Combating counterfeit products using spectroscopy, organic chemistry and computational resources

David Izuogu

In our last inspiring scientists blog, Dr. Sam Virtue, from the Department of Clinical Biochemistry Metabolic Research Laboratories, talked about why he became a scientist and described his work investigating why obesity causes diabetes. In the fourth piece of this series, David Izuogu tells us about the skills needed to become a scientist and his exciting work combating counterfeit products.

At every point in my career, I have always asked myself, what problem can I solve with what I am doing?

My decision to study chemistry at university stemmed from my passion to create a product that could become the solution to one of the global challenges facing humanity today. We all have a passion to change in the world around us. Mine was to design drugs that could help eradicate contagious diseases in my country, Nigeria. Things have changed for the better, but it was a starting point to what I have become today.

The science we do at A Level is no different from what a university student would do. The only difference is the level of reasoning, theory and practice. University prepares you to use your cognitive and intuitive mind to search for answers, solve problems facing humanity and identify ways we could make better use of the things around us. The world is changing, and so are the tools necessary to explore it. The computer is becoming faster and smarter, and science is deploying tools not only to understand the more profound meaning of the world around us, but to explore it for the benefit of humankind.

To contribute to this, I ventured into research in nanoscience. Using my A Level electrochemistry knowledge to study nano-holes, I fabricated on silicon wafers during my undergraduate in Japan. This made me develop an interest in the field of nanoscience and consequently, I went to do a masters in Nanoscience of Advance metal complexes.

Science is an act of never-ending enquiry. One finding leads to another series of enquiries, not only to validate previous findings, but to divulge the limits of the unknown. Are you confused about what branch of science you would like to specialise in? You are not alone; we all feel the same at some point in our career. The good news is that with determination and focus you will eventually be able to make a decision.

I decided to move from an experimental investigation of this critical field to a computational study. Writing computer codes, the ability to use different scientific software, practical synthetic skills, analytical skills and critical thinking have now become indispensable tools in chemistry. You can imagine how far chemistry has come, from traditional chemistry to such sophisticated nature as we are dealing with today.

A Level chemistry would help you on your journey to become an independent researcher capable of developing new theories and findings. For example, every compound a chemist synthesises in the laboratory must be characterised. Among other characterisation techniques, I have used UV-Vis, FT-IR, elemental analysis and mass spectrometry to identify compounds, which are all taught at A Level chemistry. You can see how fundamental A Level science could help you in your future career in chemistry. Studying a science-based course at university is an opportunity to explore the world, make mistakes you can learn from and break glass ceilings.

My current research addresses two problems. One of which is building molecular designs that would guarantee high-performing single-molecule magnet (SMM). The principles I apply in my research are basically the same as those studied at A Level with a bit more complexity.

David Izuogu in the lab

The second problem I am addressing with chemistry involves a technology (IsoTagiT) which I use with a team of industrial partners. Our aim is to combat counterfeit goods across industries like fashion, semiconductors and pharmaceuticals.

The exciting thing is that our technology is utilising the knowledge of organic chemistry, which I first learnt in secondary school and then in my undergraduate degree. By combining computational resources, spectroscopy and synthesis of some organic chemistry, we have designed a tamper-proof tag that could be the ultimate anticounterfeit agent. Our technology recently won the 2019/2020 Trinity Bradfield Award.

Counterfeit goods pose substantial economic, health and life concerns. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 in 10 medical products in developing countries are counterfeits, contributing to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. We need an authentication process that gives power back to end-users who will be able to verify independently that the goods they are buying are not fake, even before they pay for it. This is the world that IsoTagiT is offering us through our technology. We cannot afford to use counterfeit components to manufacture automatic systems that will put lives in grave danger should any component malfunction.

I once lost a friend in Nigeria, to a motorbike accident caused by a component failure that he had fixed at a mechanic’s workshop the same afternoon he died. We later found that one of components used to fix the bike during repairs was fake, leading to its failure and the avoidable death of my friend. Today, I am using basic science to make sure that no one in the world is faced with the challenges of losing their loved ones to counterfeit products of any kind.

Science recreates nature, science destroys nature, but humankind must pick sides. I have chosen to recreate nature because I believe in alternatives that science provides. You can do the same if you love science. What you can do might not be clear now, but only time will tell. I am a computational chemist, my research is interdisciplinary, and I am ambitious, dynamic and passionate about science and what we can do with it.

If you have enjoyed this latest inspiring scientists blog and haven’t read others in the series, go back to the start and watch Taylor Uekert turn plastic waste into fuel with sunlight!


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