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Interview: Hazard warning
19 October 2007
David Russell is using chemistry in the fight against terrorism and disease. Joanne Thomson finds out how.
|David Russell is a professor of chemistry at the University of East Anglia, UK. His research focuses on analytical bionanotechnology, using biological structures for the development of optically based molecular recognition systems.|
What inspired you to develop a career in the analytical sciences?
I was given a book as a child called 'The Secrets of Chemistry' and I found it fascinating. That is why I got into chemistry initially but it was an inspirational lecturer when I was an undergraduate who inspired me to become an academic.
What are you working on at the moment?
A lot of our work is based on molecular recognition. We use biological molecules to target different analytes that we want to detect. We make planar gold surfaces onto which we self-assemble monolayers of the biological molecules. We do the same with metal nanoparticles. We use the nanoparticles to deliver different molecules or as a vehicle for detection.
You are developing an on-the-spot detection system for dangerous biological substances. Could you explain how it works?
It is designed to detect toxins like ricin so that a first responder at a crime scene can determine whether the material that they have found is innocuous or whether it is something harmful that requires a specialist disposal team. We are also trying to develop a device that gives a simple yes/no answer to say whether cholera toxin is present in water supplies for use in developing countries. We are working in collaboration with Rob Field, also at the University of East Anglia. Rob's group synthesises different types of carbohydrates, which specifically recognise the cholera toxin or ricin. The carbohydrates are attached to the surface of gold nanoparticles. In the absence of any toxin, the particles are red. But as soon as the toxin is added, the particles change colour from red to blue or purple. Those colour changes indicate immediately that the toxin is present.
When do you estimate that these devices would be available on the market?
We've been talking with a large company which wants to develop the ricin detector so it could be pretty imminent. Regrettably, we don't have anyone interested in developing the cholera detector at present. Frankly, I would much rather develop the cholera device. People are dying right now; over 500 people died of cholera last year in just one epidemic in Sudan. There is no need for it.
How important do you think science is in the fight against terrorism?
It is essential. Staying one step ahead of terrorists is absolutely crucial. It is important that science is applied to develop new tools to be able to detect terrorist activity as well as trying to prevent it as well. Both are equally important.
Your work has made an impact in the wider media, being covered by the BBC and CNN. How important do you think it is for chemistry to get this kind of exposure?
It is important for all scientists to be able to relay some of the excitement associated with their work and try to explain it in relatively simple terms. People are genuinely interested and want to know. I view talking to journalists as part of my job. It is important to explain what we do to those who fund our research through their taxes.
What message do you have for young scientists?
Science is really exciting but to appreciate how exciting it is you have to work really hard. We have to relay our excitement and hopefully inspire the next generation. They have to appreciate that they will need to work hard to understand concepts but, when they do, it really is a very rewarding job.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
I am still thrilled when people in my group get their PhDs. It is an enjoyable time, to see smiles on faces after all the hard work and effort that everyone puts in - and of course the stressful experience of the PhD examination itself.. That is always rewarding.
I don't do science in the lab anymore regrettably but when one of my research group comes through my door with a positive result, that is really exciting. For example, one of my MChem project students, Emma Lee-Smith, wanted to try something new and we had an idea: could we detect drug metabolites in the sweat of a fingerprint? Emma tried a few things and it was so thrilling to get a positive result - yes, this works, it can be done. That one result to me really was so exciting and it spawned a huge amount of research for us. Based on Emma's initial work, we can now obtain images like the one below.
© Angew. Chem., Int. Ed.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
I think I'd be a yachtsman. I used to race windsurf boards when I was a student. I'd prefer to sit now and probably in a larger boat so it's not so rocky. I really enjoy being on the water and sailing. If I could make a career out of that, it would be wonderful.
David Russell's page at the University of East Anglia
Read more about David Russell's work here
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