“There are more than 350,000 commercial chemicals in circulation and they, along with their manufacturing by-products, will undoubtedly end up in the environment. We need to know the impact of that before it happens.”
Awadhesh Jha has spent his entire professional career assessing the impacts of radiations and chemicals on humans and on the planet’s species. But, as can be evidenced from these words, he knows there is still much work to do in his chosen field.
It is impossible to expect one man, or even one team, to work through substances that occur in the environment in all probable combinations. However, Awadhesh knows that getting procedures and processes in place now could have a profoundly positive impact on the planet in decades to come.
Now Professor in Genetic Toxicology and Ecotoxicology at the University of Plymouth, you might say Awadhesh was always destined to have a career in academia.
His grandfather was an award winning teacher, father a Professor of Genetics and his elder brother is a recently retired Professor of Physics in India. So when the teenage Awadhesh was sat down and asked by his father what he wanted to do, the answer perhaps came as no surprise.
The subsequent decades have seen Awadhesh do far more than simply follow in some well-trodden family footsteps. In fact, he has carved a niche of his own to such an extent that any new projects looking to assess the impact of the nuclear industry on the marine environment tend to end up in his inbox.
However, other than as a tourist, the oceans were not on his radar when he began thinking about his academic studies at home in a land-locked northern India in the early 1980s.
“Throughout my childhood, I heard stories of academic research,” Awadhesh says. “My father’s PhD supervisor, Ray-Chadhuri, was a student of Hermann J Muller, who won a Nobel Prize for his work showing that radiation and environmental stresses could affect a species’ genetics. Muller’s Nobel lecture in 1946 was largely based on Ray-Chadhuri’s work. It inspired me and while there was no pressure to follow my father, it felt like a natural thing to do.”
On hearing his son’s career choice, Awadhesh’s father advised him to join the same university – Banaras Hindu University – where he did his PhD on fruit flies under Ray-Chadhuri. And, for a time, father taught son while Awadhesh studied in the same labs where his father had pursued his PhD and, perhaps even more bizarrely, lodged in the same room in Halls of Residence as his father had two decades previously.
Having finished his PhD, participating in an international collaborative programme sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), he stayed on at Banaras as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow for a year waiting for his viva voce examination and looking for opportunities across India. However, when no such jobs became immediately available, one of his PhD examiners – who was based at Leiden University in the Netherlands and was coordinator of the IAEA project in which he participated during his PhD – offered him a post-doctoral position.
“I had never considered moving abroad as I wanted to stay close to my family,” Awadhesh says. “But this meant I would be working in a small but prestigious department, so it felt too good an opportunity to turn down. It was very research intensive with motivated people from all over the world. It gave me a picture of science and culture that I would never have experienced at home.”
Coming to the Netherlands in turn led to other international job opportunities, one of which was at the Brixham Laboratory (now part of the University), then owned by ICI, which subsequently demerged in different companies including Zeneca. The work at Brixham was to focus on marine genotoxicology, rather than the human-focused research Awadhesh had conducted previously, but he snapped up the opportunity. Subsequently, Zeneca took the unique step of creating a position for him at the University, and he joined in 1996 as Zeneca Lecturer and member of newly-created Plymouth Environmental Research Centre (PERC).
By that point, he had already realised there were very few people working to understand the impacts of human activities on marine species. So he developed many new approaches and adapted the methods he had developed when looking at genetic mutations in mammals to assess the effects of radiation and other environmental stressors on marine organisms.
Realising that a combination of the sciences had much greater potential to achieve positive results, he also took steps to involve chemistry researchers in his projects. The interdisciplinary approach led to a series of high-profile funded research projects, supported by bodies including the Natural Environment Research Council and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
They included studies examining the impacts of radionuclides, complex chemical compounds such as exhaust fumes, and how they in turn could affect the environment. His work on radiation impact on biota led him to participate in international conferences in Chernobyl as a representative of the UK government, and his PhD students participated in collaborative research programme funded by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Marine Laboratory based in Monaco and different projects funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) including TREE project involving many national and international partners. Funded by NERC, he also led a multidisciplinary project to look into how engineered nanoparticles – either alone or in combinations with other persistent pollutants – react once they reach the environment.
The chemicals we are looking at are being developed as everything from food additives to ingredients of industrial products. But the identities of many of these chemicals remain unknown because of commercial interests and we have no idea about their chemical structure, let alone what impact they will have in the environment. However, what we do know is there is no universal law to govern them. Providing the evidence to inform such laws is one of the biggest challenges we face.
One of his key focuses in recent years has been to study the potential effects of tritium. A radioactive isotope of hydrogen, and a by-product of fission and fusion processes in the world’s nuclear reactors, it is becoming increasingly present in the environment as a result of the global growth of nuclear power.
In 2016, working in conjunction with the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, (CEFAS) he showed for the first time that rising temperatures and the presence of tritium could bring about significant DNA damage in marine mussels.
And through a current £5 million project – TRANSAT, funded as part of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme – he is looking to determine ways to enhance waste management around nuclear facilities in the future, and examine how best to minimise tritium release during future dismantling.
“TRANSAT is a very important international project,” Awadhesh says. ”This multidisciplinary project, involving 18 different partners and scientific advisers from all over the world, aims to fully appreciate the potential impact of tritium on human and environmental health, something not valued before. Our work has significantly contributed to this enhanced understanding and appreciation of the potential impact of this important radionuclide.”
His enhanced profile led to the University becoming part of the South West Nuclear Hub, which aims to facilitate leading-edge research in science and engineering, supporting the nuclear energy industry in the UK and around the world.
Read more: Is the nuclear energy gamble worth it?
For Awadhesh personally, it has also resulted in regular opportunities to talk about his research regionally, nationally and internationally. This has included a series of keynote addresses around the world, such as prestigious International Conference on Environmental Mutagens (ICEM). It is organised every four years alternatively in different continents, with the next one scheduled to take place in Canada next summer. Awadhesh is, once again, on the list of key speakers and has been invited to Chair a session.
As well as environmental toxicology, Awadhesh’s research has also pioneered the development of new research techniques. Perhaps chief among those is the Virtual Fish project. Along with industrial collaborator AstraZeneca, and funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, his team successfully cultured and maintained cells for extended time in three-dimensional shape (or ‘spheroids’) from the liver and guts of rainbow trout, a recommended fish species for toxicological studies. It means that, in future, toxicity tests could take place on these coaxed cells rather than actual fish, substantially reducing the use of live fish in biological studies.
Continuing his original interest in human health arenas, he also partnered with oncologists at the University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust to elucidate DNA repair mechanisms in cancer cells and to demonstrate that the anti-rheumatic drug Auranofin could improve the prognosis for ovarian cancer patients.
Four decades on from his first venture into academia, Awadhesh is still as passionate and driven as the first day he walked into university at Banaras in India.
There was no pressure from the outside world that I had to achieve something. But I certainly felt an inherited sense of expectation, and perhaps a cultural pressure, to be the best. There have been countless challenges along the way, especially when you move to new countries and have to adapt. But it is that internal pressure which keeps me working hard and continues to drive me forward to this day.