It’s a challenge to come up with new activities that we can translate across age groups that are also interesting. And remembering that resources are limited in Kenya. We take frugal science very seriously, and make use of whatever we have available.

Ultimately, the thing is that children as young as 12 actually begin to develop negative biases about STEM because they can't connect what they learn in classrooms to the real life because we don't have practical STEM education.

So my idea is to just excite them to see STEM in a positive light. Today if someone gets excited about chemical engineering because we made chocolate and explained to them how we use temperature and thermodynamics in very simplistic, age-appropriate terms, then maybe they’ll start exploring chemical engineering as a potential careers in the future.

It’s early days – but how do you see Young Stripes evolving?

I think I’m still trying to figure that out. One of the things I'm doing on campus is joining different UQ Ventures programs, and seeing where I can get the mentorship needed.

I was also lucky enough to be able to present my ideas at the Falling Walls Lab Brisbane heats, where I came in second place and will soon be presenting it at the National level.

In fact, I have been getting some great encouragement from people around UQ and recently, also got accepted into the UQ Venture Empower accelerator where for the next three months, I can explore ways to grow Young Stripes.

But the long-term vision is that we want to set up young Kenyans so they don’t feel have to leave the country to access a career in STEM.

If I look at my own career prospects, I could not do a PhD in bioengineering in Kenya as it is today. It is a vicious cycle because there is currently no infrastructure to help talented people build their skills. So hopefully one day we can build a system to excite young people to remain in the country to contribute to its socio economic development.

You’ve got a lot on your plate, but are there also ways in which your PhD research and Young Stripes complement each other?

For me, the overlap between my Phd here at the AIBN and running Young Stripes in Kenya is in realising the impact you can create.

Obviously the scientific skills I am learning help when I'm creating activities for others based around science. But my education has been very good in teaching me how we, as academics, have to be resourceful. You have to be self-driven and do a lot of self-learning.

Running Young Stripes has made me think more about the factors that shaped my own academic journey, and the things we need to change so there are not so many hurdles for the next generation.

"The long-term vision is that we want to set up young Kenyans so they don’t feel have to leave the country to access a career in STEM."