Democratizing chemistry

September 26, 2016


Since 2014, MacEwan University researchers have received more $710,000 in Discovery Grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Samuel Mugo and Anna Pienkowski both received funding in 2016 that will move their research forward over the next five years.

NSERC-funded research aims to bring analytical chemistry to the masses

When Sam Mugo visited Kenya a few months ago, he couldn’t help but notice the impact of cell phone technology in his home country.

“It’s very impressive,” says the associate professor of Chemistry. “Even in a remote village in Kenya, everyone has a cell phone. It has changed the way people live and connected them to the rest of the world in a new way.”

With help from a 2016 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant, Sam is hoping to make the same impact through chemistry. His research is about putting simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use miniaturized versions of chemistry equipment in the hands of people who need it, when they need it and where they need it.

“Today chemistry is very time consuming, expensive and isolated—samples need to be sent to a lab where experts use very expensive instrumentation to run tests,” says Sam. “This research is about changing chemistry from an esoteric science that is only available to those who can afford it, and making it available to everyone who needs it—wherever they are in the world.”

The goal is to provide inexpensive chemical testing technology that doesn’t require a chemist, and can be used in the field at the point of sampling. People in remote villages could test their drinking water for E. coli contamination. Food inspection agencies could conduct on-site tests for foodborne illness, pesticides or contaminants. Police officers could use roadside tests to detect marijuana use in drivers. The possibilities are endless.

Life is molecular in nature and chemistry is at the heart of it.
—Samuel Mugo 

It all begins at the microscopic level with responsive—or smart—polymers, explains Sam, which act a bit like magnets, responding only to the one thing they are attracted to and ignoring everything else.

A particularly timely example is his work to identify a smart polymer that detects cannabinoids.

Today, testing for THC (the active cannabinoid in marijuana) means collecting a urine or saliva sample, sending it to a lab where a chemist uses a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer—which has a price tag of about $100,000—to detect it, and then waiting for the results.

Sam’s research aims to change that. He has already identified a polymer for cannabinoids, but that’s just the first step in making mobile detection of marijuana use a reality. Sam’s work also involves integrating smart polymers into devices that would use different strategies, like a change of colour, to communicate findings to the end user.

It’s complex, long-term work that he doesn’t do alone. At least 30 undergraduate students will contribute, thanks to $110,000 in total funding over the next five years from Sam’s 2016 NSERC Discovery Grant.

“The initial idea for the research may come from a faculty mentor, but we’re using resources we receive from these grants to train our students—and that’s the most fulfilling part for me,” says Sam. “It’s one thing to teach students based on what they can learn in textbooks, but it’s another when students are involved in applying what they have learned to a real problem, and developing and fabricating technologies to solve it.”

Darren Berg, a fourth-year Physical Sciences student, who is passionate about research and spends much of his spare time in the lab, couldn’t agree more.

“Research gives you a different perspective,” says Darren. “When you’re in classes, you see how a lab works, but in a very controlled way. The experiments you do have been tested and everything is designed to work out. When you do research outside of class, it’s a bit messier and things go wrong, but you learn from that. There are so many ways to use the knowledge that we’re getting and research unlocks that for you—it teaches you exactly how open-ended things are.”

The open-ended nature of research applies to Sam’s NSERC-funded work too.

“We’ve been talking about detection, but the materials we are identifying can be used in other applications too—in ways that not only detect a problem, but can also mitigate it,” says Sam. “Life is molecular in nature and chemistry is at the heart of it—we can use it to address real problems that are relevant to everyone. That’s what drives us—to put something on the table that makes life better.”

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