Getting the measure of chemicals in the environment

Research Lives: Dr Jenny Lawler, head of the Membrane and Environmental Technologies Group and assistant professor at DCU school of biotechnology

Congratulations, you were recently honoured at the Irish Laboratory Awards. What did you win?

“I am a principal investigator at DCU Water Institute, and we won Engineering Lab of the Year, so I was delighted with that. I was also shortlisted for Young Leader of the Year, but I reckoned because of the lab award I wouldn’t get another one. So I was really shocked and very happily surprised when I won that one too.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am setting up two new projects. One is an Enterprise Ireland and EU-funded project with Prof Christine Loscher in DCU and ABP Food Group. We are looking at biologically active peptides that could be retrieved from waste streams from abattoirs.

We are developing new ways to capture and isolate these molecules to see if they have potentially useful effects on the human immune system.

My lab is also being funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to see how we can monitor what happens to freshwater invertebrates such as daphnia magna when they are exposed to cocktails of drug residues in rivers and lakes, introducing effect-based biomonitoring to Ireland.

You are measuring phthalates in the environment too – why?

Phthalates are chemicals that leach out of many plastics into the environment. They can build up in biological systems, including us, and they may disrupt hormones. So in another EPA-funded project we are measuring the level of phthalates in waste and in soil to see if we can work out the exposure to humans.

Is that technically hard to do?

Yes! Phthalates are everywhere, so it's hard to filter out the background levels from our measurements. We collaborate on the project with Agilent Technologies, so we get to use one of their really sensitive machines. We are also coming up with different approaches, including measuring the breakdown products of phthalates that turn up in human sewage. If we know the levels of breakdown products that are coming out of humans, we can work out the original levels of exposure to phthalates."

What do you love about your work?

It’s always changing, you never have the same day twice. I also love being able to train new research professionals in my lab and then watching them go on to do amazing things.

Are there any misconceptions that people tend to have about your area of research?

I think people underestimate how pervasive plastic waste can be. We look at a plastic bottle and think ‘yes a large aquatic animal like a whale might eat that’. But plastics break down to microplastics and even nanoplastics, and they can go so much further into animals and biological systems, and we don’t yet understand the human health impacts. We need to think about where they go and what they do.

How do you take a break?

It is hard to switch off from thinking about work. The other day I was making a pasta sauce and I started thinking about the most environmentally-friendly way to make it: should you buy fresh tomatoes from Spain or used tinned tomatoes and recycle the tins?

We have three kids, so family time keeps me busy. And I love to run – I did a half-marathon recently in aid of the charity Debra Ireland in the Wicklow Mountains – great headspace!"

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation