4 July 2017

test tubes


An article by Dr Adrian George

The concept of a ‘stand-alone’ research laboratory is changing. Within the School of Chemistry projects crossing several research areas are becoming more common. Within the University of Sydney the establishment of multi-disciplinary centers housed in a single building such as The Charles Perkins Centre or the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology encourages interaction between discipline areas.

Further afield, collaboration with colleagues in CSIRO and chemistry related industries and at other universities, both in Australia and overseas, is widespread. Not only does this provide access to a broader range of facilities than could be housed in one place but also it provides valuable experience for our research students.

There is an increasing emphasis on furnishing our students with generic skills that will enable them the greatest possible flexibility of career pathways. This is applicable to both the undergraduate and postgraduate cohort of students and providing an opportunity for them to work off-campus is just one way to do this. There is the formalized study abroad and year-in-industry programs available for undergraduates, while opportunities for postgraduates are usually organized by the supervisor.

I have been fortunate to have had a long collaboration with the National Measurement Institute (NMI) who have co-hosted both honours and graduate student research projects. NMI is a federal government organisation within the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and is Australia’s peak measurement body responsible for biological, chemical, legal, physical and trade measurement. It is an organization that actively encourages collaborations involving student research projects in many different areas.

Let me give you a couple of examples of collaborative projects I have had with groups within NMI. The Australian Forensic Drug Laboratory (AFDL) is responsible for analyzing seizures of substances suspected by the Australian Federal Police to be illegal. While this aspect is pure analytical chemistry there is also a research component to the lab’s work. Is it possible to trace the origin of a seizure to a particular country or even clandestine laboratory? Isotope ratio mass spectroscopy has proved invaluable here. This is where the ratio of stable isotopes (usually C-12 to C-13 and H-1 to H-2) within a compound is examined. Isotope ratios are not constant across all substances in spite of what we teach! Drugs such as heroine that result from synthetic modification of a plant extract show an isotope ratio that reflects the soil type of the region where the plant was grown. This has also been used in establishing the providence of some top end wines. More recently, research at AFDL suggests that the isotope ratio of a wholly synthetic drug like methamphetamine reflects the pathway used in its synthesis.

The other lab within NMI that I have been fortunate to collaborate with is the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory (ADSTL). They are responsible for testing for banned substances in athletes. However, more than that, the lab is developing new techniques for detecting banned substances. For example, urine is commonly used to screen for banned substances, however these urine samples are not tamper proof and also may be difficult to collect immediately after competition as athletes are often dehydrated. The lab is investigating using blood samples collected via a finger prick – such as used to determine blood sugar levels - as an alternative to urine. This changes the profile of what is screened (the primary substance vs a metabolite) as well as the time frame available for detection. There are also sensitivity issues and matrix effects to consider.

Overall 8 honours students and 3 PhD students from my group have completed their research at NMI over the past ten years. It has been a win-win situation with the students experiencing life in a commercial and task focused lab and gaining hands on use of state-of-the-art analytical instruments. The NMI labs can expand their research program beyond their own staff and, from a personal perspective, I have learnt, as an observer, heaps about ‘chemico-legal’ issues. By this I mean what is necessary to take your scientific data to a court to prove a supply chain of a drug seizure or that an athlete has been doping.


Dr Adrian George

Dr Adrian George
T: +61 2 9351 6055