This week's Spotlight on Research is with Dr Blánaid White Lecturer, School of Chemical Sciences and Principal Investigator, National Centre for Sensor Research and DCU Water Institute
What do you do?
“I’m an analytical chemist. I like to use chemistry to understand our environment at an atomic and molecular level, and I want to use that to help us have foods with higher nutritional value.
To get there means having healthier soils and plants and animals in our environment.”
You put a lot of emphasis on the environment in your work?
“Yes and I’m part of a big new project called Farming and Natural Resources: Measures for Ecological Sustainability (FARM-ECOS), which is being led by Teagasc.
There’s a big drive in Ireland to put a value on our natural capital, so this project is looking to measure what happens when we take steps to increase biodiversity.
That might be an intervention like planting a strip of flowers beside a field of crops to attract more bees that pollinate the crops.
We want to measure what differences those kinds of steps make.”
What will you be looking at in particular?
“My role is to look below ground at the soil. Healthy soil is really important for healthy food, so I’ll be looking at levels of organic matter, seeing if there’s a diverse set of micro-organisms living there (which is what you want) and other important aspects like soil nutrients and acidity, which affects how living things can use those nutrients.”
Above ground, you are also looking at bees?
“I’m really interested in bees, and I’m part of the Irish Bee and Pollinator Network. We have set up hives in DCU and one of my PhD students, Saorla Kavanagh, whom I co-supervise with Prof Jane Stout in Trinity, is a beekeeper.
Saorla has been looking at honey from all over Ireland and mapping out the local flowers, seeing if bees prefer to forage at particular types of flower and whether that affects the quality of the honey and the health of the bees themselves.”
What has the work in your lab on honey been showing?
“We have found that honey from Ireland is rich in naturally-occurring chemicals called phenolic acids.
These are thought to be good for human health as they are anti-oxidants. I think more people should be aware of this, as the high quality of the honey is probably not something we shout about enough in Ireland!”
You also looked at phenolic acids in whiskey…
“Yes, that was a really interesting project. Phenolic acids lend whiskies their colour and flavour, and they move from the cask into the whiskey during the ageing process.
Using chemistry we were able to link different phenolic acids and levels with the characteristics of various whiskies. I think it’s an interesting way to show how you can use chemistry to look at things in a new way.”
Is that what you like most about your work?
“Yes, I love being able to figure things out. I grew up in the countryside in Wexford and I spent a lot of time on my grandfather’s farm.
I used to be fascinated at how the bees would go mad for the honeysuckle and now I am able to understand that and I’m researching how bees and landscapes interact.
Having a job that lets you do that is amazing.
The other huge thing is getting to work with people who are passionate about their subjects.
They have all sorts of interesting questions and as a chemist I can help them find answers.”
What’s the biggest challenge about being a researcher?
“I think it’s getting funding for the work you want to do. You have to frame your research questions in a way that the answer you get can show value.
I also think we need to focus on getting people interested in analytical chemistry as undergraduates, because they are the future researchers in our field.”