Cleo Carney talks with young author and innovator Naila Moloo
Sixteen-year-old Naila Moloo is not only a published author of two fantasy books, she’s spending her summer in a lab developing a flexible plastic for solar panels that might, someday, be on our phones or car windows. The two teens, who happen to be very good friends, talk about curiosity, climate heroes, and how the two turn eco-anxiety into eco-action. Watch the video or read the full transcript below.
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Cleo Carney: Nalia Moloo is one of the top young voices leading the fight against the climate crisis. A two-time published author, her debut bestselling novel, Chronicles of Illusions: The Blue Wild, was issued when she was just 14. She’s an intern at Pond Biomaterials, the youngest recipient of Canada’s top 100 most powerful women, and has been recognized by CTV News, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Ottawa Life for incredible work. So, Naila, thank you for joining me. My first question is very broad: How did you learn about the climate crisis?
Naila Moloo: Thank you for having me, Cleo. Um, okay. So in terms of how I learned about the climate crisis, I think I’ve always been very interested in the sustainability space. And it really began with school because I was always very interested in math and science. And in grade five, we had this energy exhibition project, where we learned about different renewable energy sources. And that was really the first time that I was exposed to the need for renewable energy sources. It was the first time I really started to think about where all of our energy was coming from, you know, when we were turning on the lights and driving our cars, where that was coming from, and that was fossil fuels. And I just really learned about the detrimental effects that that was having on everything, our society, our environment, our economy, how everything is just interlinked. And that was very interesting to me. And so I started; I looked into geothermal energy for my projects, but that’s not really what I’m doing right now. And that’s not really what I continued with. I just continued from there with an interest in sustainability and sustainable energy, and just started, you know, staying more up to date with the latest news on fossil fuel reduction and renewable energy sources and different innovations in the space. So yeah, I think it did very much begin from a young age.
Cleo: Yeah, well, it’s great that your school introduced you to that, and that you got started so young, because it’s wonderful to have you changing the world at just 16 now. And so, my second question is: Do you have a climate hero?
Naila: Yes. Okay. I think there are definitely some climate icons that I definitely look up to like David Suzuki. He is Canadian, so he’s great. [Suzuki is a well-known climate activist with a long list of Canadian and international honors.] And he’s really known about climate change from the beginning for a very, very long time, and trying to talk, talk out about it, persuade people that it existed, because it was so long ago that he was championing this cause. So that’s definitely someone I look up to. I mean, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I think both of them, they’re doing a lot within climate change. They’re both doing a lot in many different fields. But now they really are narrowing in on climate change, and how they can mitigate the effects of climate change, and especially looking into leveraging technology to be able to do that. So, Bill Gates, his book [How To Avoid A Climate Disaster], I thought, was really a great overview of so many different solutions and technologies that can be leveraged to tackle the climate crisis. And so, yeah, I think those are a few.
Cleo: Yeah, I think his book, which I read as well, was a great starting point for people just getting into climate. And obviously, you mentioned technology, which is what you’re more focused on. And that’s really where the kind of solution will end up eventually lying. And so, speaking of technology, can you tell us a little bit about your innovations with solar panel technology? And more specifically, if you could briefly explain it — if it’s too long, there is no need to — but how your, and I will butcher the pronunciation of this, but perovskite cell, you are working with the design of works?
Naila: Yes. Okay. For sure. So perovskite. Um, so I started researching solar panels last December. And I became really intrigued about the intersection that solar energy has with nanotechnology. So using these microscopic materials, like graphene and quantum dots and nanowires, to be able to increase the efficiency and also enhance other properties of solar panels. And so, I started noticing this issue with solar panels, mainly just being placed on roofs because they’re opaque and they’re rigid. And so I thought it’d be really cool if we could have solar panels on any surface like your window or car screen, or a phone screen, things like that. And so that’s why I started looking into how you could create something that was transparent and flexible. Perovskite is a structure in solar energy that’s really booming right now. And it’s the light-harvesting layer that can be used in solar panels. And so that’s what I’m working with. So that’s semi-transparent perovskite, and then working, especially to have that transparency, you need conducting electrodes, and so, I’m using silver nanowires. And I think — was that your question? Just talking a little bit [about perovskite]? I don’t know if I answered it?
Naila: Yes, that’s a little bit about the design, the structure, but nothing really has been built out yet. I just started working in the Ryerson lab today [Ryerson University was recently renamed Toronto Metropolitan University] — it was the first time I’ve ever started working on my own solar panel. So I’ll be working here over the summer and hopefully building it. But there’s a lot of failure — I’ve learned from my bio-plastic — involved in STEM work. And so we’ll see if I can get some progress by the end of the summer. And a proof of concept would be ideal, but we will see how it goes.
Cleo: That’s so exciting! You heard it here first: Naila Moloo is now working in a lab on this. I mean, you’re already working in a lab, as you mentioned with your bioplastics. So, you’re working in the chemistry lab at Carleton University, tending very carefully to your duckweed. Have you had any exciting recent leads, developments, or breakthroughs with your bioplastic research? Or, any challenges you want to talk about that you’ve learned to overcome and adapt to? Because it’s hard, obviously!
Naila: So there’s definitely been a lot of challenges. I started building it out in a lab last October. And I kind of thought I would have a proof of concept by now, but it took a lot longer than expected. So I started off working in just a pure chemistry lab. But me and the grad student I was working with, we were definitely struggling a lot because we were working with enzymes and bacteria. And neither of us were really too well versed with those kinds of things. That’s more microbiology, so I just transferred labs three weeks ago to a biochemistry lab because that’s much more of what this product is — it’s biochemistry. So I’m working with a microbiology professor at Carleton and a few grad students. And in terms of recent kinds of things that have happened with the bioplastic. So you basically have phases of creating it. And the first part is enzymatic digestion or saccharification. So, taking the starches in the duckweed [an aquatic plant similar to algae] and converting them into sugars. And then you can ferment them using lactic acid bacteria to produce lactic acid. And that’s where the real innovation is — turning duckweed into lactic acid. And then turning lactic acid into bioplastic has already been done. But it’s more the duckweed into lactic acid. And then you have a novel way of producing this bioplastic that’s plant-based. And that’s something that humans don’t consume, and that grows in water. So it’s a little bit better than the status quo for other crops like corn and sugarcane, which we do need to eat and that do need land to grow. And so some late progress there just last week, I was in the lab, and I’ve done the procedure so many times, for the enzymatic digestion and the lactic acid bacteria, because those are the main two really hard [things] that hasn’t really been done for plastic before. And it was just last week; I think it was last Friday. So very recently, I did a distillation. So basically, I had my broth, and I had the pH lowered, so I was hoping I had lactic acid. And then I had this mixture of lactic acid, water and some leftover trace sugars, impurities [etc]. And I wanted to make sure I had lactic acid in there. And that was what made the pH drop. And so I ended up separating out the lactic acid and water. We’re pretty sure it’s lactic acid. We’re running a test on it this week, well, the grad student I’m working with is, because I’m actually not there this week, but she’s making sure that it is lactic acid, but the water was acidic. And so that’s a good sign that it actually worked, which would be good because I have not gotten that far yet. So it’s not 100% confirmed, but hopefully, the latest milestone has been that lactic acid was produced. And then from there, I’ll do it on a larger scale, produce more lactic acid, and then be able to take a larger portion and turn that into a bio-plastic. I’ll return in the fall [to do that] because I’m away all summer.
Cleo: That’s so exciting. I really hope — fingers crossed it was lactic acid — knowing you, I’m sure you actually will have created it. Because if Naila sets her mind to anything, she gets it. But seeing as you are, I would say probably the epitome of a multi-hyphenate, I want to pivot to discussing your podcast, which is called Curiosity. And so, I want to know what inspired you and your co-podcast host, Kristina, to create it? And also, what are some things that you have learned that you think help cultivate curiosity or just some main takeaways that you’ve learned from it that you would love to share?
Naila: That is a great question, thank you. And so Kristina and I started the curiosity podcast a year ago, last summer. And we had both been a part of this STEM program called TKS. And we’re both very interested in STEM. She’s very computer science based, whereas I’m more materials, chemistry type of thing. But we both wanted to kind of start a project together. And we noticed that there are a lot of podcasts out there, but not too many geared towards just a younger demographic, like our generation — we have a lot of resources, but I feel in school, we’re not always taught everything that’s really important. We’re taught a lot of important things in school, but there are a lot of skill sets and, you know, mentalities, frameworks, things like that, that we’re not really taught in school. And so we decided to make a podcast kind of to equip future changemakers. So bringing on people from technology companies like NASA and Shopify, startups, and AMD, and Google to kind of talk about, what they did to get to where they are and what they’re working on, the unconventional paths they took. So it was something for a lot of the people that we have on, they had a very nonlinear path. They knew they wanted to make an impact, they started at different startups, and they made their way up and started their own company. Or, maybe they were on a path that they weren’t happy with; they were focused on making money. And then they pivoted to doing something in a different space that they got a lot more fulfillment from. And so it’s just basically taking a lot of things that aren’t learned in school, but that are very important. And I’m channeling those things into a podcast. And, you know, kind of encouraging people to follow their curiosity, go out of their comfort zone, how to start building your own projects, how to go out and network, how to get internships at your dream company in high school. And then, in terms of my top things that I would say cultivate curiosity, I would say the number one thing is just an interest in what you’re doing. Because to be curious in something — or to be curious — you have to be interested in something. And you can follow your curiosity to a bunch of different things. And not everything that your curiosity is going to lead you to is something that you’re going to find amazing. But I think that it’s really important to follow that curiosity to see where it leads you and it’ll probably lead you to a bunch of different things. And then from there, you can kind of narrow in on what is most interesting to you. So, for example, if you’re interested in sustainable energy and you start [to] follow your curiosity and learning little bits about a bunch of different kinds of renewable energies, then maybe you’ll find that wind energy is the only thing that really piques your interest and that you want to go further with, and stuff like that. So, I feel like using interest, and, you know, having an impact as your driver instead of other more superficial things that may not actually bring you joy or fulfillment is very important. And also, just surrounding yourself with the right people is also very important when you’re doing these kinds of things. Because, who you surround yourself with, does help you foster curiosity in different areas of your life. Like, with you, you’re one of my great friends and you are very interested in economics and business and that kind of thing. And I know some other people that both of us are friends with — they’re super smart. And so it’s always great to surround yourself with people who are supportive and who are interested in different things. Not that you should choose your friends only if they’re smart. And that’s not just, by smart, I don’t just mean, oh, they’re good at school or they’re good at one thing, just that they’re interested in a variety of things, and they’re supportive of you along the way. And I think that that is super important. Because if you’re doing things that you’d want help with, then it’s great if you have friends and mentors who are willing to talk to you about these kinds of things that you are working on. So those are a few things I would say are important.
Cleo: Yeah, well Naila, I’m very lucky to be surrounded by you, because you definitely inspire me. And my next question is much more broad: What do you think our biggest hurdle is with tackling climate issues? I know there are a lot to choose from, but in your expert opinion.
Naila: Definitely not an expert opinion, in any way. But I would say, the biggest hurdle for us is just a lot of people’s mentalities about climate change, and overall, economic gains. So, this applies especially to governments. But I also think that it applies to many, many individuals, where people are always, especially governments, they’re always prioritizing the economy over the environment. And there’s really a disconnect between them, where people think it’s either an environmental benefit, or it’s an economic benefit. So, oil, it’s bad for the environment, but it’s good for the economy. And I think what we need to start shifting to is realizing that they do really come hand-in-hand with the economy and the environment. I think that’s important because people really care about the economy. Obviously, we want to make money and we want to, you know, be efficient, create capital, etc. But what we also need to take into account is the long-term effects of our actions. And so even if something has great capital gain in the moment, like if you were to install an oil pipeline or something, down the line, maybe you’ll have a big oil spill, you’ll lose, first of all tons of biodiversity, which really does underpin the economy. Because if you think about diversity, even if you think about the species in the oceans, if they were all gone, that would deteriorate billion-dollar fishing industries, and hunting industries, and things like that. So really biodiversity we take for granted. And there could also be things like an oil spill, and then that’s also an economic loss. Maybe when you installed it five years ago, you still got a bunch of money, but now there are economic losses in different ways. And it’s not always through a money lens, or a capital lens. It can also be thinking about the environment and how that supports the economy. And when you lose parts of the environment, like biodiversity, then you are having economic losses, even if they’re not apparent in the moment. I hope that made sense. But yeah, I think that’s just a big mentality shift for a lot of people, a lot of organizations and governments to really think about, because there are many actions that we need to be taking and many actions that we need to stop taking, where the only reason we’re doing them is to make money in the moment.
Cleo: Yeah, I mean, I could not agree more. And I love how you chose oil, like pipelines, as an example because in Canada, that is the hot topic in politics. And I mean, at the end of the day, oil is a finite resource. Actually, we were discussing Bill Gates’s book, but in Obama’s memoir, he talks in great detail about the BP oil crisis and just how horrific that was and the billions of dollars lost, but still the lasting impacts. And so, just thinking long term, obviously, is important. And then fabulous people like you are working to combine technology and make being environmentally sustainable profitable, which can be done and can totally be integrated, and that is the future. You are the future! And speaking of the future, how do you remain hopeful?
Naila: Um, I think I remain hopeful because there is a lot of innovation and a lot of people trying to make a difference and actually making a difference. So although when you go on the news, a lot of the time there’s just the terrible things happening every day to the environment, which is definitely true. There’s also a lot of action being taken, and a lot of steps being taken in the right direction as well. So, when I’m doing my research into different ideas, I see how many ideas already exist, how many ideas are in the process of being implemented, and different emerging technologies and, you know, different companies and the sustainability space. And there are so, so many people working on this, and you have a vision to get past the climate crisis. And so I do think, it’s definitely not a lost cause; it’s not like there are only a few people who know this is a problem. Now, I’m pretty sure everyone not living under a rock knows that climate change is a problem. Or they know about climate change. I know there are definitely still people who don’t think climate change is real, but people know about it. And so, although there may not be people who are taking actions in the right direction, who still are going for more capitalistic gains, and who are, you know, turning their head away from climate change and pretending it doesn’t exist, there is an even larger portion of people who are trailblazers, and who are trying to make a difference to be able to get past this. So I think that is how I have hope.
Cleo: Yeah, and I think that is the best way to have hope. Because if we harness, as you spoke about, capitalistic desires, and all of the innovation that we’ve had in the past to create booming economies, and we put them in a climate lens, there is so much innovation and excitement. And so, I am very sad, however, to have my final question. But it would be great if you could leave us with your best piece of climate-related advice you’ve ever received — or one of the best — it’s probably hard to choose.
Naila: Yeah, I would say specifically to you that there can be a lot of eco-anxiety around the climate crisis because it’s very difficult to not log on to the news and see something bad happening every day. And our governments are definitely letting us down. And again, there are so many people who are doing the right things, but there are also a lot of organizations not doing the right things and who are letting down the next generation. And it’s very easy to feel helpless and anxious. But what I would say to that is trying to turn eco-anxiety into eco-action. I think for me eco-action was a really great coping mechanism for eco-anxiety and actually feeling like you’re doing something or trying to do something. And so just going out there and it does not have to be STEM, it could be art, and, you know, expressing the effects of climate change through art, if that’s what you’re interested in, or something that to raise awareness. There are so many different avenues you can take depending on what you’re interested in. No matter what you’re interested in, I feel like there are things that you can do. So see if you can channel your interests into taking eco-action to help you cope with eco-anxiety.
Cleo: I totally agree. And on a smaller scale than what Naila was doing, there are plenty of tips on the Bluedot website, and in our magazines, for how to turn eco-anxiety into eco-action, and some quantifiable things you can implement. So, I recommend checking those out. But thank you so much for your time, Naila. And for everyone listening you can find Naila’s books, The Chronicles of Illusions: The Blue Wild, and her recently published sequel — because Naila does not just do STEM — Chronicles of Illusions: Bound By Dreams on Amazon.ca. And you can also peruse her amazing articles on Medium and learn more about her work on her website: NailaMoloo.com. But thank you so much for gracing us with your time. I hope that it was lactic acid produced — I’m sure it is. And I also hope you have lots of fun working on your new cell and creating some fabulous solar panels that will soon be on my phone!
Naila: Thank you for having me. It was great chatting with you.