Developing sensors for monitoring environmental pollutants in Kenya
This blog by Elizabeth Ndunda, a Kenyan chemist, and Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) grantee under the Fellow of the Future Leaders – African Independent Research (FLAIR) programme, discusses the potential to develop affordable tools to detect low levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the environment to facilitate routine monitoring of harmful environmental pollutants, thus providing a cost-effective and timely mechanism to inform environmental protection policymaking.
Alternative cost-effective sensors to detect toxic compounds in the environment
Environmental pollution is a global challenge. Harmful compounds, which contribute to life threatening diseases, continue to be released into the environment. This research focuses on one such class of compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are known to be toxic, persist in the environment for a long period. They are found in almost all environmental compartments including water where they pose a serious threat to animals and humans upon consumption. Existing tools to determine PCB levels in the environment require heavy investment and thus do not favour routine monitoring -- which is key to combatting environmental pollution effectively. To address this challenge, sensors provide a better alternative for routine monitoring of pollutants and in the long run, can lead to the protection of human and animal life by providing data which can inform environmental policies. Preliminary investigations have indicated that molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs), which are artificial receptors designed to demonstrate molecular recognition similar to the natural systems, have the potential to modify sensory systems to make them capable of timely detection of low-level pollutants. Sensory systems complement existing, resource-intensive techniques by providing an affordable, sensitive and timely tool.
Research challenges and achievements through the FLAIR Fellowship
The limits of research funding in developing countries is a challenge that affects researchers, especially early careers scientists who are in the process of establishing their footing in research. Kenyan chemist and lecturer at the Department of Physical Sciences, Machakos University, Kenya, Dr Elizabeth Ndunda says, “Through the Future Leaders – African Independent Research (FLAIR) programme’s funding, I have established collaborations nationally and internationally as well as acquired laboratory equipment that is critical for my research in developing novel tools for monitoring environmental pollutants. I have also been able to incorporate three postgraduate students in my team, enabling me to mentor them in their own efforts to develop their research careers. Moreover, based on my FLAIR-funded research, I was able to attract additional support for my research and collaborations through the Royal Society of Chemistry International Exchanges Award, in collaboration with a UK professor, to develop systems for water and soil pollution detection and purification. To leverage the opportunities offered by the Royal Society and the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), I have participated in leadership training and mentorship programmes, where I have acquired skills necessary for my growth as a scientist.”
Despite this substantial support, a continuing challenge affecting research is the procurement of chemicals and equipment, which generally require adherence to often burdensome government procurement procedures. This, unfortunately, takes a lot of time, which translates directly into delays in the implementation of proposed projects. There is a dire need for intervention in this area by the government and other stakeholders to enable timely delivery of results.
Contribution to Science, Society and Academia
Development of synthetic receptors selective to PCBs is an application of the field of biomimicry, in which artificial systems that can mimic nature are created to address human, animal and environmental problems. A tool to continuously monitor environmental contaminants based on an affordable sensor will provide pollution data to governments that is timely, sensitive and affordable. This has the potential to make a critical impact on policy making to protect the environment, and thus human and animal life.
This tool enables routine monitoring of PCBs to protect the human population from continued exposure to these toxic chemicals. Much work on MIPs has been published in peer-reviewed journals and disseminated through presentations at conferences and workshops. Through the FLAIR fellowship, postgraduate students will be trained to address emerging global challenges. Furthermore, the equipment purchased through the fellowship will be accessible to all staff and students of Machakos University and other institutions, providing collateral contributions to the advancement of research and training in the country.
About Elizabeth Ndunda
Elizabeth Ndunda is a Kenyan chemist and lecturer at the Department of Physical Sciences, Machakos University in Kenya. She is a Fellow of the Future Leaders – African Independent Research (FLAIR) programme, which supports talented early-career African researchers who have the potential to become leaders in their field. The FLAIR programme is implemented through The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a funding, agenda-setting, programme management initiative of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. FLAIR is supported by the UK Royal Society through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).