Dr Phylicia Ricketts: Pioneering research on mercury exposure
Science and Technology Minister Daryl Vaz presents a plaque to S&T XXtrordineers honouree Dr Phylicia Ricketts at the launch of the recognition programme on July 14.

Dr Phylicia Ricketts, lecturer in the faculty of Science and Technology, Physics, at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona, was always determined to make her mark in physics, an area of science that is still male dominated.

Male dominance remains in this area despite the growing number of women involved in the sciences.

For Ricketts, it is important that more women get involved in physics so they can specifically tackle issues that are of interest to women. This, she said, was important since females make up roughly half the world’s population.

Ricketts became fascinated with physics while she was a student at the all-girl Immaculate Conception High School. After leaving high school she went on to complete a PhD at the UWI in Applied Physics with a specialisation in Medical Physics which involves linking concepts in physics to medicine. The UWI lecturer noted that the linkages are obvious and can be seen in MRs, CT scans, X-rays and ultrasounds. She explained that concepts in physics are applied to these different imaging modalities.

In explaining why she was so drawn to physics and why she was so intent on figuring out how things worked, Ricketts said: “I had an aunt that passed away from cancer. During the whole treatment process I was interested in the different types of treatments such as chemotherapy, X-rays, etc. That sparked my interest in nuclear physics".

That interest would see Ricketts assisting in the development of BSc and MSc nuclear science programmes at the UWI, Mona in 2020 to increase knowledge and competency in nuclear science applications in Jamaica. Her work is also regional as was evident in 2017 when she developed a fish consumption advisory for pregnant women in the Caribbean. Specifically, the advisory tells pregnant women how much mercury is in the fish they consume. A fish lover herself, her advisory points pregnant women to the fish with the least amount of mercury and the most nutrients that they can safely consume.

Speaking about the research that she was involved with that led to the creation of the advisory, Ricketts said: “Starting this research in Jamaica, I realised that this was worldwide; everyone is concerned about prenatal mercury exposure”.

Mercury is a heavy metal that is toxic to living organisms. Traces of mercury can be found in almost all fish and shellfish. The risk of mercury poisoning from fish consumption is generally low for most people but can pose a real danger to a developing fetus.

The health advisory that the UWI lecturer spearheaded considers the risk and benefits of fish consumption, offering pregnant women the information they need to choose fish with the least mercury and the highest nutrient value.

Additionally, Ricketts has collaborated with the Caribbean Regional Mercury Monitoring Network and the United Nations Environment Programme Global Mercury Partnership (UNEP). Her work with UNEP involves the coordination of activities and research to reduce mercury in the environment, upholding Jamaica’s obligation under the Minamata Convention on Mercury. The Convention is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury.

Significantly, Ricketts has also researched mercury exposure associated with the use of skin lightening products which is prevalent in Jamaica. This was done in collaboration with the Pan-American Health Organisation.

Of the products being used by persons to lighten their skin, Ricketts said: “We know it’s a problem. I’ve created a database of the mercury concentration in the different skin-lightening products. We don’t need to have mercury in these products”.

For persons who are “bleaching” their skin, the database with the mercury content of the different skin-lightening products can be found online.

Dr Ricketts has also done work looking at heavy metals in make-up. She continues to argue that more women are needed in physics because it deals with several issues that are unique to women and which men may not be bothered with paying too much attention to.

She said she intends to publish a comprehensive overview of human exposure to various inorganic and radioactive elements in the environment. So far, her work has generated useful baseline data for essential, toxic and radioactive elements in the environment.

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