A Conversation with…

Dr Jamila La Malfa-Donaldson

Dr Jamila La Malfa-Donaldson, a Technical Research Associate at CHAP, brings a unique combination of scientific expertise and engineering skills to her role. In this interview, we discuss Jamila’s background in Chemical Engineering with Business and how she leveraged her academic background to deliver hands-on STEM workshops before undertaking a PhD research at Aberystwyth University, with a focus on industrial hemp and winning the Innovate UK’s Young Innovators Award.  


Can you share with us your journey into an agri-tech career? What were some of the challenges you faced? 

My journey into agri-tech has been somewhat unconventional. As a child, I enjoyed many subjects and activities and outings to the London Science & Natural History Museums. In keeping with my diverse interests, I studied a wide range of subjects at A-level, including Maths, Chemistry, Graphic Products and Music. Without any immediate role models, I struggled to decide what to pursue at university. My college tutor took one look at my AS results and suggested I consider studying Chemical Engineering, which I hadn’t heard of before. After some research, I was accepted into The University of Birmingham to study Chemical Engineering with Business. 

After graduating with a Masters, I became a science communicator, delivering STEM workshops in schools across the UK and at international science festivals. Whilst on maternity leave with my first child, I leapt at the opportunity to do a PhD in industrial hemp. During my PhD, I have enjoyed exploring the potential of hemp and developed expertise in cultivation, analytical testing, and processing to obtain medicinal compounds. I’m now excited to use my experience in R&D to support innovation in agri-tech. 


What has been the highlight of your career to date? 

One of the highlights of my career has been working as a science communicator. I’ve met hundreds of students of all ages keen to get hands-on with science. Some of the most inspiring moments I’ve experienced have been listening to young people debate on important issues about climate change with passion and create impressive load-bearing bridges with spaghetti and glue guns. It was also an important opportunity to for me to help challenge the stereotypes in STEM subjects. One of my favourite icebreaker activities was to get the students to draw a scientist and prompt them to begin to see themselves, regardless of their identity or background, as innovators. Even today, I’m reminded of the young people I met and my responsibility in helping to prepare a better future with the work I do.  

In addition to my academic achievements, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to start my business, PROHEMPOTIC. My business is dedicated to developing nature-positive hempseed food and drinks. I have received so much support across the sector, and I’m proud to have won the Innovate UK’s Young Innovator Award as well as Unlocking Potential Award. I look forward to being part of a re-emerging hemp industry, and the future of my business. 


Could you discuss a project or research you’ve worked on that you’re particularly proud of? 

Embarking on my PhD has been the most challenging and rewarding part of my career so far. My project was the first at Aberystwyth University to investigate hemp and has attracted a lot of interest. Whilst working with my supervisors, we established LC-MS testing methods for the secondary metabolites, mainly cannabinoids and flavonoids, which accumulate in hemp leaves and flowers. I particularly enjoyed taking on the responsibility of cultivating 77 hemp plants, using growth chambers and greenhouse. I regularly sampled and analysed the plants to chart the change in chemical composition over their growth. I also generated helpful solubility data to support the development of crystallisation methods to purify hemp extracts and isolate CBD. My work is intended to help hemp growers and processors better understand how to maximise value of hemp for a range of applications. 


What advice would you give young women interested in science careers/what do you wish you had first known before starting out in your career? 

Young women who show an interest in STEM should be supported throughout their careers. If you’re thinking about embarking on a career in STEM, firstly, seek support to better understand the opportunities available- as a woman in science myself, I firmly believe in mentorship so don’t be afraid to reach out. Then, focus on developing key technical and personal skills and experience relevant to your chosen field. Importantly, never compromise on your ethics and values and align yourself with people and places that share your vision and mission for your life and the world. A career in STEM is tough but if you make the most of the opportunities that are right for you it can be incredibly rewarding. 


How do you envision the future of women in agri-tech over the next decade? What trends or changes do you hope to see? 

Innovation in agri-tech is key to addressing the pressing challenges of today and the future. I look forward to seeing more women use science to harness their brilliance and passion and take on these challenges, particularly the challenge of feeding the world. The future of agri-tech will be full of exciting innovations and opportunities that can only be realised by diversity in people and ideas- to support more women in science we need to embrace flexible working, break down systemic biases and close the pay gap. Not only do we need more women in agri-tech but also amongst leadership.  


If you have any questions about CHAP, or are interested in using any of our facilities or would like to work with us on a specific project, then please send us an email at enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk

Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.