SETU scientist develops agritech to green the national dairy herd

9 Jan 2024

Image: Jennifer Drohan

According to molecular biologist Jennifer Drohan, molecular medicine will be as game-changing as AI for the future of human and animal healthcare.

With a deep passion for molecular medicine, PhD researcher Jennifer Drohan is “wholly committed to a future in research”.

“I’m building my skillset for that career,” she said. “The ultimate goal would be to apply this skillset to a range of areas relating to animal health with the possibility of moving toward human health.”

Drohan completed a BSc is molecular biology at South East Technological University (SETU). During her undergraduate studies, she realised she wanted to continue with her research and undertook a PhD in experimental molecular communication.

She is part of the Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre (PMBRC) and the Walton Institute, and her PhD is funded by the VistaMilk SFI Research Centre.

Tell us about your current research.

My research involves ‘programming’ E coli bacteria (commonly found in the gut of healthy, warm-blooded creatures) to receive and send information from inside the body of an animal.

The programmed bacteria are sent on their journey of discovery inside an ingestible capsule which allows them to sample the environment outside, and if they encounter what they’re looking for (ie signs of deficiencies or markers of disease), they can signal their discoveries. The process is less invasive than current methods of health screening/monitoring and therefore has animal welfare benefits.

The work we’re doing will provide farmers with a non-invasive, greener solution to monitoring cattle health, which in turn will improve the efficiency and environmental sustainability of the Irish national herd.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Animal-based food production is firmly in the spotlight of climate change and environmental imperatives and changes need to be made to improve environmental performance. Much of the change will be led by advances in tech.

For example, understanding how bacteria communicate delivers knowledge that might be used in the creation of bacteria-based measurement sensors and computing devices for the health and smart agriculture sectors.

There are, of course, further possibilities presented by the molecular communication potential of programmed bacteria – for example in the wider human health sector. This will require general acceptance of a new concept and an economic case for it and it could be one or two decades away.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I always had an interest in science, but I think I realised that I wanted to pursue science as a career when I was in transition year at school. I had completed several weeks of work experience in microbiology and chemistry labs and the idea of working in a lab fascinated me. However, the idea of research didn’t really plant itself until I was here at SETU studying for my degree. In my third and fourth years, I undertook research projects and became slightly hooked on the work – I wanted to do more.

What interested me most was emerging tech in molecular medicine – in large part because this is the future, this is all about what’s to come and how it will affect our health and therefore our lives. There’s a huge focus on AI right now – how it will continue to change people’s lives and what it will mean for us in the future.

Molecular medicine is the same – just, perhaps, not quite as visible or immediate in the public eye!

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

A common challenge faced by researchers in general is the inherent time constraints associated with their work. The very nature of research demands patience and a considerable investment of time to produce high-quality, robust scientific data.

I think, however, that this pressure is intensified in newly emerging fields such as molecular communication, where the competition to be the first to publish adds an extra layer of urgency to an already time-sensitive process. The merging of two existing fields of research to explore the possibilities of another is a process which requires strategic planning, collaboration and a commitment to maintaining patience to ensure the best quality research is produced.

Do you think public engagement with science and data has changed in recent years?

Yes, undoubtedly. The pandemic meant that people were exposed to information, data and terminology that, otherwise, they’d never have come across and that was enlightening. You had people discussing things they’d never have discussed before and using the information to draw conclusions about global health events with a scientific aspect. It has certainly made people think.

It is, of course, something of a double-edged sword in that – thanks to the internet and social media – there’s never been so much information freely available. They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and it seems that a lot of knowledge can also be a dangerous thing. It seems that no matter what your point of view, your opinion or your suspicion, you’ll always find some science or data to back it up.

The world is engaging with science and data, but – obviously – there can be no control over how the information is used.

How do you encourage engagement with your work?

Through the VistaMilk SFI Research Centre, I regularly participate in science fairs and other events, bringing my research to an audience outside of agri-trade and academia. I’ve also done some media work and participated in podcast recordings.

It’s easy, as a research scientist, to focus on your project and to look inward rather than outward. I will admit to not being the most comfortable when it comes to showcasing my work to an external audience!

That being said, of course, when you do put your work on display and you see people engaging with it, it is tremendously satisfying. In a field like mine, where I’m dealing with the future, perhaps, of human health, a new area that’s yet to be explored and utilised, then it’s great to be shaping the audience’s views by giving them a chance to see and hear about what’s coming down the line.

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