How one student took her research to the next level
Most people don’t take cow-dewormer for fun.
But levamisole, commonly used to rid livestock of parasites, was just one of the substances a forensic science student identified while analysing samples of narcotics confiscated at a festival.
Mia Abbot’s work was carried out while she was on placement with Staffordshire Police as part of her degree at Staffordshire University. By loaning specialist equipment from Specac, she was able to take her research further, gaining publicity and a boost for her career.
"No-one knows what they're getting into"
During Mia’s first year at university, headlines were made when a number of young people died after taking substances such as mephedrone (which was legal at the time) including one person at music festival Kendall Calling.
“Because I'm from Cumbria, that news really hit home,” says Mia. “I was also fascinated by these drugs because there was no legislation surrounding them at the time, and no one really knows quite what they're getting when they buy them.”
Mia was given the opportunity to develop her interest in the topic when she secured a placement with Staffordshire Police in the summer of 2016. She was invited to research mephedrone, which lacked a reliable in-the-field test, and took on a project to develop a test that the police could use to quickly check whether a drug they'd seized was mephedrone.
For her research, Mia was provided with several drug samples from the amnesty box at V Festival. “I used the university's Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) along with the Specac Quest ATR, an attenuated total reflectance accessory, which allowed for confirmatory identification of the samples by subjecting them to a beam of infrared light,” she says. “The IR energy causes the chemical bonds in the samples to vibrate and then they can be identified based on the characteristic frequency of the vibration.”
“I didn’t find any mephedrone at all”
What Mia discovered was perhaps not what she had expected. “Probably the most surprising thing was that out of 12 samples, I didn't find any mephedrone at all,” she says. What she did find was plenty of cocaine and ketamine, as well as some more unusual additives.
“I found that the drugs contained various cutting agents, including a cow dewormer called levamisole, and lidocaine, which is an anaesthetic used by dentists,” she says. “One of the cocaine samples also contained benzocaine – or really, I should say it was the other way around, because there was more benzocaine than cocaine!”
The next phase of Mia’s research was to develop a multi-reagent presumptive testing method, using reagents that would change colour when coming into contact with mephedrone. A presumptive test is a quick way of establishing either that a sample is definitely not the target substance (in this case mephedrone) or that it probably is – police would then need a further confirmatory testing method, such as FTIR-ATR, to prove that the sample is indeed mephedrone.
Mia was also given a sample of 100% pure mephedrone. Because cocaine and mephedrone are chemically similar, she was able to get a good indication of whether her presumptive test could reliably differentiate between the two. “I'd still like to do further research to see if the test works with impure mephedrone samples,” she says.
“I feel very lucky”
Mia says that the loan of Specac's Quest ATR made her research quicker and more convenient, as the accessory is more modern and smaller than those available at her university. She also used another method called GC-MS (Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry), but as she explains, this method wasn't as easy. “The sample has to be prepared for GC-MS, so the FTIR-ATR analysis was much quicker. Specac's equipment also allowed me to get the sample back intact after the testing, so I could re-use it.”
The research Mia carried out during her placement has provided a great boost for her visibility within an industry where she wants to build a career. “Using the ATR has been great for getting the word out about my research,” says Mia. “The people at Specac made a video about it, and Select Science have also published an article about me. They normally interview people doing PhDs or professional research, so it was amazing for me to be featured as an undergraduate. It's great for my career and an opportunity that other students on my course haven't had, so I feel very lucky.
“I spoke about the work at GradEX, the university's end of year graduate conference, and I ended up talking with the deputy mayor of Stoke, who was really impressed that I'd been able to do this. It's great that other people are interested in my research, and it's given me lots of opportunities as well as confidence.”
Specac, the company that provided specialist equipment for Mia to use, loans equipment like the FTIR-ATR Quest and FTIR-transmission Pearl to science students as part of a scheme that also helps the students gain publicity for their research and their university via promotional videos and interviews. “We want to champion science in education by giving students the chance to show what they are capable of on a commercial level,” says Michael Lever, digital marketing manager at Specac. “Students beef up their CVs by taking part in our Education Business Partnership and we can demonstrate the important placement of our equipment in education settings.”