Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Hazardous Outreach

By Stephen Luntz

Bob Muir is taking chemistry to the public but says safety regulations prevent him from doing the sorts of things he would really like.

Chemistry is not the easiest field of science to promote. It lacks zoology’s cute animals, and astronomy’s stunning photographs and mindblowing scale. Science show demonstrations are usually mostly physics. However, Dr Bob Muir says Western Australia’s ChemCentre, an analytical chemistry facility, has “a fantastic outreach program” so when he was offered the chance to talk to school students he jumped at it.

One aspect of this outreach is the Baylis Lecture series held at Charles Darwin University. Muir titled his talk, to be sung to the famous tune from Mary Poppins, “Super toxic chemicals, clan labs and halitosis”. Muir says he is not allowed to blow things up on stage, making him a “slave to Powerpoint”, but he gets volunteers up from the audience, dresses them in hazard suits and challenges them to get a harmless white powder from an envelope to a sample jar.

When a UV light is switched on it becomes clear that the powder has got everywhere, demonstrating the challenges for forensics teams or those dealing with potentially hazardous substances.

“The teachers in Darwin were very, very appreciative,” Muir says of his mix of serious science and demonstrations. The gory photographs of the results of chemical weapons “get people thinking”. He does, however, suspect that much of the audience spent half the talk getting used to his thick Glaswegian accent.

Muir also runs annual talks at science camps for high school students. “I’m worried if we don’t get them early they will go into finance instead,” he says. He sees his enthusiasm and his own interesting career as a “chance to engage”.

Muir says his own interest in science started early. Although his parents had no tertiary education, his father loved to watch programs about science. “At the age of nine or ten I read a lot of things and then I had a fantastic science teacher. I decided the next best thing after playing soccer for Glasgow Celtic was to be a scientist,” Muir says. “It never made sense to do anything else.”

Muir’s grandmother bought him chemistry and electronics sets, and through his teenage years physics and chemistry competed for his attention. “I also liked biology, but didn’t see maths as a science.”

At Paisley University Muir majored in molecular biochemistry and chemistry, having decided that “I wasn’t going to be a doctor but I did want to help people”. Chemistry seemed to offer a more direct path than physics through medical applications or bioinfomatics.

Despite all this Muir admits he wasn’t the most enthusiastic student. “Much as I loved science, I loved heavy metal more. He went to lectures so seldom he felt awkward when he did attend.

Nevertheless Muir made it into Honours, and while he was not able to secure a PhD elsewhere he impressed his supervisor enough to be offered a spot at Paisley. “I completed my whole education under the miserable Paisley rain,” he mourns. “Still at least it does encourage you to spend more time inside in the lab.”

A doctorate in hand, Muir secured a position in relatively sunny England with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. DSTL operates an exchange program with Australia’s equivalent, the DSTO, and Muir campaigned for a transfer to some real sunlight.

Muir investigated disease diagnosis, trying to predict which patients were at risk of getting sepsis. “The data analysis was horrendous but we made a model that predicted 5–6 days before symptoms became visible so there was plenty of time to intervene. It has since been refined and become very useful in preventing infections of wounds.”

For the DSTL Muir investigated the detection of exceptionally rare trace chemicals, including chemical weapons precursors. At DSTO Muir “created held detectors for chemical warfare agents and other hazards. We helped gain much more of an idea of what the detectors can and cannot do – mostly applied work, not blue sky.”

Now at the ChemCentre Muir focuses on “various aspects of the detection of extremely toxic industrial chemicals, particularly in Hazmat circumstances”. The challenge is to “work out what compounds are causing the concerns and what to do.”

A “slightly tangential” project is a collaboration with the Lung Institute of Western Australia to consider the connection of volatile organic compounds and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). “We take samples from patients that have been diagnosed with COPD and compare them with a healthy population.” The differences, Muir says, are “hard to detect” but he believes he has found evidence of certain compounds getting into the lungs and contributing to ill health.