Nepali chemist Basant Giri is the recipient of the 2020 Atta-ur-Rahman Award in Chemistry. Giri’s award-winning work focuses on developing low-cost tests to help screen the quality of food, drugs and water, which are simple enough to use without advanced technical training.
Giri’s work focused on creating chemical tests that are cheap, easy to use, and portable. He and his colleagues combined physical tests, small bits of paper no bigger than a business card that change color when exposed to certain chemicals, with smartphone technology to help field testers make conclusions about such important concerns as the presence of pesticide residue on crops.
“The award is a recognition of the work we do in Nepal,” said Giri. “Doing scientific research in Nepal is not a common thing for many reasons. And this recognition from TWAS is not only good for me but also good for other young researchers who may be working in Nepal.”
The smartphone tool helps quicken and simplify the testing process. At this point Giri’s system can be used by low-level technicians from government agencies, or private technicians hired by the larger vegetable markets.
“The technician only has to take a bit of sample, for example a tomato sample, they cut it down into very small pieces, and they soak it in a solvent,” Giri said. “Then the pesticide is extracted in the solvent and they use 5 microlitres of that extract to put it in the paper device. They wait 15 minutes then take a picture with their smartphone.”
From this device, the user learns whether the vegetable needs to be left untouched for a few days, discarded, or if it’s ready for immediate consumption. It makes inspections more efficient, he said. Though if it spots a problem it doesn’t identify the precise pesticide, which makes it useful primarily for the initial screening process.
Though the tool has yet to go to the public, Giri’s research has thus far demonstrated that the technology works. The next step is to develop an official prototype and then commercialise the product.
In Nepal, said Giri, there is very little scientific history tracking the pesticide problem. But the media and government have begun to document that farmers are not using pesticides properly.
“The farmers do not know how to use the pesticides, that’s the problem,” Giri said. “When people use pesticide on some crops, before the vegetable reaches the market there should be a window period. You apply the pesticide and wait 10 to 15 days before bringing it to market. And that rule is not followed by farmers.”
The government is now looking into starting programs to teach farmers how to use pesticides, he noted, “But we need to monitor. If we don’t monitor we don’t know the exact situation.”
This kind of technology can also be leveraged to test water for contamination, and even to screen drug quality. Giri noted that the WHO found that about 10 per cent of drugs in low and middle-income countries are either below standards or counterfeit. So it’s important to collect drug samples from pharmacies in Nepal, including the remote areas where people don’t have access to advanced lab equipment.
“We want to develop the screening technology so people can test the drugs wherever it’s needed -- that can even be used at home,” said Giri. “Even patients could test their drugs, using very basic chemistry.”
Giri’s work also includes work on the efficacy of face masks, which was done before the COVID-19 pandemic. Roughly 30% of people in Kathmandu used facemasks as a shield against air pollution before the COVID-19 pandemic started, so Giri’s team developed a smartphone microscope to test the masks’ effectiveness, which found that cloth masks were less effective than typical surgical masks, which was in turn used by the WHO while making guidelines for mask use and rational use of PPE.
Giri has twice been the recipient of TWAS Research Grants (sponsored by Sida, the Swedish International Development Agency), once in 2015 to develop the paper device and another in 2019 for his ongoing research on a method to screen for the quality of drugs. He is also involved in outreach activities, training students on how to write papers and giving high school students lab tours so that they might become inspired to enter science as a career. Finally, he is chairing the fledgling National Young Academy of Nepal’s governing committee, which represents over 40 young researchers in Nepal and will soon announce its first new membership call.