New LEC Director – from soil microbiology to multidisciplinary collaborations that make a positive difference

Montage: in the centre Professor Kirk Semple smiles to the camera, between images of the inside and outside of Lancaster Environment Centre

Bringing people together across disciplines and continents and giving everyone a voice to support sustainable, resilient and equitable futures, is the ambition of the Lancaster Environment Centre’s new director.

Building and maintaining relationships and partnerships across the globe has been a central focus of Professor Kirk Semple’s career.

Kirk came to Lancaster University nearly 30 years ago, as a young microbiologist specialising in microbe-pollutant interactions in soil, working in the prestigious environmental chemistry research group under the leadership of Professor Kevin Jones.

A decade ago his expertise as a microbiologist and interest in the circular economy seeded ideas about the potential of resource recovery from waste and turning waste into energy. He recognised that optimising anaerobic digestion and the biological processes that could turn waste into energy and produce soil conditioners and sustainable fertilizers had a huge potential across the globe. There was little research in this area at the time, but Kirk was awarded £1 million of funding from NERC, and started his international involvement in Africa, “where the idea of using waste as a resource was even less known than in the UK.”

Kirk has developed a particular interest in Africa and has spent the past 15 years building and growing new research and teaching partnerships . “I had a steady flow of African PhD students coming into my group. I really enjoyed working with them, they were bright and committed to helping solve challenges in their own country and were very good at problem solving, sometimes unconventionally. I found that really interesting and exciting.”

He was already responsible for leading student recruitment for the recently formed Lancaster Environment Centre, so he decided to go and actively recruit more African masters and doctoral students. He went to Nigeria and Ghana, taking along a former PhD researcher, Dr Akanimo Odon.

“It quickly became apparent that, as well as recruiting students, there were other opportunities for research collaboration. It was the start of Akan and I going around talking to different universities and funding bodies about how to start to develop research links between Lancaster and West Africa.”

Recently he’s led the multi-million pound Recirculate project, working with businesses, researchers and communities in West Africa to create a circular economy in water and waste. A follow-on impact project - Actuate - has installed two demonstrator anaerobic digesters in a school in Ghana and a university in Nigeria. The digesters are now dealing with the school’s food waste, turning it into biogas for cooking and a fertiliser for use on the school grounds, but it is the partnerships it has created which will have the greatest impact.

“I’ve been working with the school, research colleagues, NGOs and the local community to build this demonstrator as well as a new lab, which is being used for practical experiments and teaching. The project is involving not just the students and teachers but the students’ families and the wider community. The school has become an education hub for other schools in Accra.

“What is exciting is taking research and using it for the benefit of environment and society, actually seeing the benefits of the outputs happening tangibly.

“Now these projects are ending, we want to avoid the normal academic approach of simply moving on to the next project: we aim to maintain the relationships we’ve created through an Africa Research and Innovation Partnership.”

“The key learning I’ve gained is the importance of being willing to trust your partners and let them do the research, we don’t need to be out there looking over their shoulders. Local context is really crucial. The notion of thinking globally but working locally, has become a mantra for me and within the University.

“The concept of co-design, co-development and co-delivery, is something that has emerged as the way we work with all our partners, in the UK and internationally, everybody has a voice – it is not just more equitable, it is also more effective.”

Over time, Kirk has taken on several leadership and management responsibilities. He became Director of International Engagement at the Lancaster Environment Centre, and Assistant Dean International for the Faculty of Science and Technology. His focus moved beyond Africa, and he became involved in the university’s Sunway campus in Malaysia.

When the Director role came up at LEC, he decided he had something to offer.

“The Environment Centre is a great place to work full of creative individuals committed to resilient, sustainable, and just futures for everyone and who value each other’s contributions. We’re in the top 100 in the world with a national and international reputation as a high-quality centre for environmental research and training.

“I want to improve our global reputation further, as the place for students to be inspired to become next generation change-makers and leaders and as the place for world-class research that makes a positive difference to individuals, communities and the environments in which they coexist.”

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