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A day in the life

A day in the life

We talk to Dr Martin Danaher, Principal Research Officer and Head of the Residue Analysis Laboratory at Teagasc, about the challenges and responsibilities of his role

Hailing from the ‘Golden Vale’ – west Limerick – Dr Martin Danaher grew up on a dairy farm. From a young age, he had an interest in science and agriculture; little wonder then that he ended up working for the State agency providing research, advisory and education in agriculture and food. “I have a degree in industrial chemistry from University of Limerick, but I have been working mainly in the area of analytical chemistry, in laboratory-based analysis.”

He has spent most of his career with Teagasc, beginning with his PhD in 1998, moving on to work as a contract research officer on a safefood-funded research project, and then taking up a permanent position in the food safety department in 2002. For the last 20 years he has worked as a Research Officer, a role that involves overseeing research projects, applying for funding, and developing the research group. In 2008, he also took over as Head of Laboratory.

“We have technicians, technologists and research officers. Technicians have degrees, technologists are PhD students, and our Research Officers are working on research projects and development methods in our lab.”

The laboratory is an accredited lab, responsible for veterinary drug residue analysis in food, specifically to comply with EU legislation. “We analyse samples taken from official food inspections – roughly 2,500 samples a year. We have approximately 15 staff in the lab at the moment; it varies depending on the research and funding.” Typically, he says, most staff are PhD students with a background in analytical chemistry or food chemistry and are registered with universities in Ireland. “We have technicians, technologists and research officers. Technicians have degrees, technologists are PhD students, and our Research Officers are working on research projects and development methods in our lab.” Martin manages both the facilities and the projects, as well as dealing with stakeholders and clients around the ongoing research work at the lab. “In terms of facilities and management, it involves managing refurbishments and any work in the lab with our building officers. I also manage procurement and purchasing of equipment, and health and safety, which is a big challenge as there are a lot of requirements in this area and it has become a lot more detailed.”

New technology has led to the implementation of more extensive methods, making the lab work more complex, Martin explains. “We have a lot of new equipment in the lab for extracting samples and a lot of instrumentation that is used to measure residues in food. There have been a lot of improvements in terms of efficiencies regarding sample extractions. The impact of this doesn’t mean we are doing less work; instead, we are doing more samples in a shorter period of time. One of the key technologies inside the lab is the QuEChERS sample preparation protocol and we have been applying that technology since 2008 for our analysis, which has been a game changer. In addition, we have automated our systems by using vibrational shaking, which has been in operation for the past five years, and this has increased throughput in the lab. The newer instruments are a lot more sensitive and allow us to simplify the analysis so we can analyse more dilute samples, meaning that it streamlines the sample preparation protocols.”

“Change in legislation is also constantly driving our work; limits for food have been reduced so we need to have more sensitive methods for analysis, and this is coming from the EU. Industry has become more interested and involved in food safety, particularly in the dairy sector in Ireland. Today, there is far more collaboration with industry.”

What is driving progress in the field of work Martin oversees? “There are a lot more residues that have been identified in recent years in our business,” he explains. “Change in legislation is also constantly driving our work; limits for food have been reduced so we need to have more sensitive methods for analysis, and this is coming from the EU. Industry has become more interested and involved in food safety, particularly in the dairy sector in Ireland. Today, there is far more collaboration with industry.”

Commenting on current work in progress, Martin notes that the biggest area of focus for the last few years is chlorine residues in dairy and horticulture products. He and his team have worked intensely on this subject, setting up methods and analysing individual samples. “We work closely with industry, and we have made huge improvements in reducing these residues particularly in the dairy sector.”

Concluding, Martin highlights what he enjoys most about his role: “The primary enjoyment of it for me is developing new methods and the application of these methods, particularly when the method gets certified; that is the highlight of my work. In terms of staff, it is great to see people getting their PhD and moving on to bigger and better things. A lot of our researchers have gone on to hold some very senior positions in industry and other labs.”

 


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