Personal photo - Nicholas Smith

Nicholas Smith

October 19, 2015

My Research

Prior to joining the Systems Biology DTC this autumn, my scientific education has been provided by the undergraduate Chemistry course here at Oxford. In addition to the lecture courses and tutorials, the first three years of the Chemistry course includes a laboratory course. This provided me with a basic grounding in the techniques used in Physical, Organic and Inorganic Chemistry labs. Each of the experiments within this course included work to establish the aim of the experiment and data analysis to establish the success and validity of the work.

The fourth year of the course represented an opportunity for a research project that would be my sole focus for the duration of the year. The work I did during this year can be split into two areas: experimental work and a computational component. The shared purpose within this project was the desire for non-invasive techniques for investigating the function of the human body.

The aim of the experimental side of the project was the determination of the physiological parameters cardiac output and lung diffusing capacity using laser absorption spectroscopy. Experiments using foreign gases have been developed for evaluating these parameters. The foreign gases are introduced into a patient’s breath and the parameters are found using analysis of the gas concentrations in exhaled breath. The gases used are methane and acetylene for cardiac output, and methane and carbon monoxide for lung diffusing capacity. I sought to develop a system that could simultaneously measure the concentrations of the three gases of interest. The hope was that this would allow the simultaneous determination of both parameters, with laser absorption spectroscopy providing a highly sensitive, highly selective method of measuring concentration. LabVIEW, visual programming software, was used throughout the project for data acquisition, data analysis and laser driver control. The work gave me the opportunity to develop my laboratory skills in terms of the planning and undertaking of experiment. This project was also extended enough to allow me to understand the occasional frustrations of research; human testing of my system was prevented by the extended nature of the application for ethical approval.

The computational element of my year, undertaken for Prof Peter Robbins, of the University Physiology Department, sought to produce a mechanistic model of oxygen and carbon dioxide transport in blood. My role within the project was the analysis and improvement of the physical chemistry within the existing MATLAB model. Ultimately, comparison between physiological parameters predicted by the model and those quoted in the literature showed good agreement, demonstrating the success of the model.

The last part of the year was spent writing up this project, for which I taught myself to use LaTeX.I was lucky enough to receive a Physical Chemistry Thesis Prize last summer for the work I submitted.


Spent two weeks learning to program in C and Python.