By Dr Cristina Lagunas, Queen’s University Belfast. Catch Cristina on her Soapbox this saturday June 20th 2-5pm in Belfast, where she will be talking about “Glow-in-the-dark and colour-changing molecules: From entertainment and toys to forensic and medical research”.
I am not quite sure why I decided to become a chemist, but in my early teens I certainly liked science and was happy to join my two brothers in some crazy experiments such as building airplane models (which never quite managed to take off or fly for too long), or making alcohol lamps after raiding the first-aid cabinet at home. At some point we even decided that it was a good idea to use one of these ‘lamps’ to inflate a hot-air balloon we had made out of…paper! This obviously ended up with the balloon in flames in our back-yard, but at least we didn’t try the take-off near anythingflammable.
Dangerous experiments aside, there was certainly something thrilling about trying to understand how things worked (…or didn’t work). I also remember watching an old movie about Marie Curie, and I was hooked by her passion for research, that fascination of being the first person ever to prepare a new compound or discover a new phenomenon. That, together with a very good chemistry teacher in secondary school, set me on course for a Chemistry Degree. I should say that I also loved Maths and I hesitated between registering for a Degree in Maths or in Chemistry until the very last minute. In the end, it was the prospect of working in a lab and carrying on with ‘crazy’ experiments that decided me. As an undergraduate, I enjoyed the inorganic chemistry labs and my final year supervisors (two incredibly talented and enthusiastic researchers) further inspired me to do a PhD and pursue an academic career. This has allowed me to fulfil that early fascination for research, and at the same time I have been able to do things I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise, such as living in three different countries, travel the world and have a truly international group of friends. Through these travels, I also met my husband. We have two young children and I don’t travel so much these days, but I still enjoy my job with the same enthusiasm.
One of my lines of research is molecular sensors. We design and synthesise molecules that are able to emit light or change colour in the presence of an analyte (which is another molecule that needs to be detected). Molecular sensors have applications for example in medicine, forensics or environmental science. For example, sensors can change colour when exposed to the vapour of a toxic solvent, thus sending a warning signal of its presence in the atmosphere. Understanding the process that triggers such changes in colour (or in emission of light) is important if we want to invent new, more efficient, sensors. I believe it is essential, through events such as Soapbox, for scientists (and chemists in particular) to communicate the importance and fascination of their work and to enthuse future generations of scientists.