Issue Date: June 7, 2004
MORE THAN JUST SUN AND SAND
Chemistry at the Caribbean's University of the West Indies is thriving despite funding struggles
The sight of the spanking new single-crystal X-ray diffractometer sitting next to a microscope for mounting crystals makes you think you could be at a top university in the U.S. But walk outside, where students congregate in the shade of an ackee tree to escape the midday heat, and you can see Jamaica's Blue Mountains in the distance, and you'll know you are most certainly not in the U.S.
This is in fact the oldest campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), an unusual regional research institution serving a collection of small, English-speaking states in the Caribbean, including Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Christopher & Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago, and the Turks & Caicos.
UWI began in Mona, Jamaica, in 1948 as an arm of the University of London. The university gained independence from its British parent in 1962 and now has additional campuses in St. Augustine; Trinidad; and Cave Hill, Barbados. Today, about 27,000 students attend the university each year.
Although chemistry here is barely more than a half-century old, "chemistry at UWI is a good illustration of science taking firm root in developing countries," argues Ishenkumba A. Kahwa, head of UWI Mona's chemistry department. Although the department's original faculty members were largely foreigners, "these early chemists trained a new generation of West Indian chemists, many of whom went on to teach and research at UWI," he notes.
Thanks to the Caribbean's rich collection of endemic flora and fauna, natural products research blossomed early on. Today, the university retains its traditional strength in natural products chemistry. But its three chemistry departments--of which UWI Mona is by far the largest--are also home to researchers who are making improved industrial catalysts, creating Web-based chemical tools, and studying organic-coated metal surfaces.
Many of these chemists have turned to such projects because of their potential to attract funding outside of the Caribbean, where economic factors make funding for science and technology scarce. But such a shift in priorities concerns some who argue that the taxpayer-funded university should devote its energies to addressing the region's scientific and technology needs.
"As scientists, our focus must not be defined by the developed world," argues Ronald E. Young, a neurophysiologist and the dean of UWI Mona's faculty of pure and applied sciences. He likens the challenge of defining the university's scientific priorities to those once faced by the Jamaican music industry. "The music industry in Jamaica was not doing well when we were imitating American artists," he says. "It took off when we sang about our own culture and our own surroundings."
As testament to the benefits of such a research agenda, Young points to UWI chemists' long tradition of investigating the Caribbean's rich collection of flora and fauna, both on land and on sea.
The university's first chemistry faculty member, natural products chemist and New Zealand native Cedric Hassall, started this tradition by studying the ripening of ackee, Jamaica's national fruit. Ackee--the yellow pulp of which is often combined with codfish and eaten for breakfast--is widely popular among Jamaicans but can cause vomiting and even death if eaten before it's ripe. Hassall traced the cause of this sickness to a toxin in the unripe fruit. This toxin, which he dubbed hypoglycin A, is an amino acid that triggers dramatic lowering of blood sugar levels by inhibiting enzymes responsible for glucose synthesis. Hassall showed that hypoglycin A is degraded by sunlight, causing levels of the toxin to drop as the ackee ripens.
The tradition Hassall started is still going strong. Among other successes, UWI Mona natural products chemist Paul B. Reese recently teamed up with colleagues in the life sciences department to isolate a compound from a local medicinal plant that inhibits a widespread intestinal parasite.
UWI's researchers have a responsibility to help solve local problems, Young says. Donna A. Minott, a lecturer in the chemistry department at UWI Mona, is working to track hypoglycin A production and reduction in different varieties of ackee fruit. She hopes the work will lead to the development of safer ackee products that can be marketed in Jamaica as well as overseas.
Minott is also using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry to compare the chemical fingerprint of coffee grown in Jamaica's Blue Mountains to that grown elsewhere. Local coffee growers could use the technique to protect their highly valued brand, she suggests.
Other UWI chemists are devoting their energies to the region's environmental concerns. "Because nearly all of the islands depend heavily on tourism, preserving our environment is of primary importance," Young points out.
With this in mind, UWI Mona chemist Willard R. Pinnock is developing inexpensive and easy-to-operate monitors that can be used to track long-term trends in atmospheric NO2, SO2, ozone, and carbon monoxide levels in Jamaica. UWI St. Augustine chemist Denise Beckles is working to monitor greenhouse gases in Trinidad, which is one of the most industrialized nations in the region, thanks to its oil and natural gas reserves. She's also set up dust monitors on Trinidad's east coast beaches in hopes of detecting how much metal-rich dust reaches the island from the Sahara Desert.?
UWI Mona chemist Tara P. Dasgupta is tracing the fate of agricultural pesticides in the Caribbean environment. From 2000 to 2001, 2.8 million kg of pesticides was used in Jamaica alone, he says. With the data he's amassed on the degradation of commonly used pesticides, Dasgupta hopes to help the region's farmers optimize pesticide use and minimize possible environmental and health hazards.
But funding is tight at UWI. Last year, the system's member countries earmarked less than $3 million U.S. dollars for research, and only a fraction of that went to chemical research. Many chemistry faculty members operate on shoestring budgets of only several thousand dollars a year.
At the same time, external funding is hard to come by. There's no equivalent to the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. And the still-developing economies of these countries limit opportunities in the private sector.
With these funding challenges in mind, UWI Mona's Kahwa suggests that Caribbean scientists should target global problems that might attract funding from sources in the developed world. Kahwa points to the Web-based chemistry tool developed by UWI Mona chemist Robert J. Lancashire as an example. Lancashire's interactive tool--which has been licensed by San Leandro, Calif.-based Molecular Design Ltd. for use in the company's popular CHIME plug-in--allows users to view spectroscopic data on the Web.
Kahwa also singles out the work of theoretician Willem H. Mulder of UWI Mona, who is exploring the behavior of metal surfaces coated with oxidizable organic films. And Sean McDowell, a theoretical chemist at UWI Cave Hill, is studying the vibrational properties of unusual rare-gas compounds such as HArCl.
Dasgupta is investigating the role of nitric oxide in glucose metabolism. And Kahwa himself has attracted international funding to explore the behavior of clusters of rare-earth atoms. He's assembled and structurally characterized a variety of such rare-earth aggregates and shown that they have novel light-emission properties. His group is now exploring their potential use in biomedical imaging, industrial catalysis, and light-based computers.
THANKS TO Trinidad's vibrant petrochemical industry--which is producing an increasing amount of the U.S.'s methanol, ammonia, and urea as well as liquefied natural gas--St. Augustine's chemistry faculty have greater access to research funds from private industry.
UWI St. Augustine physical chemist Lebert H. Grierson, who has received industrial support to study cement hydration and improve petroleum separations, says that economic factors in Trinidad have driven both locally owned and multinational companies there to look to the universities for more than just employees. "They've discovered that we can provide research answers locally," he says.
For instance, a multinational petrochemical outfit has funded UWI St. Augustine organometallic chemist Andrew J. M. Caffyn's efforts to synthesize perfluoroalkylphosphine ligands. Metal complexes of these ligands may prove to be useful catalysts for converting methane to methanol and for producing acetic acid from methanol, Caffyn says.
ANOTHER CHALLENGE facing UWI chemists is access to top-notch, costly instrumentation. "I don't think we are limited by ideas here at UWI," Grierson says. "We're limited by infrastructure."
Recently, however, the university has made a concerted push to make itself--and its faculty--more independent. With a $56 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, the university has been actively recruiting new faculty, making much-needed instrument upgrades, and improving infrastructure and training. As part of this push, the chemistry department at UWI Mona recently acquired a slew of new instruments, most notably a 500-MHz NMR spectrometer and an X-ray diffractometer. UWI St. Augustine also recently purchased a 400-MHz NMR, while its sister campus in Barbados just obtained a 300-MHz instrument.
Despite these improvements, many UWI chemists remain dependent on overseas collaborators for key help, including mass spectrometry services, culturing of microorganisms, and literature searches. But despite the obvious benefits, intercampus collaboration remains rare.
"There is little staff contact between UWI's campuses," admits Anderson R. Maxwell, who heads up UWI St. Augustine's chemistry department. The reason for the gulf may be distance--Trinidad and Jamaica lie some 1,100 miles apart--but cultural and social differences between the island nations likely play a role, too.
The exception, Maxwell says, is the biennial Mona Symposium, which has been bringing together natural products and medicinal chemists from across the Caribbean and around the world for more than four decades. He also points out that there is now widespread consensus to increase collaboration between the chemistry departments at the three UWI campuses. In fact, during the past few months, he and the other department heads have been discussing how the departments could share teaching resources and equipment. "We need to be viewing ourselves as one strong unit rather than three weaker individual departments," he says.
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