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Year of the Periodic Table - Sally Vanden-Hehir

  • Year: 3rd year PhD
  • Supervisor: Prof. Alison Hulme

Tell us about your PhD project

My research has been focused on imaging polymeric nanoparticles that can be used to deliver drugs to the brain. Delivering drugs to their target site is of upmost importance for their success in treating diseases, and also in reducing harmful side effects. Biodegradable nanoparticles loaded with drugs have been shown to cross the blood brain barrier, making this an attractive method for the treatment of brain diseases. However, the small size of these nanoparticles (~1000 times smaller than a cell) means that imaging their uptake, distribution and ultimate cellular fate is challenging. These factors are important when assessing the suitability and safety of a drug delivery system. In my project, I have used Raman spectroscopy to image polymeric nanoparticles in both brain cells and ex vivo brain tissue. Raman spectroscopy is a vibrational imaging technique that probes the chemical bonds in a sample. By designing polymers containing bonds not present in a cell (e.g. carbon-deuterium and alkyne bonds), I was able to selectively image the nanoparticles free of cellular background.

Raman spectroscopy image of polymers

Which element is key to your research area and why?

As an organic chemist who dabbles in biology, carbon (C) is essential to my work, but tin (Sn) has also played a key role in my research. Tin was my catalyst of choice for my polymerisation reactions that formed the materials I used to make my nanoparticles. Without tin, I would just be left with a round bottomed flask full of monomers!

Describe your average day of PhD work here in the School of Chemistry

I have recently been writing up my thesis, so my days have mostly been spent in the library writing, proof reading and making sense of data. Before this, my experiments involved the synthesis of polymers and nanoparticles here in the School of Chemistry, and cell culture at the Little France campus. I loved working with cells, watching them grow and imaging them to see the location of my nanoparticles.

What’s your favourite chemical element?

My favourite chemical element has to be strontium (Sr). This alkaline earth metal happens to have been discovered in the small Scottish village where I grew up, Strontian. From an early age, this sparked my interest in chemistry, and I love watching firework displays and telling everyone that the red colour is caused by strontium!

What's your favourite chemical reaction?

It took me a while to think about this, but I’m going to go with the fermentation of glucose in yeast to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide. This reaction has been used since ancient times, and any reaction that is vital in the production of both beer and bread is a winner for me!

Chemical reaction of the fermentation of glucose in yeast