Agilent Science Futures – Interview with Joyce O’Grady

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

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

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

Can you tell us about your research and the most important results?

Joyce O’Grady
(JO): The observation and detection of nutrients such as phosphate are essential for the monitoring and management of a watershed. There is a growing demand for new sensor technologies capable of achieving a high level of sampling and detection common in the many water systems that make up a watershed. These new water sensor technologies make traditional water sampling methods redundant as they become automated, simplified and easier to use. Therefore, making the sampling task more frequent, efficient in cost and time.

The objective of this project is to design, develop and manufacture a microfluidic multisample disc centrifugal sensor that can be used in the field for the detection of phosphate in the Burrishoole watershed in Newport, Co. Mayo. This area of ​​interest includes an index of lakes and rivers with a mixture of fresh and brackish water systems.
The search coil used in detection is based on microfluidics which takes advantage of handling fluids, provides high precision dosing, liquid / reagent storage and the incorporation of detection systems that allow the development of a fully integrated and high performance platform suitable for use in the field.

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

Watersheds can be extremely complex systems to monitor, the quality and quantity of water being influenced by biological, chemical and physical factors. Watershed monitoring is important as it provides a solid approach to the sustainable management of the area, it can also highlight issues or threats related to the area. Therefore, there is a demand for sensors capable of on-site measurement of nutrients which, when found in overabundance, have harmful effects on the environment.

This project also includes research on the development of an observation framework for watersheds. In this section of the project, we aim to examine the different levels required to develop an integrative framework for water quality monitoring. Investigate the use of satellites, airborne, in situ, underwater vehicles and mapping to determine the effectiveness of developing an observation framework in watersheds.

What global or societal challenges does your research address?

JO:
My research focuses on the societal challenges of climate change and water quality, some of the biggest obstacles facing humanity. Sharing knowledge, expertise, resources and communication is necessary to address these global concerns.

Effective monitoring of environmental waters is necessary due to increasing anthropogenic threats to 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 adversely affect the quality of a water body. Nutrient pollution is an extremely difficult challenge when it comes to environmental monitoring, as it can be difficult to find a solution to repair the significant damage he can cause. Therefore, preventive measures have been taken to ensure that nutrients, such as phosphorus, are sufficiently regulated and monitored.

Phosphorus is a limiting nutrient that occurs naturally, but when found in overabundance it can have harmful effects on the environment. For example, if phosphorus levels are high in a body of water, 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 can cause damage to humans, animals and the aquatic ecosystem inhabiting the water system.

Currently commercially available nutrient sensors cost a considerable amount of money to manufacture, maintain, and deploy due to the high power requirements, size, and consumption of reagents. As a result, fewer sensors are deployed, resulting in a reduction in the data obtained. To overcome this problem, new and emerging technologies must be considered. The development of reliable, robust, easy-to-use and cost-effective nutrient sensors is the solution to this problem.

Was it easy to access the technology needed for your research?

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

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

Has the technology to which you have access influenced your studies?

JO:
Yes, it has enabled free and open source software to improve studies and increase knowledge. The integrated and coordinated sectors of communication and computing have led to an increase in connected devices with low consumption, very precise and profitable. The increase in new technologies facilitates web data services such as cloud storage. New data management technologies have been accelerated with artificial intelligence. This allowed me to have elements of coding, design, data processing, data acquisition and data storage to improve 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 in your area of ​​interest and allow you to communicate with colleagues and other researchers.

Have you had the opportunity to interact with industry and businesses to advance your research?

JO:
Yes, throughout my PhD I had the opportunity to attend different conferences across Europe and engage in conversation with people from academia and industry. For example, I presented a poster at the annual convention Scientific conference on watersheds hosted by Teasgasc where I was able to discuss the idea of ​​my sensor and its impact and the improvement of water quality monitoring in watersheds.

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

During my license in Analytical Sciences, I did an internship in a pharmaceutical company (Pfizer). I also did an internship in an IT company (Oracle) during my studies. It was a great opportunity to develop my interpersonal skills, to work in a team and to develop a taste for work in an industrial environment. I think these two internships have been very beneficial to me and I would recommend undergraduates to take advantage of opportunities like these.

As a result of your studies and research, what will be your career destination?

JO:
After completing my doctorate, I consider myself in industry. My PhD was a multidisciplinary project covering aspects of engineering, physics, chemistry and environmental monitoring. By studying and working in these fields I have developed a vast set of skills. After completing my PhD, I imagine myself in industry, implementing and expanding the skills that I have learned that I think could be applied to a number of different industries.

How prepared do you consider yourself for real-world accomplishments?

JO:
The expertise that I have acquired in my field of research comes after the other skills that I have acquired throughout my doctorate; discipline, self-management, analytical and problem-solving skills, interpersonal and leadership skills. I think these transferable skills will help me embark on the journey to real world success.

Find the previous installment of Science Futures, an interview with Tijmen Bos, here.

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