University plunges into history in the name of science

Erin Collins: UNSW journalism intern

After years stowed away, a University of New South Wales antique, the ‘Drummond Digital Microdispenser’ has landed itself in the Museum of Human Disease, sparking conversation about what relevance exactly it now has in modern research.


image - University plunges into history in the name of science

Manufactured in the early 1970s, the scientific instrument known as a micropipette has regulated UNSW laboratories assisting honour students in their studies in their final year.  Its role in experiments appears marginally simple- a plunger-like device that draws fluid up into its canister, which is then used for further analysis. However, you would be interested to know that these small machines are used in almost every single laboratory technique, as their precision is vital in maintaining accurate results.

What does all this mean for you?  Micropipettes are used for more than just University study. According to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, over two million Australians suffer from asthma. 

Of these two million, four hundred die per year from this respiratory disease. As a multicultural country, Australia’s high rate of immigration also leaves foreigners at an increased risk of developing asthma. It was a UNSW Bachelor of Science student undergoing their honours in 1996 that decided to delve into these statistics.

Zeeneth Hassim set out to investigate just how an increase in migrant asthma is linked to conditions in Australia. Specifically, she targeted her research toward the pollens of native Australian plants, and how they interact with the airways of humans. “Pollen was diffused into water to release its content, and then tested on the cells lining the airways in various subjects” says Rakesh Kumar, the

professor of pathology at UNSW who worked alongside Hassim in her research.

In achieving accurate results, the micropipette was a vital tool in conducting research. Measuring volumes less than two micro litres, the micropipettes technology makes it a plunger on a new level. “This instrument has revolutionalised medical research today” says Sean Goh, a fifth year Arts and Medicine student. “It has allowed medicine to progress in addition to other fundamental advancements”.

After spending the bulk of her final year researching Hassim’s research came to a close, and unique Australian pollen was not found to be the cause of the damage to the respiratory system that results in asthma. Yet her work did inspire further research and was referenced in at least two more clinical experiments which both strived to isolate any connection between pollen and asthma in Australia.

As for the micropipette it too came to an end. Now a dated instrument, in its place now stands updated technology that is easier, faster and modernised for today’s students. “It [the micropipette] has been superseded by better technology. Today’s version is much more fragile and uses disposable tips which are a must.” However Kumar does not think time is a substitute for quality. “The older model is no less accurate, just fiddlier.  There is no argument that for its time it was the best kind of instrument” he said.

Goh agrees that the micropipette has definitely contributed to the progress of medical research, but is in collaboration with other tools for efficient and effective experimentation. “The micropipette coupled with other necessary devices is part of vital experimental techniques”.

Today, science students get limited exposure to so lab skills in certain fields. It is only in their honours year of study that they are given more practical roles like their own research project, like Hassim’s work on the interaction between pollen and

the lining of airways in various animals and people.

Virtual laboratories are now becoming the norm- as class sizes grow, demand grows and hands on interaction with tools to be used post-Uni are harder to come by. Hypothetical pipettes are displayed on screens and the students are able to use them for a taste of real-life interaction with them. “Pipettes for each student were mechanically and logistically feasible at the time, but with larger classes most students don’t work in a lab till post graduate study” said Kumar.

Looking at the big picture from results from Hassim’s research, some may say it was a waste of time. However her discoveries are not the essence of science in schools and universities today. It is the use, understanding and appreciation of the technology available to students that heightens its importance in research. The micropipette is one of these technological advancements that have enabled our researchers of tomorrow, to start making discoveries today.

“Every single pharmaceutical drug has been manufactured with the aid of a micropipette” said Goh. It is obvious that while the Drummond Digital Microdispenser may seem dated, it was an invention necessary for discoveries and uncovering methods in which to treat and help people in their day to day life, such as the severity of asthma in Australia today.