Spotlight Series - Science Week Focus - Dr Brian Murphy - Science gets the little grey cells moving!!!

Our “Spotlight Series” profiles our faculty, staff, student and research stories that make our Institute the amazing community it is. This week the focus is going to be on our science stories, given that it is national science week and the theme is “Believe in Science”. Here we profile Dr. Brian Murphy to find out a little about AIT’s Science focus, our participation in the Midlands science festival this year and also about his own role and background.

Brian, can you tell us a little about your role in AIT?

After completing my PhD in Coordination Chemistry and X-Ray Crystallography at University College Cork in 1994 I decided to pursue an academic career. Over the past 23 years this has brought me to teach Inorganic Chemistry and conduct research at a number of universities and institutes of technology both in Ireland and abroad, including Cardiff University, Dublin City University, IT Sligo and the United Arab Emirates University. In 2008, after spending eight years in the middle east, working as an Associate Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and later as a Head of Department at the Department of Chemistry at United Arab Emirates University, I decided to return to Ireland and joined Athlone Institute of Technology as Head of the Department of Life and Physical Sciences. I since have moved away from academic administration and have returned to my true passion in trying to open up the world of Coordination Chemistry to undergraduate students as a Senior Lecturer. Not an easy task!

I teach across a variety of academic programmes at AIT, including the BSc(Hons) in Pharmaceutical Science, which is a unique programme that provides the broad-based, essential information and skills required by graduates for employment in the modern pharmaceutical sector. This programme is officially recognized by the Institute of Chemistry in Ireland and covers chemical-based and next generation biotech-based therapeutics and their formulation into the safe and effective medicines of high and durable quality. The programme is one of the leading academic programmes at AIT in terms of the high quality employment outlets open to its graduates. The Midlands has become a major magnet for leading international pharmaceutical companies and this programme provides learners with the core experience in the exploration of the structure-property relationships of drugs and pharmaceutical materials. As a Lecturer, not only do I teach but I also am involved in the extensive development of new academic programmes in the Faculty of Science and Health, I supervise undergraduate research projects in Coordination Chemistry, sit on a number of Institute sub-committees and have a number of international collaborations in the area of curriculum development and coordination chemistry.

AIT recently was awarded The Sunday Times Institute of Technology of the Year for 2018 and its vision is to become a Technological University in the near future. In my view this is an essential component of the future strategic plan for the region – AIT has the capacity and potential to become a university and this is what makes working at AIT extremely interesting at present! AIT’s strength comes from identifying areas of skills shortage and working with businesses to improve links between enterprise and academia. The Institute currently has three dedicated research centres, straddling the areas of Bioscience, Software and Materials and has become a regional research power-house in these areas, working closely with local industry.

What inspired you to pursue a science based career?

Unfortunately in Ireland only a small proportion of secondary schools currently offer Chemistry and Physics which is a real shame. Chemistry is often described as the central science and many students do not really understand the importance of chemistry until they enter third-level programmes and are surprised to find chemistry in the heart of medicine, engineering, dentistry, toxicology, biotechnology and even sports science programmes! As a secondary school student I was extremely lucky to go to a newly built, state-of-the-art, mixed secondary school in Cobh, Co. Cork, Coláiste Muire, where the Presentation Brother Principal of the School (Br. Bede) himself had a strong Science background and insisted that the school should have dedicated modern laboratories in Chemistry, Physics and Biology to ensure that students could take all three pillar science subjects up to Higher Leaving Certificate Level. At the time we had an outstanding Chemistry Teacher, Dr. Declan Kennedy, who since has moved on to become a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education in University College Cork and who has been at the fore-front of developments in Chemistry Teaching in Ireland for the past twenty years. As a teacher he was visionary in his delivery of science and this is what lured me into pursuing a career in Chemistry. It all stemmed from being exposed to problem-based learning, challenging experimental work and interdisciplinary science from an early age in secondary school and knowing that I was being educated in first-class chemical laboratories. It would be nice to see more schools in the Midlands offering Chemistry and Physics to secondary school students in the next ten years and not just Biology. All three subjects are essential for anyone interested in STEM as Science in the future will become even more interdisciplinary in nature! There appears to be a current shortage also of qualified Chemistry Teachers nationally and this is an area that the government needs to address if we are really to become a leading international STEM nation on the worldwide stage.

Why in your view is science so important in society today and what can we do to encourage more young people to choose science when picking their subjects at second level?

There are so many reasons as why science is so important to society at present that in this condensed blog it is not possible for me to outline the myriad of reasons and examples. As a Coordination Chemist by trade, X-ray Crystallography has long been a central structural tool for me in my pursuing research interests and the importance of structure still plays a pivotal role in science today. However I would like to focus in on the recent award of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Jacques Dubochet (University of Lausanne, Switzerland), Joachim Frank (Columbia University, New York, USA) and Richard Henderson (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK) for developing an effective method for generating three-dimensional images of the molecules of life. Using cryo-electron microscopy, it is now possible to freeze biomolecules midmovement and portray them at atomic resolution. This technology has launched biochemistry on a completely new trajectory. In the press release on the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to these researchers it is described how “over recent years numerous astonishing structures of life’s molecular machinery have filled the scientific literature: Salmonella’s injection needle for attacking cells; proteins that confer resistance to chemotherapy and antibiotics; molecular complexes that govern circadian rhythms; light-capturing reaction complexes for photosynthesis and a pressure sensor of the type that allows us to hear. These are just a few examples of the hundreds of biomolecules that have now been imaged using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). When researchers began to suspect that the Zika virus was causing the epidemic of brain-damaged newborns in Brazil, they turned to cryo-EM to visualise the virus. Over a few months, three dimensional (3D) images of the virus at atomic resolution were generated and researchers could start searching for potential targets for pharmaceuticals.

Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson have made ground-breaking discoveries that have enabled the development of cryo-EM. The method has taken biochemistry into a new era, making it easier than ever before to capture images of biomolecules.” As a scientist I always look forward each year to the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Reading the research underpinning the work of these annual award winners makes us understand the importance of science to society. Secondary school students need to be challenged in science from day one – to foster this learning environment, science students need to constantly pose questions, be challenged by undertaking project and research work, be exposed to a rigorous experimental programme and have access to high-quality laboratories, instrumentation and facilities. We also need to encourage more Honours Chemistry graduates to consider teaching as a career. There are several outstanding science teachers who do tremendous work in school educating future scientists, often educated to both Masters and PhD level. The government needs to support such highly qualified professionals to ensure that teaching once more is seen as a vital cog in our national development. One has only to look at the correlation between teaching, secondary school science facilities and STEM initiatives in countries like Finland to appreciate the importance of promoting the development of science in schools.

Do you think there are any really exciting research outcomes we can hope to see in the next 10 years?

Cure for Alzheimer’s disease, global solution to conquer climate change, advanced technologies for the electric car to name a few ….. it was interesting to read only a few days ago that NASA and NOAA have stated that measurements from satellites this year showed the hole in Earth’s ozone layer that forms over Antarctica each September was the smallest observed since 1988. Thirty years ago, the international community signed the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and began regulating ozone-depleting compounds. Scientists claim that the ozone hole over Antarctica is expected to gradually become less severe as the use of chlorofluorocarbons (once widely used as refrigerants) continue to decrease worldwide. Scientists now expect the Antarctic ozone hole to recover back to 1980 levels around 2070. This shows the power of international scientific collaboration between scientists and governments. I think Environmental Chemistry is one area to really keep an eye on in terms of research activity over the next decade. Global solutions can bring about a solution to climate change but scientists need to be supported at both international and national levels to foster these solutions.

What is your favourite thing about teaching science?

As Hercule Poirot says it gets the little grey cells moving!!!

Dr. Brian Murphy, Senior Lecturer, Department of Life and Physical Sciences, Faculty of Science and Health, AIT

See a full schedule of AIT Science week events here : https://goo.gl/RbjW5H

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