June 2019

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Marie Curie once said “nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood”. She was the only person to have been twice awarded a Nobel Prize; one in Chemistry and another in Physics. Almost 100 years after her death, her work manipulating chemical compounds and investigating carcinogens is being carried on, fearlessly, by two young students at The University of the West Indies: Reco Phillips and Dahryn Augustine.

From May 22 to 24, UWI´s Department of Chemistry hosted its first Biennial Regional Conference and Expo on Chemical Science, Technology and Industry. The theme “Chemistry and Chemical Technology for a Sustainable Development of the Caribbean” highlighted the use of chemical sciences as catalysts for innovation and technological development in the region. Phillips, 28 and Augustine, 25 have both authored groundbreaking work in Materials Chemistry and Food Chemistry respectively which were presented during the conference.

Phillips, a Materials Chemist from Jamaica, believes that “economic development is never independent of scientific advancement”. He researches the optimisation of liquid crystals to improve its application in portable displays and gadgets such as phones, monitors and laptops. His fearlessness is clearly demonstrated in his work; when faced with inadequate funding and analytical instruments to complete his research, he searched for grants to address that shortfall.

Not long after, he was mounting samples for an X-ray powder diffraction experiment at a Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. These multi-billion dollar labs offer limited-time access so Phillips and his team worked through the night to maximise their opportunity there. Liquid crystals are what tech giants like Apple and Samsung build their fortunes on. The liquid crystalline properties help create devices with crisp images and long battery life. With the heavy dependence on displays and screens across industries, the demand for liquid crystalline application is expected to soar dramatically over the next few years.

Phillips´ career prospects will surely rise with them; he is expecting to complete his PhD and graduate by 2020. He gives due credit to his supervisor, Dr Richard Taylor, Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry at the Chemistry Department and a well-published chemist, for his tutelage and mentorship in both his academic and personal development. Liquid crystals were first studied locally by Dr Wilson Sue Chee Ming, who focused on copper concentrates of liquid crystalline compounds in low temperatures. Phillips´ work expands on that research by changing the metals used to that of nickel and palladium to examine the resulting structural properties. His conclusions could have a major impact on the quality of display screens being used in the future and position the Caribbean as a key contributor to scientific technology and innovation.

25-year-old Augustine, an aspiring food scientist from Dominica, is also on track to complete a PhD by 2020 with her research in nutrition and food toxicology. She studies the high presence of a chemical compound, acrylamide (a food toxin), and the effect of sulfur-based additives which may help limit its carcinogenic effects. Acrylamide is highly concentrated in processed foods such as breads, cereals, potato chips, baked good and even our local fried bake. When ingested, this toxin can metabolise and result in genetic mutations.

Augustine´s work on the application of sulfur-based additives for the reduction of the risks associated with such food toxins has huge implications for the Caribbean region. With a diet high in processed foods and low in raw, organicfruits and vegetables, we are susceptible to the harmful effects of acrylamide both from local and imported products. With little to no pre-existing data regarding our dietary habits and the possible presence of food toxins locally, Augustine hopes that “through this research, the right knowledge and methods of food production can be implemented both regionally and globally”.

Contributing to the economic advancement of the Caribbean region is an underlying goal of both these young researchers. Augustine expects to improve the data surrounding food security and toxicity in the Caribbean while Phillips is determined to make significant strides in technological advancement via chemical substances such as liquid crystals. These millennials are inspired rather than overwhelmed by the challenges facing our countries, adamant rather than apathetic. In the face of all the global issues buffeting the Caribbean, here are two scientists who epitomise Marie Curie´s words, “now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Avah Atherton is a short story writer and aspiring cultural archivist based in Trinidad and Tobago.