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Agilent Science Futures – An Interview With Joyce O’Grady

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Read time: 5 minutes

In this instalment of Science Futures, we hear from Joyce O’Grady.

Joyce is a PhD candidate in the School of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University, where her research focuses on the development of multiple handheld nutrient devices that can take near real-time measurements of phosphate in the field, as part of water catchment area monitoring.

In this interview, Joyce explains the impact her work could have on society, tells us about the benefits that open-source technology has had on her research and highlights the importance of researcher support programs.

Can you tell us about your research and what the most important outcomes are?

Joyce O’Grady
(JO): The observation and detection of nutrients such as phosphate is essential for monitoring and management of a catchment area. There is a growing demand for new sensor technologies that can achieve a high level of frequent sampling and detection throughout the many water systems that make up a catchment area. These new water sensor technologies make the traditional methods of water sampling redundant as they are becoming automated, simplified and easier to operate. Therefore, making the task of sampling more frequently, cost and time efficient.

The aim of this project is to design, develop and manufacture a centrifugal microfluidic multi-sample disc sensor that can be used out in the field for the detection of phosphate within the Burrishoole catchment in Newport, Co. Mayo. This interest area is comprised of an index of lakes and rivers with a mixture of both fresh and brackish water systems.
The sensing disc used in the detection is based on microfluidics which takes advantage of fluid manipulation, provides high precision metering, liquid/reagent storage and the incorporation of detection systems that enables the development of a fully integrated and successful platform, suitable for use out in the field.

The desirable criteria for a field nutrient sensor typically include real-time or near real-time measurements, on-site detection, robustness, reliability, low limit of detection, dynamic linear range observations and cost effectiveness.

Catchments can be extremely complex systems to monitor, the quality and quantity of the water is influenced by biological, chemical and physical factors. Catchment monitoring is important as it provides a strong approach to sustainable management of the area, it can also highlight problems or threats concerned with the area. Therefore, there is a demand for sensors that are capable of taking onsite measurements of nutrients that, when found in overabundance, have harmful effects on the environment.

This project also involves research into the development of an observation framework for catchments. Within this section of the project we aim to look at the different tiers required to develop an integrative framework for water quality monitoring. Investigating the use of satellite, airborne, in-situ, underwater vehicles and mapping to determine the effectiveness of developing an observation framework in catchment areas.

What global or societal challenges does your research address?

My research focuses on the societal challenges of climate change and water quality, some of the biggest obstacles that humanity is confronted with. The sharing of knowledge, expertise, resources and communication is needed to address these global concerns.

There is a need for effective monitoring of environmental waters due to the elevating anthropogenic threats on the environment; nutrient pollution and climate change. Eutrophication is the excessive enrichment of an ecosystem by chemical nutrients, often containing chemical compounds. At high concentration levels, complexes of these compounds can have harmful effects on the quality of a water body. Nutrient pollution is an extremely difficult challenge to overcome when it comes to environmental monitoring, as it can be difficult to find a solution to repair the extensive damage it can cause. Therefore, preventative measures have been taken to ensure nutrients, such as phosphorous, are regulated and monitored sufficiently.

Phosphorus is a limiting nutrient that occurs naturally but when found in overabundance it can have harmful effects in the environment. For example, if phosphorus levels are elevated in a water body, excessive growth of plants and algae occurs. This can lead to hypoxic or anoxic waters and the potential release of harmful toxins. This results in the death of aquatic animals and causes possible harm to humans, animals and the aquatic ecosystem inhabiting the water system.

Current commercially available nutrient sensors on the market cost a considerable amount to make, maintain and deploy due to the high-power requirements, size and reagent consumption. Therefore, less sensors are deployed leading to a reduction in the data being obtained. To overcome this problem new and emerging technologies must be considered. The development of nutrient sensors that are reliable, robust, easy to use and cost-effective are the solution to this problem.

How easy has it been to access the technology required for your research work?

Nowadays, there is more open science, open-source access and data sharing making it easier for researchers to avail of different technologies. Cloud-based software has changed the way researchers collect and store data. Sophisticated algorithms collect enormous amounts of data instantly and can then be used to analyze the data to predict or recognize patterns. The use of free open-source technology such as GIS, USGS and Scihub, enables high resolution data collection and processing which is important for my project.

I think it has leveled the playing field as all universities have access to a variety of open-source software and are better able to integrate them into projects. I think it has opened another line of communication between both industry and academia, which is beneficial to both parties.

Has the technology you have access to influenced your studies?

Yes, it has allowed for free open-source software to enhance studies and increase knowledge. The integrated and coordinated sectors of communication and computation have led to a rise in connected devices that are low-powered, highly accurate and cost effective. The increase in new technologies facilitate web-based data services such as cloud storage. New data management technologies have been accelerated with artificial intelligence. This has enabled me to avail of coding, designing, data processing, data acquisition and data storage elements to enhance the quality of my research.

Social media platforms provide a great opportunity to promote your research and present it to a wider audience. It can also provide access to current information within your area of interest and allow you to communicate with colleagues and other researchers.

Have you been given opportunities to interact with industry and companies to progress your research?

Yes, throughout my PhD I have been given the opportunity to attend different conferences throughout Europe and engage in conversation with people from both academia and industry. For example, I presented a poster at the annual Catchment Science Conference run by Teasgasc where I got to discuss the idea for my sensor and how it will impact and improve water quality monitoring in catchments.

I am also a member of the Maxon Young Engineers Program (YEP), which provides assistance to projects with electrical components. Researcher support programs are a great way of interacting and bridging the gap between research and industry.

During my bachelor’s degree in Analytical Science, I carried out a placement in a pharmaceutical company (Pfizer). I also carried out an internship for a computer technology company (Oracle) during my degree. This was a great opportunity to develop my interpersonal skills, work as part of a team and get a taste for working in an industrial environment. I think these two internships were of great benefit to me and would recommend undergraduate students to take advantage of opportunities like these.

As a result of your studies and research work, what do you envisage your career destination as being?

 My PhD was a multidisciplined project covering aspects of engineering, physics, chemistry and environmental monitoring. From studying and working in these areas I have developed a vast skill set. After completing my PhD, I envision myself in industry, implementing and broadening the skills I have learned which I believe could be applied to a number of different industries.

How prepared do you consider yourself to be for real-world achievement?

The expertise I have gained in my field of research comes second to the other skills I have acquired throughout my PhD; discipline, self-management, analysis and problem-solving abilities, interpersonal and leadership skills. I feel that these transferable skills will help me when embarking on the journey of real-world achievement.

Catch up on the previous instalment of Science Futures, an interview with Tijmen Bos, here

Find out about some of the common themes to come out of the project here.