Dr Winklett Gallimore: From mixing liquids at home to the research lab

Science and Technology Minister Daryl Vaz presents a plaque to Dr Winklett Gallimore, winner of the S&T XXtrordineers.

For the past decade, Jamaican beachgoers have been frustrated and sometimes downright disgusted by the abundance of thick, unsightly, brown and smelly sargassum that washes up on the country’s beaches each year.

Algae bloom or algal bloom as it is popularly called has potential disastrous consequences as it poses a significant threat to the local tourism and fishing industries. Throughout the Caribbean region, it costs significant sums to clean up the nuisance almost on a yearly basis since the algae first appeared in large quantities in 2011. It costs approximately US$210 million to clean up the region in 2018, according to the Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism.

Amidst the frustrations is a scientist whose research on algae aims to both save lives and create a cleaner, more pleasant environment.

Meet Dr. Winklet Gallimore, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemistry at the University of the West Indies, Mona. She moved from St Ann where she grew up to attend sixth form at Immaculate Conception Secondary School at the insistence of a teacher she described as “charismatic”.

She was interested in scientific things from childhood and would be delighted with the way liquids react when mixed. Gallimore was conducting “experiments” using things commonly found around the house, such as vinegar. She liked to watch the bubbles that formed after mixing liquids.

“When I was maybe in fourth form, I’d be at home, you know, there’s vinegar, mixing things up, and I was like ‘wow, that’s interesting. I think that’s where a certain interest in science was born. And of course just seeing the beauty of nature,” Gallimore explained.

At Immaculate, Gallimore became even more interested in science. She described being fascinated by the idea that nature produced these chemicals and developed a deep interest in discovering the purposes of the different compounds and how we can use them.

Gallimore understands the importance of studying Sargassum species and evaluating its potential uses. She is well aware that seaweed species have many potential uses including providing alginates for the food industry as well as providing a cure/treatment for serious diseases.

With this in mind, she undertook scientific research on marine plant species, including seaweed species such as Sargassum. Gallimore works in tandem with the UWI, local research institutions and international collaborators.

The research to date has provided crucial data on the type and composition of the major Sargassum species that beach the Caribbean each year – S natans and S fluitans. It has been found that there is no real potential for using them as a raw material and the low alginate content makes them unsuitable for the food industry.

Gallimore concedes that: “Sometimes you just go to work and get nothing out of it, but it’s just part of the scientific process of learning, growing and making changes as you go.”

Perhaps her most important work at present is the research she has undertaken on the Jamaican brown algae Stypopodium zonale. So far, a cytotoxic compound showing moderate activity against breast cancer cell lines in vitro has been isolated in small amounts.

Gallimore was quick to point out that this compound is still in the initial evaluation stage. However, she said it has been observed to kill certain cancer cells. In the future, she will observe whether this also kills normal cells.

“If it kills cancer cells and normal cells at the same rate and there’s no distinction, that’s a problem,” she said.

As a scientist, Gallimore lives with the fact that research sometimes fails “and you have to be open to this concept that things may not turn out the way you imagined”.

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