Oxford Science Blog | University of Oxford

Oxford Science Blog

A close-up view of inside Masaya's crater, Nicaragua  Copy Right: Tamsin Mather

As part of our Women in Science series, ScienceBlog meets Professor Tamsin Mather, a volcanologist in the Department of Earth Sciences at Oxford University. She discusses her professional journey to date, including recent work with the education initiative Votes for Schools, and why science is the best game around.

What is a typical day in the life of a volcanologist like?

Volcanology is incredibly varied, so there is no typical day. Some days I am out in the field, gathering samples from volcanoes and others I’ll be in the lab, giving lectures, or out in the community, encouraging people to take an interest in science.

What has your professional highlight been to date?

There have been lots, but one of the most exciting was finding fixed nitrogen in volcanic plumes in Nicaragua.

All living things need nitrogen to survive. Although Earth’s atmosphere is mainly made up of nitrogen, its atoms are very tightly bonded into molecules, so we can’t use it.  To do so, you need something to trigger their separation. For example, when lightning strikes, the heat prompts atmospheric nitrogen to react with oxygen, forming nitrogen oxides or “fixed nitrogen”. We discovered that above lava lakes, volcanic heat can have the same effect.

Volcanology is incredibly varied. Some days I am out in the field, gathering samples from volcanoes and others I’ll be in the lab, giving lectures, or out in the community, encouraging people to take an interest in science.

Why was the discovery so interesting?

The research shows how volcanoes have played a role in the evolution of the planet and the emergence and development of life.

But that particular trip looms large in my memory because we were robbed while getting the data. I remember it vividly, we had waited all day at the crater edge for the plume to settle, but the sun set before we had a chance to take our measurements. We went back to the national park early the next day, before the security guards arrived, and got robbed at gun point. In retrospect we should have known better, but excitement got the better of us. A terrifying experience but thankfully no one got hurt. We didn’t even get great data that day in the end.

A shot of Professor Mather at the top of Masaya volcano, Nicaragua, deploying diffusion tubes to measure gas concentration levels. Copy Right: Tamsin MatherA shot of Professor Mather at the top of Masaya volcano, Nicaragua, deploying diffusion tubes to measure gas concentration levels. Copy Right: Tamsin Mather

How did you come to specialise in volcanology?

By mistake. When applying for my PhD I put ocean chemistry as my first choice, but I was stumped for my second choice, so browsed the list of topics and the atmospheric chemistry of volcanic plumes stood out to me. I got more and more excited as I read about it, and ended up switching it from my second to first choice. I haven’t looked back.

Do you think being a woman in science holds any particular challenges?

The statistics bear it out - we are still in the minority. There are lots more women in more junior levels now and that will filter through eventually. I definitely would have appreciated more visible female scientist role models when I was younger, but I think the perception of science as a male pursuit is eroding.

 For instance, I used to love Space LEGO, but there wasn’t much diversity in the astronaut characters that came with the kits then. Now, my primary school age daughter loves it too, and the kits are much more diverse. I even have the all-female Research Institute kit in my office. The landscape has changed a lot in the last 20 years, but there is still more to be done.

There isn’t just one solution. Whether in relation to gender or ethnic diversity in science, it is a multi-component problem. If someone is the only woman or ethnic minority in their group, they may feel there is no future role for them. There are so many influencing factors in this situation and they are not all easily articulated or solved.

 Science is the best game around. You could be building bridges, curing a disease, developing new apps or climbing a volcano – the world is your oyster. I get paid to discover new things about our planet every day, how cool is that?!

What do you think can be done to encourage more diversity in science?

One of the key challenges for women in academia is the transition from PhD student, to post doc level and on to permanent faculty member. Often at that stage scientists have to relocate frequently. Some of my female contemporaries found this difficult and wanted more stability. Maybe they wanted to be close to a partner, or were thinking about having children. That is not an easy problem to solve and it can be difficult for men too.

There are things that can be done to make this journey easier. Programmes that provide flexible working patterns for outstanding scientists, like the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship scheme, work well, for instance.

The all-female LEGO Research Institute collection, sits in pride of place on Professor Mather's office bookshelf, as a testament to how far gender bias in science has evolved.   Copy Right: Tamsin MatherThe all-female LEGO Research Institute collection, sits in pride of place on Professor Mather's office bookshelf, as a testament to how far gender bias in science has evolved. Copy Right: Tamsin Mather

What are you working on at the moment?

We are studying the volcanoes of the Rift Valley in Ethiopia. Little is known about the history of these volcanoes and how often they erupt. But by measuring the layers of ash that have deposited around them, we can learn more about past and present volcanic activity. It’s possible these volcanoes could be used as energy sources in the future and we are investigating their potential for geothermal development.

How did you get started in science?

I always found it fun and really wanted to be an astronaut, but when I was seven I had an ear operation which killed that dream.

How did you come to be involved in Votes for Schools, the education initiative supporting children to have informed opinions?

It’s a great way to get young people thinking critically about the difference between opinions and facts. We have to empower young people and make sure they realise why having a voice matters. It is important to have an informed opinion, no matter your age. I was asked to join the Votes for Schools team, visiting Packmoor Ormiston Academy to talk about being a female scientist and to launch the primary school version of the scheme.

How did the children respond to your question, ‘Do we need more female scientists and engineers?’

The majority (61%) felt that there were not enough female scientists. The statistics of under-representation, arguments about diverse teams performing better, and the importance of engaging the whole of society in science were key here. Those that responded no, felt women have the right to choose what they want to be, a scientist or otherwise. Cultural background came into play as well, with some saying that women should stay at home.

Professor Tamsin Mather, volcanologist and Professor of Earth Sciences at Oxford University. Copy Right: Tamsin MatherProfessor Tamsin Mather, volcanologist and Professor of Earth Sciences at Oxford University. Copy Right: Tamsin Mather

What were your main takeaways from working with the initiative?

Questions like ‘do you ever work on metamorphic as well as igneous rock?’ really surprised me, and the enthusiasm of staff and children alike was fantastic. They really understood the issues and were not afraid to express their opinions. Technology is so central to our lives now, compared to when I was at school. Smart phones and computer games have become key to how we socialise and have fun. Science and technology are certainly not just for geeks anymore!

 What advice would you give to someone considering a career in STEM?

Do it! It’s the best game around. There are so many doors that a career in STEM opens for you. You could be building bridges, curing a disease, developing new computer games or apps or climbing a volcano – the world is your oyster. I get paid to discover new things about our planet every day, how cool is that?!

Gas sampling in Ethiopia Copy Right: Tamsin MatherGas sampling in Ethiopia. Copy Right: Tamsin Mather

Through the InspireHer initiative, children learn how to programme objects using coding. Games like the robotic ball use methodical, step by step, drag, drop and pause coding, to manipulate its movements.

Women in science series: InspireHer to code

Lanisha Butterfield | 24 Feb 2017

Although women in science continue to be underrepresented at the highest level, things are slowly changing. In a complex but changing culture, many have built highly successful, rewarding careers, carving out a niche for themselves as a role model to budding scientists, regardless of gender.

In honour of the forthcoming International Women’s Day (March 8th 2017), over the next few weeks, ScienceBlog will be turning the spotlight on some of the diverse and accomplished women of Oxford. Women who, in influencing and changing the world around them with their work, are inspiring a new generation of young people to follow in their footsteps.

Bushra AlAhmadi is a DPhil student in the Department of Computer Science, specialising in cyber security. In 2016 she was awarded the prestigious Google Anita Borg scholarship for women in technology and co-founded the community outreach initiative, InspireHer. The initiative aims to build on young girls’ interest in computer science, by engaging both parent and child with a fun and interactive coding workshop.

How did you come to choose computer science as your field of expertise?

I had a head full of ideas and naturally really enjoyed computer programming; building something from scratch and teaching it to do things. Being able to make something do what you want is both useful and powerful – and that is all coding is. People are just starting to realise that as a skill, it can be useful in lots of areas - not only science areas like engineering, robotics, website development and computing, but also business, law and even retail. It has allowed me to work in multiple fields: programming, security, network security and now cyber security. The freedom of variety to do what you want is really appealing.

What are you currently working on?

My research involves designing malware detection systems, specifically in Software Defined Networks (SDN). Day to day, it involves a lot of coding and testing, trying to find ways to detect and prevent malware. At the moment I am working with external security operation centres' (SOCs) and analysts to understand how they detect malicious activities on the network.

What do you find most challenging about being a woman in science?

As a Saudi Arabian, who completed her master’s degree in California and now lives here in Oxford, I think being a woman in science depends on where you are. Saudi Arabia is actually the place where I feel least aware that I am a 'woman in science'. My university, King Saud University, is divided into single sex campuses, and we actually have an equal number of female and male students studying computer science, if not more. There are around 1,000 female computing undergraduates as well as Master's and PhD students, so we don’t see ourselves as female scientists, just scientists. But, both in the USA and UK, I was always aware of being a minority in my field. Often you are the only woman in your study group.

We need more women and ethnic minorities working in tech, so don’t be afraid to apply just because you are different. In my case it has only been an asset.

In the early stages of my pregnancy, I didn’t want people to think I was less capable of doing my work, so didn’t tell anyone at first and became quite isolated and homesick. But, when I did tell my tutors, the support I got from the university was great, and made me wish I had done so sooner. Everyone from my supervisors to the administrators, went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Female professors are still a minority at Oxford, but they openly talk about their experiences as women. It’s so important to have relatable role models who talk about motherhood, rather than hiding it away like it is wrong, or that in doing so they are making excuses.

When I attended my first seminar after having my son, I was really nervous. My professor pulled me aside and said: 'if you need to bring your child to a lecture or a meeting, just do it – I have.' It instantly put me at ease and made me realise, it didn’t matter. She was a mum too, like lots of other female scientists. They do not let it hold them back, so I never have either. As a woman and an international student, you feel very welcome and safe here. With everything happening in the world at the moment, I feel very lucky to be here.

The family focused initiative supports children and their parents to learn more about coding.The family focused initiative supports children and their parents to learn more about coding.

What accomplishments are you most proud of to date?

Winning a place on the Google Women Techmakers Scholars Programme, which was formerly known as the Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship Programme (offering financial support to people studying computer science at under graduate or graduate level) was a great honour. On a personal level, doing a PhD while pregnant and having my son in my first year of study is something I am very proud of.

What led you to set up InspireHer?

Female professors are still a minority at Oxford, but they openly talk about their experiences as women. It’s so important to have relatable role models who talk about motherhood, rather than hiding it away like it is wrong, or that in doing so they are making excuse.

As part of my scholarship we were asked to come up with outreach ideas and as a mum, I wanted to engage parents as well, so that they can support and encourage their child’s interest in computer science.

InspireHer is a programme for young girls, who with their parents can become inspired through coding. Through the programme, I often meet parents who think that exposure to technology is bad for their child's development. There are lots of computer and smart tech games that can help children with their maths and science skills development.

Programmes like SCRATCH encourage children to create their own stories, animations and videos. 

What can be done to encourage more young girls to choose a career in STEM?

Research suggests that if we want to see more women working in the STEM sciences, we have to engage them at an early age. Having a parent to help and guide them helps feed a child’s interest and boost their confidence. If parents do not understand or value computer science, then their children are not likely to either.

Strong, encouraging role models are really important, especially for younger children (under five) who would not know where to look for coding activities on their own. I am very proud to be a woman in science. There are some great female computer scientists, but to stay that way, we need a new generation to follow suit and a generation after that and after that. Workshops like InspireHer allow young girls to build on their interest in computing, practice activities and then decide for themselves if it is the right career for them. 

InspireHer supports young girls and their parents to learn and understand coding. The exercises used are methodical and build a step by step approach to problem solving, in much the same way as LEGO and building blocks.Through the InspireHer programme young girls and their parents gain the skill of coding. The exercises used are methodical and build a step by step approach to problem solving, in much the same way as LEGO and building blocks.

How can schools better support children interested in science?

Some of the girls attending InspireHer events say they love science, but find school boring. Coding is an interactive and fun way to learn as it is multi-disciplinary and a good skill to develop, whatever field you decide to go into. Teachers could use the robotic ball exercise to make maths and science lessons more hands on. We use it a lot at InspireHer events and the children respond well to it. They learn to code and control the ball, coordinating its movements by using drag, drop and pause options. The game encourages the same step by step approach and problem-solving skills as playing with LEGO or building blocks.

What are your goals for the future?

I am participating in the first Saudi Arabian Cyber Security Contest, which in light of the recent cyber-attacks on Saudi Arabia, is a big deal in my country. Twenty finalists were chosen out of 500 entrants. 

When I complete my scholarship in 2018, I will return to Saudi Arabia and teach coding to undergraduates. I am also preparing to launch my own cyber security consultancy business, which I hope will support government and private organisations to develop and build their cyber security capabilities.

What advice would you give to anyone considering a career in computer science?

Believe in yourself and you can make a great impact in any field, especially tech and computing. Don’t be afraid to take the lead, firsts only happen because someone makes them happen.  When I started at King Saud University, the only student society was for male law students, (there was nothing for women). I started the first IT Society for Women, organising coding workshops and tech talks.  I’ve also been involved with Oxford Women in Computer Science since I arrived at the University in 2014, and was President of the group from 2015 - 2016. We organised the second Oxbridge women in computer science conference, bringing together female researchers from Oxford and Cambridge. Of all the sciences, computing really benefits from and needs diversity. We need more women and ethnic minorities working in tech, so don’t be afraid to apply just because you are different. In my case it has only been an asset.

On paper, maths is a core STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subject, but in reality it defies categorisation

From Bob Dylan, to today's post-disciplinary world, Alain Goriely, Professor of Mathematical Modelling, Oxford Mathematics, University of Oxford, gives a brief introduction to applied mathematics. Discussing its role and evolution in society, he shares how maths defies simple categorisation, underpinning all STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) specialisms.

In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in 1965, Bob Dylan was pushed to define himself: Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or a poet? To which, Dylan famously replied: Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know. Dylan’s attitude to pigeonholing resonates with many applied mathematicians. I lack the coolness factor of Dylan, but if pushed about defining what kind of mathematician I am, I would say: Oh, I think myself more as an equation and matrix guy, y’know. 

One of the greatest strengths of applied mathematics is that it has established itself by defying simple categorisation. Applied mathematics, be it an art, a craft, or a discipline, is not bound to a particular scientific application, a particular mathematical universe, or a well-defined university department. The drawback is that applied mathematics usually gets no mega-funding or the limelight associated with big scientific breakthroughs. But its biggest advantage is that it can insert itself into all scientific disciplines and easily reinvent itself by moving fluidly from one field to the next, guided only by methods, theory, and applications: it is all equations and matrices. Many applied mathematicians see new challenges as an opportunity to expand their mathematical horizons, and in our rapidly changing modern new society such new challenges abound. Here are three of these:

Major scientific efforts are required for major society challenges. These include fighting climate change, optimising new renewable energy sources, developing new medical treatments, and understanding the brain. Traditionally, applied mathematicians involved with these collaborative efforts were considered a useful but small cog in a huge scientific machine, but it is now appreciated that quality science requires clever modelling, state-of-the-art numerical methods, and fundamental theoretical insights from simplified models. This is the realm of applied mathematics, and accordingly our role in these endeavours is bound to increase. By the end of the day, we may not get the fame, but we’ll certainly have the fun.

A second relatively recent development of applied mathematics is the theory of networks. Networks represent connections between multiple physical or virtual entities. They are found in information theory (web links, social connections), biological systems (gene regulatory networks, metabolic networks, evolutionary trees), and physical systems (axon connections, electric grid). Regardless of their origin, these networks share common mathematical features. Their analyses span many different fields of study, and network theory has now established tentacular connections to various parts of pure and applied mathematics, a network of its own.

For about five years there has been much excitement about BIG DATA. The initial hope was that one could go straight into data and use empirical methods to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Quite the opposite is happening. The success of many methods has shed a bright light on the need to understand the underlying mathematical structure of both data and methods. The subject now presents a rich field of study that brings all mathematical sciences together, including statistics and computer science. 

Applied mathematics, be it an art, a craft, or a discipline, is not bound to a particular scientific application, a particular mathematical universe, or a well-defined university department.

These examples share a common thread that highlights a new trend in mathematical and scientific discoveries: beyond inter-, multi-, and supra-disciplinarity, we live in a post-disciplinary world. Things have changed, and Oxford University with its collegiate system, and the Mathematical Institute with its collegial atmosphere, are particularly well equipped to thrive in this new scientific world. But despite all the hype, we’re also fully aware that there’s nothing wrong with the old world, the old problems, or the old conjectures. We have an intellectual responsibility to promote and cherish these areas of knowledge defined by the great thinkers, past and present, especially if they are believed to be useless or irrelevant.

Bob Dylan in the same interview, foresaw yet another possible application of mathematics: What would you call your music? His reply: I like to think of it more in terms of vision music – it's mathematical music.

For more discussion around understanding applied mathematics, you can watch the author’s video via the Oxford Mathematics YouTube page.

Alain Goriely is the author of the forthcoming book: 'Applied Mathematics: A Very Short Introduction,' which will be published by Oxford University Press later this year.

Professor Smith has been awarded the Polar Medal by Her Majesty the Queen, in recognition of his “outstanding achievement” in the field of Arctic research. Smith has over thirty years' geological experience, particularly in Greenland.

Many scientists may dream of receiving royal recognition for services to their field, but for Professor Paul Smith, director of Oxford University Museum of Natural History, it is reality. In early January he was awarded the prestigious Polar Medal by Her Majesty the Queen, in recognition of his “outstanding achievement” in the field of Arctic research.

As a palaeontologist and polar scientist, with extensive expertise working in the high Arctic, Professor Smith has over thirty years’ geological experience, particularly in Greenland. His research has informed understanding of some of the world’s most uninhabited, little known regions. His achievements include being part of the team that created the first geological maps of the northern Greenland.

ScienceBlog sat down with Professor Smith to get his reaction to winning the award and to learn more about his career.

Congratulations on this spectacular honour, where were you when you found out you had won?

I was sitting on a delayed train, on the way home, just before Christmas, when I received an email that I had won. It made a long, uninspiring journey a lot more memorable.

With the exception of glacial deposits, the bulk of the Arctic landscape is exposed rock, which makes it a big attraction for geologists.With the exception of glacial deposits, much of the Arctic landscape is exposed rock, which makes it a big attraction for geologists.

Picture credit: Professor Paul Smith

Why did you decide to specialise in Arctic research?

As a geologist and a keen climber and hillwalker interested in remote areas you could say it was a natural fit. But it was my first trip to Greenland that sealed the deal. I had just completed my PhD, when I was invited for the first time on a large-scale expedition, creating a geological map of the furthest north part of Greenland. A dream opportunity.

For those that haven’t yet had the pleasure of experiencing the polar-regions, Greenland is a landscape unlike any I have ever seen before. Unspoilt, mountainous and spectacular.

We worked remotely, in teams of two, completely isolated from the rest of the group. We would be taken by helicopter, to a remote location where we would conduct all of our mapping. Then a week later, the helicopter would return with fresh food and take us further on to map the next area, and so on.

There were twelve pairs of geologists scattered across northern Greenland, so although we were working in isolation we all kept in touch via radio, for safety and lively evening banter.

Professor Paul Smith, director of Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Arctic scientistProfessor Paul Smith, director of Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Arctic scientist
I imagine in a career spanning three decades it is hard to choose one landmark achievement, but do any expeditions particularly stand out?

About 15 years ago I was involved in a highly complicated piece of geology, on the north eastern tip of Greenland. There had been a number of unsuccessful attempts to unravel the work, but my colleague and I wanted to achieve it ourselves. The bulk of the work was conducted on foot, but the helicopter was always on hand for support if needed. Over two summers we mapped an area around the size of Wales. I know that is the standard measure of land area, but it really was about the size of Wales. To this day I still consider this project one my proudest scientific achievements.

In terms of more recent work, can you tell us a little about researching the Cambrian explosion and why it has such high geological importance?

Most recently and throughout my career, I have been working collaboratively on a special locality, right above the north coast – about 500 miles from the North Pole. Here fossils are exceptionally preserved, which means geologists are not just working from shells or skeletons, but also the muscle tissues and soft tissues that aren’t normally preserved. The region is about 530 million years old, and at a point in time when most of the major groups of animals begin to appear in the fossil record.

This is an event called the Cambrian Explosion. Being able to attack a really fundamental scientific problem in a place that is so special, is very enjoyable as well as being hard work.

What is your fondest Arctic memory?

It has to be those occasions where you capture the perfect golden light in the Arctic. Photographers worldwide talk about the “golden moment.” Just as the sun’s setting, you get five minutes of really stunning light, just before the sun dips below the horizon. But in the far north, the sun never dips below the horizon, so on a nice day, the landscape is bathed in this golden light, for hour, after hour. Often, from eight o’clock at night, through to four in the morning you get to enjoy this glorious, perpetual sunset that never quite goes away. A great photo opportunity, but in my opinion, nothing compares to just sitting peacefully and absorbing it, with a small glass of whisky in hand.

Do you have any polar expeditions planned for the future?

We want to explore an area half way up the east coast of Greenland, where an ancient mountain belt called the Caledonides is well-exposed. It is a deep section through an ancient continent-continent collision zone and we are just in the planning stages of an expedition that we hope to undertake in 2019.

What is the significance of the Caledonides?

One of Greenland’s key geological features is that around 420 million years ago it had a mountain belt that was on the scale of the Himalayas, but it has now been eroded down to its roots. This level of erosion tells us about mountain belt activity, specifically how they grow and the way that they collapse.

The belt was formed by ancient North America colliding with ancient Scandinavia, and runs from the northern tip of Greenland, across the Atlantic, to Scotland, and then back across the Atlantic to the eastern cost of North America. We want to study the point where the mountain belt disappears off the shore of Greenland, to reappear next in North West Scotland. For geologists it is the missing link between the East Greenland and Scottish Caledonides. 

Why is Arctic research so important in today’s world?

It is many fold really, and would inspire different answers from different scientists. For glaciologists and those interested in climate change, it is because climate change is currently at its most exaggerated in polar areas. I have been going to the Arctic for thirty years and have seen rapid polar melting at first hand. It is happening, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Whereas, for geologists and people in my discipline, it is slightly different, the exposed rock is the real attraction. In the arctic we are not hindered by vegetation. There are of course areas covered with glacial deposits, but other than that, there is just the expanse of exposed rock that you just don’t get at lower latitudes. The far north has perfect “outcrop”, as we call it.

If you could have been a part of any scientific discovery from history, which would it be?

We have been exploring the far north since the 19th century, but even now, we get that very rare experience of walking on ground that we know no other human being has walked on before. But to have been a part of those original teams, seeing the entire landscape for the first time, must have been really special. There is one particular explorer, William Scoresby, a whaler who made the first scientific descriptions of northeast Greenland. Each year he would venture further and further north, trying to beat his previous record, constantly finding new terrain and new science. That is pretty special.

What is next for you?

A combination of organising the next expedition, researching the Cambrian explosion and of course, running this great museum (Oxford University Natural History Museum).

Do you have a personal favourite exhibit in the museum?

All museum artefacts have the power to tell stories, but very few can tell as many exceptional stories as the Dodo.  Which has not only informed understanding of bird evolution, but also human induced extinctions, early trade routes and European exploration, and the creation of early natural history museums. Add to that a visit in 1860 from a certain Lewis Carrol and a little girl called Alice, and the Dodo has earned iconic status, crossing cultures, generations and the world.

What would you like your scientific legacy to be?

Someone who pushed forward a scientific understanding of Greenland and the Cambrian Explosion.

Climate change is currently at its most exaggerated in polar areas and having worked in the Arctic for thirty years, Professor Smith has witnessed rapid polar melting at first hand. Of the experience he said: \"It is happening, and it shows no signs of sloClimate change is currently at its most exaggerated in polar areas and having worked in the Arctic for thirty years, Professor Smith has witnessed rapid polar melting at first hand. Of the experience he said: "It is happening, and it shows no signs of slowing down."

Image credit: Professor Paul Smith

Detecting Counterfeit Medicines

Bernard Naughton and Dr David Brindley from Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and Medical Sciences Division discuss the problems of identifying fake, substandard and expired medicines.

Pharmaceuticals are critical to our society, supporting patient health and an innovative industrial sector. Research and development (R&D) by leading pharmaceutical companies totals hundreds of billions of pounds globally each year. These extraordinarily high development risks contribute to the sometimes high reimbursement costs of medicines. Therefore, it comes as no surprise, that as with most large and lucrative industries it attracts its share of bootleggers.

Counterfeit medicines are becoming a serious concern worldwide, and have increasingly been appearing through the legitimate pharmaceutical supply chain, including community and online pharmacies. This not only poses a health threat to the public but also to the balance sheets of pharmaceutical companies.

The Pharmaceutical Security Institute report that between 2011 and 2015 the global incidence of drug counterfeiting has increased by 51%, with 2015 seeing the highest levels of counterfeiting to date - a 38% increase when compared with 2014. In the UK supply chain alone, 11 cases of fake medicines were detected between 2001 and 2011.

These products vary immensely - fake medicines may be contaminated, contain the wrong or no active ingredient, or could contain the right active ingredient at the wrong dose. In any of these scenarios, patient safety is compromised.

There are a variety of methods currently used to detect counterfeit medicines, including laboratory-based methods and SMS texting. The detection of counterfeit medicines by customs officials usually occurs as a result of intelligence or random checks, after which suspect medicines are sent away for laboratory-based analysis. Advancing technology has made a variety of techniques available which include spectroscopy, chromatography, SMS, handheld or portable laboratories, radiofrequency identification and serialisation.

The recent advent of the EU Falsified Medicines Directive (FMD) mandates that all prescription medicines are serialised, verified and authenticated from February 2019 in all member states. Serialisation is the process of identifying a medicine with a unique code printed onto the medicines pack and verification is the process for identifying and checking that code. The term ‘authentication’ relates to the final scanning of a medicine and the subsequent decommissioning of a product at the point of supply to the patient to ensure authenticity.

In our own recent study, published in BMJ Open, we tested the effectiveness of a medicines authentication technology in detecting counterfeit, recalled and expired medicines within a large UK hospital setting. More than 4,000 serialised medicines were entered into a hospital dispensary over two separate 8-week stages in 2015, and medicines were authenticated using secure external database cross-checking, triggered by the scanning of a 12-digit serial code. In this instance, 4% of medicines included were pre-programmed with a message to identify the product as either expired, pack recalled, product recalled or counterfeit.

We found that the operational detection rate of counterfeit, recalled and expired medicines scanned as a combined group was between 81.4% and 87%. While the technology's technical detection rate was 100%, not all medicines were scanned, and of those that were scanned not all that generated a warning message were quarantined. Owing to an operational authentication rate of 66.3%, only 31.8% of counterfeit medicines, 58% of recalled drugs and 64% of expired medicines were detected as a proportion of those entered into the study.

The detection of medicines was largely effective from a technical perspective; however, operational implementation in a complex environment such as a secondary care pharmacy can be challenging.

The study highlighted significant quality and safety issues with this detection approach. There is a need for further research to establish the reasons for less than absolute authentication and detection rates in the hospital environment to improve this technology in preparation for the incumbent EU (2019) and US (2023) regulative deadlines.

In order to safeguard patients against potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals, it’s clear that we need to find an iron-clad detection system to filter out fake and expired products. It will also be vital to address the implementation approach to this technology whilst educating those who will use the system effectively and efficiently.

While we can’t stop the production of fake medicines, we can and must safeguard patients from them.

The full paper, ‘Effectiveness of medicines authentication technology to detect counterfeit, recalled and expired medicines: a two-stage quantitative secondary care study,’ can be read in the journal BMJ Open.

Further information on this project and all contributors can be found here.

We would like to thank Prof. Stephen Chapman (Keele University), Prof. Sue Dopson (Saïd Business School) and Dr. Lindsey Roberts (Oxford Academic Health Science Network) for their support in this collaboration.

Latest on Twitter