Research Lives: From hospitality to toxicology

Kris O’Dowd, PhD researcher at Atlantic Technological University in Sligo

You have had an interesting career path, tell us more.

I studied geology at Trinity College Dublin back in the mid-2000s, then I worked in bars and restaurants in London for about 10 years. After that I saw that IT Sligo – as it was then – did an undergraduate course in forensics. So I signed up as a mature student.

I enjoyed the final-year research project, so I applied to do a PhD in chemistry with Dr Suresh Pillai here in what is now Atlantic Technological University (ATU). I really enjoy being back in Sligo. I grew up here as a kid before we moved to Dublin, and I can see my dad’s family’s house from the lab.

What’s the PhD about?


I’m working on a big Horizon-2020 project called Paniwater to develop technologies for providing safe drinking water in rural India. In the section I am working on, the idea is to develop see-through plastic jerrycans, like the type you might use to carry fuel, but these are transparent.

These 10-litre containers can be filled with water, then left out in the sun and the UV rays disinfect the water over time. It’s known as solar disinfection or Sodis, and Prof Kevin McGuigan at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland is the project expert on the process.

What’s your role?

I have been looking at the chemical and safety profile of the water over time when the filled jerrycan is left out in the sun. For this project we have been using polypropylene as the transparent material for the jerrycans.

The plastic containers are filled at one of the partner sites in Spain and then they are exposed to the sun’s rays for as long as nine months. I tested samples of the water at different timepoints, by measuring the effects on cells growing in the lab, to see if there is any toxicity.

You are near the end of the project now, what have you found?

The toxicity tests on the water showed a tolerable safety profile, but there’s another issue. The sun’s rays cause the polypropylene to become too brittle and it breaks down over time. And when we added stabilisers into the plastic to extend its lifetime, that decreased the ability of the sun’s UV-rays to kill the microbes in the water inside the container. It’s important to test these approaches, because without the work we have been doing, it might have just been assumed that polypropylene would be suitable.

What would you like people to know more about the work that you do?

That these big projects involve a lot of different people working together, often in different parts of the world. The Paniwater consortium has 18 partner institutions in India and Europe and involves scientists, social scientists, public health experts and entrepreneurs.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your PhD?

Covid-19. I was meant to spend some time working in rural India, but I only got to India for a week, then the pandemic lockdowns started and I needed to get home.

You recently won the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland Postgrad Award for 2023. What are your plans for the future?

I would like to stay in academia. I’ll be writing up my doctoral thesis soon, then I would like to work as a postdoc and ultimately get a lecturing job.

And what do you like to do in your spare time?

Given my background in hospitality, I really enjoy going out to restaurants. I love travelling too, and research lends itself to that, because you can tie it in with conferences. Earlier this year I went to a conference in South Korea, then I took a holiday to stay on and explore.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation