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The elements of education

The elements of education

[photo of Matthias Hermann holding a glass of water]
Bernard Clark

There are many elements to Matthias Hermann’s educational journey so far. The German native is an inventor, a PhD student, and a teaching assistant in the Department of Chemistry. He’s also a part-time employee at the Queen’s University International Centre.

His journey starts, however, with a more basic element: cadmium.

Cadmium – chemical element Cd – is a silver-white metal that composes part of the earth’s crust. Typically, it is extracted when refiners are producing other, more valuable, metals such as copper or lead. And while it has practical uses, in a number of industrial applications, the toxic metal is also often found in water sources in many parts of the world. Even in places with strict regulations about safe levels in drinking water, cadmium can be absorbed by people in other ways, for instance, by eating cadmium-tainted seafood.

“When most people hear about heavy metals in their tuna or shrimp, they think about mercury,” says Mr. Hermann. “Cadmium and mercury are both very dangerous. The difference with cadmium poisoning is that cadmium has a longer half-life – it stays in the body for much longer. This gives it more time to build up in seafood as it works its way up the food chain.”

Cadmium exposure can cause damage to kidneys, lungs, and bones – you don’t want to ingest this stuff. But once it has dissolved into water, how can you deal with it if you don’t know it is there?

As part of his master’s research in the Department of Chemistry, Mr. Hermann developed a cost-effective, easy-to-use, and portable cadmium detector that connects to a smartphone. The detector uses a technology called microfluidics to prepare the sample. Looking at a droplet of liquid via the smartphone camera will reveal whether the droplet is yellow (safe) or purple, indicating the presence of cadmium.

Matthias Hermann's portable cadmium detector snaps onto a smartphone, allowing him to test the safety of water. Photo: Bernard Clark

The international element

It was a somewhat spontaneous decision that led him to Queen’s. A hallway chat with a professor at the Universität of Stuttgart, where he started his master’s degree, ended with Mr. Hermann becoming the first student enrolled in a unique dual master’s program and finding his way to Canada.

In 2014, Queen’s and Stuttgart signed an agreement to create a dual Master’s in Chemistry program. Students enrolling in the two-year program would complete one year in Germany and one in Ontario and would graduate with master’s degrees from the two institutions. In 2017, Matthew Hermann became the program’s first graduate.

But he initially didn’t see himself completing his PhD in Canada. His original plan was to go back to Europe.

“I decided to stay here because I liked the research I was doing, I really liked the group I’m working with, and I think Kingston is a nice city as a student,” he says. “After a few shorter stops in Australia and China, it is refreshing to have enough time to actually settle down and get some research done at another institution.

“I wanted a longer term abroad, exposure to a different academic and cultural environment, and a chance to improve my English. Through this program I got all of that – plus I graduated with two master’s degrees.

“Each of these trips has allowed me to experience different cultures, working environments, research group dynamics, and projects,” he adds. “I learned a lot about myself regarding how I handle being in non-familiar environments."

From safer water to faster hospital tests

Matthias Hermann’s cadmium detector costs about $10 to produce – a far cry from the $200,000-plus price tag for a scientific-grade mass spectrometer which, admittedly, has broader uses but is also not portable. Mr. Hermann’s invention was recently featured in the scientific journal Lab on a Chip.

Still, a device like this, which only detects one harmful metal, is a bit too niche to turn into a full-fledged commercial product. So, now that he has completed his master’s program, Matthias Hermann is working on his doctorate to expand the range of what can be detected using microfluidic-based devices.

He is now working to produce a version that law enforcement could use, for instance, to detect the presence of drugs in a person’s bloodstream or find a trace of drugs on someone’s finger. This technology would also prove useful in a hospital environment to analyze a patient’s blood. By coupling a microfluidic chip to an optical sensor, the viscosity, or thickness, of a liquid can be measured. Such a device can be used to measure the viscosity of blood, which can be linked to cardiovascular risk factors such as hypertension or cholesterol levels.

“The goal is to make mass spectrometry more accessible,” he says. “Mass spectrometers require extensive and time-consuming sample preparation to properly analyze them. By using our microfluidic devices, we can run more tests and reduce the amount of time spent waiting on sample preparation.”

The community element

Last year, through fellow grad students, Matthias Hermann heard about a unique Queen’s program that unites interdisciplinary teams of PhD candidates with local organizations. The students bring their knowledge, skills, and time to address a pressing strategic planning or research need.

In return, the students develop meaningful professional connections, gain valuable experiences for their portfolios, and receive the satisfaction of a job well done in support of a meaningful cause.

“I like that the PhD Community Initiative program allows you to leave the ‘Queen’s bubble,'” Mr. Hermann says. “During their studies, most students only interact with their fellow students, and specifically students in their own departments. It was great to connect with students in other disciplines and work with them on a community-focused project that is not directly associated with Queen’s.”

With teammates Patricia Ackah-Baidoo (Department of Political Studies) and Sazia Mahfuz (School of Computing), he worked with KEYS Job Centre, an organization that offers several community services, including programs for newcomers to Kingston. The trio helped KEYS to develop a program to understand the needs of refugees ages 17 to 25 who are moving to Kingston.

Adults moving to Kingston are expected to be able to help themselves. Children are expected to have adults to help them. But young adults arriving in a new country and community without any supports have specific challenges.

There were a lot of interesting projects but this one really spoke to me because of the potential impact,” he says. “Since I experienced so many different cultural backgrounds during my studies, and being here as an international student, I understand the importance of helping people feel welcome, find friends, and engage.

“I learned a lot working with my teammates. They each brought their own strengths, and,” he jokes, “I helped with the team’s chemistry!”

[cover image of the Queen's Alumni Review issue 3, 2019, showing art conservator Heidi Sobol with a painting by Rembrandt]