WATCH: Jamaica’s top young scientist breaking ground in development of sensors
In November of last year, Dr Peter Nelson was recognised as the top young scientist in Jamaica by the Scientific Research Council (SRC), the latest landmark achievement by the 34-year-old St Thomas native who overcame adversity to become one of the island’s most promising chemists.
Nelson, a senior lecturer and researcher of the Chemistry Department at the University of the West Indies (UWI), earned the SRC Young Scientist/Technologist Award 2022 for his work in developing sensors for metal ions in the human body.
The invention enhances diagnostic testing as it is able to detect minute traces of heavy metals such as copper and lead, which current analytical testing methods are unable to do, and could have positive implications on the early detection and treatment of Wilson’s disease and other cognitive disorders, according to the SRC.
“The SRC Young Scientist/Technologist award is an important recognition programme geared towards highlighting and supporting early career scientists. It can be seen as a launch pad into the next stage of impact of their work,” Dr Charah Watson, SRC’s Executive Director, told OBSERVER ONLINE.
“Dr Nelson’s work in developing diagnostic and analytical sensors to detect metals in biological and physical samples is a potential major breakthrough in developing high impact scientific innovations in Jamaica,” she added.
Nelson said the recognition was “quite exciting” and said that he was “very happy” to have received the honour.
“It’s very good to get recognition from your peers. It tells me that I am doing something right, that is useful. It’s also encouraging because it tells me to do more work which can help the ‘regular man’,” he told OBSERVER ONLINE.
Nelson’s desire to impact lives through science stretches back to when he was a child growing up in a farming family in Hampton Court, St Thomas.
“I have always wanted to be a scientist, from about three or four years old. Of course, at that time, I would not have known that there were different types of science, I just thought that they were all called scientists and I knew that they figured out stuff. I wanted to figure out stuff too,” he said.
His love for science grew while he attended St Thomas Technical High School where he focused on agriculture and electrical electronics technology.
“I had some teachers there who were very encouraging, especially my agriculture teachers who were actual farmers. One of my main agriculture teachers, Mr Patrick Walker was actually the (former) farming supervisor at the Eastern Banana complex,” Nelson recounted. “So, I was being taught by a practitioner, and not just a teacher. He was very good in imparting knowledge and encouraging me in science and agriculture.”
After matriculating to the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE), Nelson narrowed his focus to the natural sciences – joking that he didn’t enjoy the idea of waking up as early as 3am for the agriculture programme – and pursued an associate degree in chemistry and biology.
However, coming from a single-mother low-income household, Nelson struggled to pay for his education and sought assistance from the then Member of Parliament for St Thomas Eastern, Dr Fenton Ferguson.
“Finding $78,000 (a year) was tough. I got help from Member of Parliament Dr Fenton Ferguson to pay for school. He never asked ‘who you voting for?’, he just gave, and I have to give him thanks for that,” Nelson said.
After attaining his associate degree in two years, Nelson decided to narrow his focus further and pursue a bachelor’s of science in chemistry at UWI.
“I was particularly interested in chemistry because, of all the sciences, this is the one that can create something from scratch- medicine, paint etc. I loved biology and physics too, but the chemist could actually make medication, drugs that can help people,” he said.
That pursuit was also tough financially, Nelson admitted, but he said by that time his mother had secured a job in Sint Maarten and was able to send money to help pay the tuition.
After completing his bachelor’s at age 21, Nelson saw the opportunity to get into the graduate programme to do his master’s in chemistry and, based on his performance, upgrade it to a doctorate.
The only drawback was that, once again, he faced a daunting financial challenge to pay for his education. However, he found a way to circumvent it.
“They said if you go into the research programme, where you are basically a researcher, your school fee would be waived,” Nelson recalled.
So, he worked under the supervision of the late Professor Henry Ellis as a research student for three-and-a-half years – with his focus on designing a new type of crystal liquid that would be cheaper to produce and more environmentally friendly – and was able to upgrade to the PhD programme. In 2014, at the age of 25, Nelson became the youngest-ever PhD graduate from UWI, earning a doctorate in chemistry.
Later that year, to add to his list of achievements, Nelson took up one of five post-doctoral fellowships at Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, having been selected from 280 applicants from around the world for the position.
After two years in Rehovot under the supervision of world-renowned chemist Jacob Sajiv, Nelson decided to return to Jamaica despite several job offers overseas.
“I found that UWI had a job opening, got it and decided to come back to UWI and start my own research group,” he said. “When I arrived back in Jamaica, I was very interested in developing stuff that are useful, where the regular man on the street can relate.”
This desire spawned his work into developing sensors which has garnered not just local, but international recognition. In March of last year, his LifeSavers Wipes in partnership with media practitioner and developmental socialist Georgia Crawford Williams and fellow scientist Shannon DaCosta won the top prize in global innovations of 2019-2021 at the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) in Miami, United States.
The product was designed to indicate to users if there are any irregularities in their urine as it changes in colour if it comes in contact with abnormal levels of glucose in the urine, thus indicating the need for medical attention.
“I was approached by Georgia Crawford with the idea for a wipe that is functional… that’s how I invented that,” Nelson said.
Having copped the prestigious award, the trio are now seeking strategic partners to help transform the product into a global brand.
Nelson’s work promises to produce other ground-breaking products, particularly the lead-sensing electrodes and copper colorimetric sensors developed by his research group. The main aim, Nelson reiterates, is to impact the lives of the masses.
“We do a lot of stuff in science but the regular man on the street doesn’t care because it’s so highly theoretical that he can’t see the application. That’s why I got into sensors,” Nelson told OBSERVER ONLINE.
For SRC’s Watson, Nelson’s work could have the wide-reaching impact of inspiring young Jamaicans into pursuing science.
“His (young scientist) win and work is the new-age stimulation and motivation that our students need at this time to inspire them to participate in the science as they too can potentially change lives and the world,” she said.