Many would agree that the dream job involves making a difference, the chance to improve people’s lives across the globe. Working in chemistry, there are an abundance of such opportunities for those willing to push the boundaries and work hard. Dr John Anetor, professor of chemical pathology (clinical chemistry) and toxicology at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, is a fantastic example of how dedicated chemists can change the world.
On the frontline of advancements in his field, John has published a huge body of work including invaluable research about human exposure to lead, one of the most well-known toxic substances. He has made vital contributions to the understanding of the devastating effects this heavy metal has on systems within the body and mitigation by nutritional factors, mainly by use of micronutrients.
“Described as multi-organ poisoning, lead poisoning can lead to numerous acute and chronic illnesses. It affects the brain, particularly of children, as well as the kidneys and liver,” explains John.
Metals like lead and cadmium can cause disruption to hormone levels, infertility and issues with birth weight – it’s a big problem. Through my work we’re learning how to manage this and taking measures to reduce excessive exposure, which is beneficial to the entire population.
As testament to this, John was a member of the National Committee on the Phase-out of Leaded Gasoline in Nigeria, sponsored by the World Bank and Exxon Mobile, and was Lead Consultant to the ‘National Lead Poison, Elimination, Treatment and Strategic Intervention Scheme’ of the Nigerian government (Federal Ministry of Health). Throughout his career his discoveries have had a tangible, positive impact on people in Nigeria and further afield.
John’s published research includes the discovery of a promising predictive biomarker for the early recognition of environmental lead exposure in children. He has also studied the impact that heavy metals have on Nigerian e-waste workers and mining communities after a number of disastrous poisoning incidents.
It was in the early eighties that John first qualified, majoring in chemical pathology. From there he worked in a rural pathology hospital in Nigeria, where he employed laboratory methods to diagnose and monitor diseases.
“I saw first-hand the impact of a wide range of illnesses on the local population and how using scientific data could help them recover, which inspired me to go further. After a stint at a private hospital, I moved to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and then in 1990 I decided to do a Master’s degree in chemical pathology/clinical chemistry at the University of Ibadan.
“After graduating I enrolled on the doctorate degree programme (PhD) in chemical pathology on a part time basis. Specifically I worked on lead, which brought about my interest in toxicology. A year after I completed the degree and was hired as a lecturer in the Department of Chemical Pathology where I’d trained. Since then I have risen to the rank of professor with a specialisation in clinical chemistry and toxicology.”
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It was in 2012 that John was admitted to the Royal Society of Chemistry as a Fellow, although he had been aware of the organisation earlier in his academic career.
“There was a book we used as students of medical laboratory science majoring in chemical pathology, Practical Chemical Biochemistry by Harold Varley, which I found very useful. Varley was a clinical biochemist at the Manchester Royal Infirmary and a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, as it was then called. I was so impressed with his grasp of the subject, I thought one way to follow his path would be to get involved with the RSC myself.
“I’m also a member of the Association of Clinical Biochemists and most of the prominent leaders had a link to the RSC so that heightened my interest even further. I have been highly impressed with their contribution to the field and I think their membership to the RSC has helped this. There is a respectability and kudos that come with the membership that is certainly beneficial. It is important to be a member of the community.
“In 2014 I was a visiting scientist at the King's College Hospital for two months and I made sure to take time to visit the RSC’s HQ, Burlington House, and explored the library there.”
But what John most values about his membership is the way it helps him to support his students, through the RSC’s resources and magazines.
“I have really enjoyed imparting knowledge to my students using the Chemistry World magazine. I love the way it encompasses so many topics and it stretches my scientific expertise and interest. It has been of tremendous benefit to me and my students. I share sections of it with them and loan out copies. It keeps us up to date with what is happening in the world and inspires them to go further.
“Personally, in my own research and study I have found the RSC’s publications and books very useful, in particular Fundamental Toxicology, which has become something of a handbook to me.
I must say that I am proud and happy to be a member. I remember jokingly saying to my children that when I die they should let the RSC know because I enjoy reading the obituaries in Chemistry World so much! I’m glad to be a member and value it highly.
Currently John is on sabbatical in Canada at the Alberta Centre for Toxicology, School of medicine at the University of Calgary, on a quest to gain further experience, exposure and knowledge about the toxicological investigation of patients.
“There is much work to do - problems in developing countries concerning metal poisoning and other toxicants are rising because of industrial expansion and exposure to a number of toxic chemicals. It is more important than ever for us to be able to monitor people and learn what measures to take to prevent serious diseases.”
It’s clear that John shows no sign of slowing down and is set to continue his vital work to make the world a safer place to live.
“I am especially concerned with water contamination. The situation back home is not very impressive – there are various sources of water and people don’t pay enough attention to where it's coming from and what it may be contaminated with. One of the challenges on my return will be to bring attention to this issue.
“I would also like to look into the Flint water crisis – a city in Michigan, America where there was an outbreak of lead poisoning –it is certain that the full impact of this has not been taken seriously enough back in Nigeria.”