This week's Spotlight on Research is with Dr Emma Coyle, Assistant Professor in Organic and Medicinal chemistry in DCU School of Chemical Sciences.
What do you work on?
“I’m a synthetic chemist, which means I look at how to make new chemicals.
My research is about developing new ways to help the pharmaceutical industry discover more molecules that could be future medicines, and I also work on ways to chemically capture pollutants and take them out of water.”
How can you help in the search for new medicines?
“When pharmaceutical companies want to develop new medicines, they often make new versions of chemicals or molecules and test out their usefulness.
I want to make this process more fruitful, by making it easier and more environmentally friendly to make these chemicals.
Changing the chemistry of these processes can also help companies to comply with ever-tightening regulations, and it can help reduce the economic and environmental costs of discovering and making new molecules.”
Can you give us some examples?
“Some of the chemical processes for making medicines involve metals, but the regulations are tightening on that, saying that metals need to be removed from the later steps.
I look at ways of using sulfur, which is not a metal, to make ‘building block’ chemicals that can be used to make lots of other molecules.
This could offer a more environmentally friendly approach as well as making it easier to comply with regulations.
I’m also working with Dr Ciarán Fagan in DCU on using enzymes, which are complex molecules found in living beings that encourage chemical reactions to happen.
We are looking at how you can use enzymes in different ways to make new chemical structures.”
And what about using chemistry to clean water?
“That’s a really exciting project. We are working with molecules that my DCU colleague Dr Kieran Nolan made a while ago.
These molecules have a space in the middle that can ‘catch’ metals. So myself, Kieran and Dr Mercedes Vazquez are developing 3D-printed beads coated with these ‘capture’ chemicals and as the water runs over each bead, the molecules pull the metals out of the water.
It’s bringing some older observations together with new technology and facilities here in DCU, and we hope that these beads might eventually be used by industry to clean outflows of wastewater, or maybe they could be deployed after a pollution or radioactivity spill to clean it up.”
How did you become interested in chemistry?
“In school I picked physics for the Leaving Cert because I thought it would be useful and I picked chemistry because I liked it. Then at the last minute I thought maybe I should swop to geography instead of chemistry, but the school wouldn’t allow a change of mind.
I was very glad though, because the first day I went into chemistry class for the Leaving Cert I loved it! I went on to study Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science at DCU and then I did a PhD here.”
What do you wish people knew about chemistry?
“Sometimes in school people might find it a bit dry, but I think once you really think about chemistry you start to see it everywhere, in all the objects around you.
One of my favourites is the chemistry of shellac nails – when I was getting them done and they were setting the shellac under a UV light, I realised it was a form of light-initiated polymerisation, what a great idea to apply it in this way.”
What do you like about working as a researcher in chemistry?
“It is lovely to come to work and to get to think things out. I work on all these diverse projects and I really enjoy chatting with the students working in my lab about what we are seeing.
We get out pieces of paper and jot down the processes of the chemical arrangements we are finding, and we realise what is happening.
You get such a thrill when you figure it out.”
What do you like to do when in your time away from the lab?
“I love going to the cinema, and I’m a knitter, now that the cold weather is coming in I am doing a lot of knitting. I also love board games, and a group of us get together every week for a board-game night.”