Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Tagged: Marcus Johns

Green Chemistry conference in Venice

  , , ,

📥  Seminars & Conferences

The 6th International IUPAC Conference on Green Chemistry was held in Venice between the 4th and 8th of September. The venue itself, the Centro Culturale Candiani, was actually located in Mestre; a town on the mainland located half an hour on the tram from Venice. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to present my work on Interfused Cellulose-Chitosan Hydrogels for Tissue Engineering as a 20-minute talk which was well received.

Two talks in particular caught my attention: The first – by Professor Sato at the National Institute of Technology, Tsuruoka College, Japan – covered the development of a double network ionic gel for low friction material. Double-network gels – which consist of a rigid skeleton polymer network within a ductile polymer substance, enabling high mechanical strength and toughness – are well known. However, the idea of replacing the water present in the gel (often 90 wt% or more) with an ionic liquid interested me as it stabilises the material (evaporation of the water affects the physical properties of the gel; ionic liquids have negligible vapour pressure) and results in a low friction material, even under vacuum and at high temperatures. The second – by Dr Stevens, Professor Emeritus at University of North Carolina at Asheville, USA – presented 12 principles on New Chemistry, intended as “a guide to allow society and chemists to prosper and grow sustainably”. One message that caught my attention was the advocation of interdisciplinary science. The CSCT already encourages co-operation between chemistry and chemical engineering. Although I’m more interested in how we could develop work with social scientists, which surely will be required if we are to effectively address societal demands.

The conference gala dinner was held at the Casinò Di Venezia in the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi, where Wagner spent his last days. Entertainment was provided by a local string quartets and a couple of opera singers, with the opportunity to have a free flutter at the tables afterwards. The Wednesday afternoon was spent on a boat trip around the islands of Venice, including Burano (home of the colourful houses) and Torcello Abbey. Whilst it was great to see the surrounding area, I did begin to feel like a trapped animal after a while as excursions on the islands were limited to half an hour. Venice is a particularly beautiful city, although I do recommend either getting up early to meander through the streets before the tourists descend, or being prepared to stay up late. A word of warning though: always keep your bearing as the narrow streets often results in GPS becoming confused as to exactly where you are – trying to find St. Mark’s Square at 1 am proved a particular challenge! Overall, the experience was positive – both from the conference and cultural perspectives – and I look forward to attending the next one.

Venice sans tourists

Venice sans tourists

Conference dinners: the tried and tested method for making new contacts and/or friends

Conference dinner: the tried and tested method for making new contacts and/or friends


Marcus is in his final year in the CSCT working towards his PhD on “Biomaterials for the Cardiac Environment” with Dr Ram Sharma, Dr Janet Scott and Dr Sameer Rahatekar.

 

Biomaterials with University of São Paulo in Brazil

  , , , ,

📥  Internships & visits

Our third year CSCT student Marcus Johns undertook a three month internship at University of São Paulo, one of our partners in Brazil. Here’s what he had to say about his experience:

Improving the bio-functionality of cellulose in order to use it as a scaffold for human tissue growth is a challenge. Enough of a challenge that it’s the primary focus of my PhD. So far I’ve been developing materials based on blends of cellulose and chitosan – which is bio-functional but lacks tensile strength – and have had mixed success with them, so any opportunity to try an alternative method was more than welcome.

DSCF1622Fortunately one arose via our Global Innovation Initiative project “Transatlantic discovery, characterisation and application of enzymes for the recycling of polymers and composites”; a current collaboration between the University of Bath; the University of São Paulo, and Ohio State University. Researchers under Professor Igor Polikarpov at USP had reported that they had managed to isolate the section of protein that was responsible for allowing a particular enzyme to attach to cellulose, and had modified it to allow other chemicals to be cross-linked to it. If a bio-functional chemical – such as a peptide – could be cross-linked to this protein, it would potentially be possible to improve the bio-functionality of my cellulose scaffolds once the compound had been adsorbed onto their surface. My three month internship was then organised.

Going to a country where you don’t speak the language – and didn’t learn one with a similar root at school – can be daunting, particularly when you don’t start learning the language till a month before you go. From experience, I strongly recommend learning at least a series of basic sentences before anyone attempts this as it saves many minutes of confused looks and expansive hand-gestures used to be understood. My second piece of advice is to never underestimate the size of a country – the University of São Paulo has a number of campuses and the one that I was to work at was located in São Carlos, a three and half hour drive from São Paulo. Many of my friends were expecting me to spend a fair amount of time on a beach, unfortunately this wasn’t realised as the nearest beach was five hours away by car.

However, I managed to overcome these issues and spent a productive three months in Brazil. The facilities in the laboratory were very impressive – six HPLCs for a lab of less than twenty students with three dedicated support staff – and it was clear that São Paulo state’s commitment of 13 % of its GDP to higher education and research and development was being well spent. I also was able to visit the National Centre for Research in Energy and Materials in Campinas for a week, with time spent at the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory using their scanning electron microscope and atomic force microscopy facilities. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to definitively prove that the compound could improve cell attachment and growth on cellulose, but I did obtain a number of novel results that have raised further questions and hopefully set-up further collaborations for the future.

I also managed to do a little travelling whilst I was out there, including visiting São Paulo during Carnival. I didn’t notice the water shortages that have been prevalent in the news recently whilst I was there, but a trip to Furnas – which is next to one of the main reservoirs for the region of São Paulo – proved more eye-opening. To see the extent by which the water-level has dropped in the reservoir in the last three years was shocking. Many house-owners on the shore now have two boathouses – one where the water-level used to be and one where the water-level now is – and tree-tops can be seen sticking out of the water. It brought home the challenges associated with climate change – which also includes the recent increase in dengue cases in the region due to people storing rain water in open containers, the perfect places for mosquitos to breed – and why the research being carried out at the centre and our public engagement activities are so important. Overall, I had a great time in Brazil and would recommend it to anyone thinking of going there.

Marcus is working towards his PhD in the CSCT and is supervised by Dr Ram Sharma and Dr Janet Scott at University of Bath and Dr Sameer Rahatekar at University of Bristol.

 

Conference report: Cardiff Stem Cell Symposium 2014

  , , , ,

📥  Seminars & Conferences

The Stem Cell Symposium organised by the Cardiff Stem Cell Network is a free event, in its second year, that brings together researchers in the south west. A number of students from the University of Bath, based in chemical engineering, pharmacy and biology, attended, including two DTC students: first-year Tristan Smith and second-year Marcus Johns, who brings us this report.

Having not done any biology in any great depth – enzyme kinetics excluded – since GCSE, I found the prospect of spending a day at an event where PhD objectives included ‘[investigating] the mechanism of the chemopreventative properties of dietary polyphenols on Wnt-driven tumorigenesis’ daunting. However, the event proved to be very informative with participants happy to simplify their language and explain concepts when informed that they were in the presence of a chemical engineer.

The plenary lecture ‘Bringing mesenchymal stem cells into the clinic’ by Professor Katarina Le Blanc (Karolinska Institutet) demonstrated that even when strong, beneficial research is conducted – in this case the inhibition of immune responses in leukaemia patients using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) – it still remains challenging to bring it to the point of clinical use. This point was reiterated by Dr Chris Goldring (University of Liverpool), who warned that significant steps needed to be taken to ensure the safety of regenerative medicine therapies and guarantee that the mistakes in the area of gene therapy twenty years ago were not repeated in his lecture ‘Preclinical safety assessment of stem cell therapy’.

The University of Bath was well represented with two lectures by Dr Vasanta Subramanian and Professor David Tosh – director of the Centre for Regenerative Medicine – on the role of primary cilia in stem cell maintenance and differentiation, and the transdifferentiation of pancreatic cells to hepatic cells respectively. However, it was perhaps slightly disappointing that none of the ten talks touched upon the role of tissue scaffolds for both in vivo and in vitro use, despite the recognition of their increasing importance in the literature. This was reflected in the posters on display, where only a handful concerned themselves with the subject – almost all from the University of Bath.