Nov. 16, 2023

Women Breakthrough Award winner turns waste into economic opportunities

Atinuke Chineme’s research looks at waste management through a gender lens
Falling Walls Foundation

Atinuke Chineme, a PhD candidate at the University of Calgary's School of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape (SAPL), is the recipient of the Women Breakthrough Award 2023 in the Innovation category.

Presented by the Falling Walls Foundation and the Elsevier Foundation, the award recognizes exceptional contributions of female researchers across diverse disciplines and celebrates the accomplishments of women who have broken new ground in their respective fields. Chineme, MSc’18, was selected from among 82 submissions spanning 39 countries.

The award was created with the aim of advancing gender justice and equality, while simultaneously encouraging women to pursue careers in research, an arena in which they have traditionally been underrepresented. The award is a testament to the remarkable work of female researchers and scientists across the world, offering a platform to showcase their achievements and inspire the next generation of women researchers.

Award motivates and fuels commitment to sustainable waste management

For Chineme, this award represents a motivating force for her dissertation work, fuelling her commitment to addressing crucial challenges in waste management and sustainability with a gender lens. Her PhD research is in environmental design, with a focus on sustainability in waste management, and involves exploring how black soldier flies can be used to convert organic waste into valuable resources.

“In terms of what the award meant to me, it meant validation for the work that has been three or four years in the making. It was great to get recognition for all the hard work,” says Chineme.

A passion for sustainability

Chineme's unwavering passion for sustainability is rooted in her upbringing in Nigeria, where she witnessed the profound socio-economic consequences that women endured because of inadequate waste management. She recognized the far-reaching impact subpar waste management can have, particularly on women. In her view, economic empowerment of women through innovative waste management techniques and new technology can embolden them to make informed decisions, thereby enhancing their quality of life.

“Economic empowerment really is the ability to make decisions for yourself, not dependent on someone else… In low-income settings, women typically earn less than men, leaving them financially dependent on men, which could be detrimental in some instances,” says Chineme.

A gender-centric approach to waste management

Chineme's research primarily focuses on applying a gender-sensitive lens to waste management, with the objective of benefiting women on a socio-economic scale. Her work is dedicated to revolutionizing waste-management practices, particularly in micro-farming.

Chineme, who already has a master’s in sustainable energy development from SAPL, faced the task of devising a sustainable, long-term solution for managing organic waste, particularly for women engaged in caregiving roles. In her pursuit, she discovered black soldier flies and recognized their potential for user-friendliness and time efficiency, two qualities vital for women in caregiving capacities.

Through use of the fly's ability to convert organic waste into valuable resources, Chineme's research endeavours adeptly confront both environmental and economic challenges, proffering a comprehensive and enduring solution.

 “The black soldier fly consumes waste that would have been thrown out, then they lay these eggs on the waste which hatch into larvae that consume the waste to mature. Once the larvae have grown, the women use them as livestock feed and also gather the leftover compost and use it as fertilizer for their crops… Nothing is wasted from this process,” Chineme explains.

A pledge to sustainability

Chineme's trajectory, starting from a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from University of Ibadan in Nigeria, to her current research at SAPL, underscores her steadfast commitment to sustainability. Her shift from the oil and gas industry, working on the rigs as an engineer as the only female amongst her colleagues, to academia was driven by the aspiration to work on solutions that encompass the broader societal and environmental ramifications of her work.

Choosing SAPL

“SAPL was the only faculty I knew of that offered an interdisciplinary program in environmental design in Alberta,” says Chineme. This interdisciplinary approach aligns with her belief that sustainability requires considering the three pillars of economic, social and environmental aspects simultaneously.

Chineme also appreciates that the SAPL professors have a deep understanding of each of their areas of study and specialties, and how SAPL has many great industry connections. She values how she received significant support from both faculty and peers during her master’s program, which was one of the main reasons why she chose to continue her research with SAPL. Her supervisors, Dr. Getachew Assefa, PhD, and Dr. Irene Herremans, PhD, both played important support roles during her research.

Making strides in her field

Chineme's journey and the recognition she has received through the Women Breakthrough Award emphasize the transformative power of research in addressing pressing global issues. Her unwavering commitment to sustainability and gender equality serves as a poignant inspiration for aspiring researchers, reiterating the importance of interdisciplinary solutions in academia. As she continues to make strides in her field, Chineme stands as a testament to the potential of research to transcend barriers and forge a more equitable and sustainable world.

She remains dedicated to her research objectives and envisions a future where she will continue her research, engage in teaching and expand her impact, especially in low-income communities and among women. Her PhD represents not the culmination, but the inception of her dedication to advancing gender equality and sustainability through innovative research.

“The PhD is not the end,” Chineme proudly says.

Chineme received her award at the International Fall Gathering 2023 ceremony in Berlin, Germany, on Nov. 7 with fellow female science talents.

Established in 2009, the Falling Walls Foundation serves as a global hub for fostering discourse on research and innovation, disseminating the latest scientific findings, and nurturing scientific collaboration.