The small island of Barbados is home to Nikolai Holder – biochemist, humanist and Spiderman fan
Marvel comic book fans will no doubt recall the famous line from Uncle Ben to Peter Parker (aka Spiderman): “with great power comes great responsibility”.
It is a proverb that 31 year old Bajan biochemist Nikolai Holder quotes for this interview, and one that he lives by. As a scientist, he believes he has a duty to use his skills and knowledge to improve humanity and our planet.
“Scientists have the ability to understand the universe, how it works, and manipulate certain elements of it to suit our needs. Seeing how irresponsibly human beings have used their power over the years … I am motivated by the knowledge that I, and persons like myself, can make a positive difference, once we put in the work necessary to do so.”
Harnessing the power of plants
Nikolai discovered that grass clippings, which he collected from around the campus, are a particularly effective bio-organic substrate. In 2018 he constructed a semi-industrialised anaerobic digester system and fed the clippings into it to produce biogas. The compressed biogas is stored as biomethane in large canisters and powers six research labs on campus, as well as the teaching lab and prep room.
Such developments towards cleaner, greener energy production are important for a region that has been largely dependent on fossil fuels. And even more pertinent because of its vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
Climate change: a small island’s view
Increasing crop production in Barbados
In studying anaerobic digestion (the natural process through which bacteria breaks down organic matter without oxygen), the team has explored the potential of the digestate to improve soil quality. Soil degradation caused by deforestation, natural hazards, improper farming practices and generally low levels of organic matter in the soil present a threat to the island’s food security.
“We have had much success with these studies so far, boosting crop production rate by 50%,” says Nikolai. “This is some very important research with respect to food production and sustainable living and we are actively expanding the research capacity for this particular area.”
Last year, Nikolai’s research was recognised at the Commonwealth Chemistry Posters, a virtual event where early career chemical scientists had the opportunity to present their research to the Commonwealth Chemistry community. Nikolai is using the monetary prize to fund the team’s research – a common obstacle for most early career scientists.
“Reagents and equipment are expensive,” says Nikolai, “and then when we can afford them, they take forever to get to the island. This can be very problematic for research.”
From fuel and food to medicines
The power of three: love, support and mentoring
Following a career in science was not commonplace within Nikolai’s circle of family and friends, but he’s always had a love of science.
“I remember as a child watching shows like Beakman’s World, Bill Nye and a plethora of other science shows. I always loved figuring out how things worked and building various gadgets from old parts, based on certain principles of operation. This led to me choosing to go into this career path. It was just something I always knew I wanted to do.”
“I remember being in primary school and the teacher asking us what we wanted to be when we grew up and I said I wanted to be a scientist … I would never forget that. It wasn’t quite as popular in Barbados as it was in other places in the world, like Germany for example, but I didn’t care. I knew that is what I wanted to be and I worked to be that.”
Today, Nikolai is proud to be practicing as a research scientist at The UWI and able to use his skills to benefit society. And his hopes for the future?
“For humanity to finally wake up, accept that we are all one, and use our power – of having the highest level of consciousness among all the animals – more responsibly.”
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