Meet Our Research Team – Barb Allen
Barb Allen is a Faculty Researcher at the Centre for Natural Products and Medical Cannabis (CNPMC) at Loyalist College. Barb’s previous work experience as an analytical chemist for a pharmaceutical company pushed her to become a researcher.
Her projects at the CNPMC included developing custom emulsions, cosmetic applications for natural ingredients and upcycling practices.
Barb has been associated with the CNPMC since 2019, where she applies her past work in R&D, project management, and mentoring.
She is actively engaged in the training of students and interns in the CNPMC and acts as an overall resource in establishing a high standard for scientific credibility in applied research projects.
She separates her time between attending to industry partners at the CNPMC and being a Faculty Member and Coordinator for the Biosciences and Natural Technologies programs at Loyalist College.
Barb received her Master of Science (MSc) in Biochemistry at the University of Toronto.
To learn more about Barb’s journey as a researcher and professor at Loyalist College, keep reading the article below.
What inspired you to become involved in research?
It was my first foray into a research lab. In my third year of university studies, I met the Head of Pathology at Mount Sinai Hospital to interview him for the college newspaper. I was so nervous; I read every scientific article he published.
The interview went so well that he hired me in the Pathology Summer Student Research Program. I was thrilled. But the research turned out to be so interesting for me, that I gave up the thought of becoming a medical doctor to become a researcher. I’ve never really looked back.
What do you like most about doing research?
The creativity involved in finding solutions to applied problems. I’m not focused on imperial research – never have been – but using information from those who contribute to academic research is a great joy for me. Sometimes I’m not even aware of how I am synthesizing different ideas. It comes to me in unexplainable ways.
What inspired you to pursue chemistry-related programs?
I did a specialty in biochemistry and a major in chemistry. I decided on biochemistry because I wanted to be an endocrinologist. My greatest influence was my mother’s interest in the topic even discussing it with me when I was a young girl.
Did you have a teacher at school, college or university that inspired you and if so, how?
Yes – Dr. Ken Pritzker at Mount Sinai Hospital. He was one of my most influential mentors.
He called me a “sleeper”. I was one of those students that received average grades and plugged away at my studies. Still, he noticed that when I decided that something was incredibly interesting, I devoted all my passion and time to the subject. And he really egged me on!
How would you encourage your students to become involved in research?
Finding the application of the theoretical science or basic lab skills that we are discussing in class and relating it to something they love to think about, and why it could be so much more fun to consider.
What would you tell your students are the most important skills of a researcher?
It is so important to pay attention to what others are doing, listen to other ideas, read extensively, and learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are always a blessing in disguise.
Can you describe your area(s) of research interest?
I’m very interested in pharmaceutical formulations and how they change and interact with other chemicals. Nothing in science is static.
How did you first become interested in this area of research? What was your “ah ha” moment?
It was through my work as an analytical chemist in a “big pharma” company. I loved the idea of the precision and accuracy of analytical testing.
What was your favourite project you’ve ever worked on? Why?
A company I worked for previously had a very challenging problem with a product. We had an impurity that would mysteriously show up after about 2-3 weeks in bulk storage. The business had the best worldwide scientists working on it, but no one could figure it out.
I finally asked my boss if I could do a study to see if I could help solve the problem. She laughed at me and said it was too big for us to solve with our team in Canada – ‘don’t waste your time’. I said to her – ‘give me two weeks’.
She laughed out loud at my naïve audacity and decided to give me the two weeks.
We discovered the root cause of the problem AND we found a solution to present to the FDA to expedite the resolution. It saved the company I worked for millions of dollars, and it only took two weeks.
Who wouldn’t love to have a story like that on their C.V.?
Why is this area of research relevant for the ordinary citizen? What are the possible real-world applications?
That’s easy – we need to KNOW that food and drugs are safe and will not have combinations of chemicals that could become toxic and hurt us.
The real-world implication is that a poorly understood product can cause congenital disabilities, cancer, make people sick and even result in death.
What research projects are you working on now?
Custom emulsions, cosmetic applications for natural ingredients, sustainability-related projects and upcycling. A lot of interest in natural ingredients and how they can be better utilized.
Do you have another area of research that you’re currently not working on that you would like to?
Yes – I would love to create a library of the minute chemical contaminants in our local groundwater. We have recently purchased a state-of-the-art piece of equipment that might enable us to do this.
How do you keep current in your research area?
I read, read, and read.
Talking and listening to people, and watching documentaries on semi-related topics is also a great way to inspire thinking out of the box.
What would you like to be the ultimate outcome of your research?
To know that I have contributed something meaningful to someone.
If you were forced to do something else for a living and could do anything, what would you like to do?
I would like to be an architect.
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
I think I would like to learn how to weld! Build my own garden furniture. That would give me some pleasure.
What is something you learned in the last week?
I’ve learned a lot about pectin! Who knew?