In conversation with our young researchers: Adelene Lai

18 June 2021

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Environmental Cheminformatics.

With over 350,000 environmental chemicals registered for production and use across the world, there are simply more than researchers can analyse. Increased computational resources are critical.

PhD candidate Adelene Lai at Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) is an environmental cheminformatician who develops workflows, algorithms, and software to help identify environmental chemicals.

16% of annual deaths worldwide attributed to air, water, and soil pollution

Adelene Lai’s research explores how to make the most of computational resources, software and databases to analyse and understand the thousands of measured chemical signals.

The researcher explains that “we measure thousands of signals in a single sample, but we understand very few.” Indeed, the approach to assessing environmental chemicals remains “one-by-one”, though they exist in multitudes as complex mixtures (“soup”) in our environment.

“Recent boosts in computational power and improved tools have also been essential for analysing large amounts of measured data, which for environmental samples is very important, as there are typically many samples from multiple locations and timepoints, e.g. water samples from multiple sites throughout Luxembourg over multiple months.”

Adelene Lai

Environmental Chemistry to be in its own Big Data phase

The cheminformatician develops workflows, algorithms, and software to help identify environmental chemicals.

“Environmental Chemistry is approaching its own Big Data phase, and we need to do things in increasingly automated and ‘smart’ ways. For example, we developed a highly automated workflow to help the Swiss authorities identify unknown chemicals in wastewater coming from industrial sources using Open tools and databases.”

Adelene Lai

More recently, the scientist teamed up with the Luxembourgish Water Management Agency to help identify pharmaceuticals and pesticides in local surface water, where Adelene concentrated on database mining, data curation, and data visualisation.

Why Luxembourg as a research destination?

To Sofie Waltl, “working in such a multi-disciplinary research setting is very fruitful.”

“Three main reasons: the Schymanski group at LCSB is visionary, unique, and interdisciplinary in its approach to identifying environmental chemical pollutants; Luxembourg has a strong emphasis on Open Science, specifically at the LCSB through Responsible and Reproducible Research (R3); and the research culture in Luxembourg is very dynamic and open to new ideas.”

3rd year PhD candidate Adelene Lai is an environmental cheminformatician

Adelene Lai is a member of the group of FNR ATTRACT Fellow Associate Prof Emma Schymanski. Adelene has been selected to attend the prestigious 2021 interdisciplinary Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in June 2021.

Excerpts from Spotlight on Young Researchers: Identifying environmental pollutants

Meet our young researchers