Dr Annette Dexter
Dr Annette Dexter
29 November 2010

Toowong researcher Dr Annette Dexter walks the talk, literally.

Dr Dexter is working at The University of Queensland to reduce the global reliance on petrochemicals to make household items, industrial fluids and grooming products.

But she does not leave her passion for creating a greener world at work. Dr Dexter does not use a car and instead walks or uses public transport.

"I think environmental issues are extremely important," the 44-year-old says.

"I don't drive a car. I opt for 100 per cent renewable electricity at home and support the Australian Conservation Foundation."

Dr Dexter is a biochemist and Associate Group Leader at UQ's Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, where her work involves designing and testing peptides as green surfactants.

Peptides represent a broad platform technology that can be used as detergents for low-water cleaning or recyclable industry fluids with no or low petrochemical components.

There are potential applications in drug delivery, agrichemical formulations, household items and personal care and grooming.

"When people ask me to explain my work, I usually start by pointing out that oil and water don't mix, like in French dressing, unless you add a stabiliser, like in mayonnaise," Dr Dexter says.

"Then I explain that we can use our renewable peptide surfactants to make or break oil-water mixtures or foams.

"We can use this to make industrial lubricants that can be cleanly separated after use, or hand soaps that rinse off with minimum water – or we can develop new, environmentally friendly approaches to mineral processing.

"Mainly it's a question of connecting your work to practical applications that people understand."

She has a 10-year-old son, David, who attends Mitchelton Special School, and she sponsors children in Zimbabwe, Indonesia and Brazil.

Dr Dexter also takes time to enter charity sporting events involving running, cycling or swimming; speaks fluent Portuguese and German; and enjoys reading about psychology, human evolution and world history.

Yet, even during her student days at UQ, it was clear her interest in chemistry was going to lead her to a career as a researcher.

"When I was an undergrad in my first year, biochemistry – and particularly mechanistic biochemistry – fascinated me. Mechanistic biochemistry describes what controls how a reaction happens," she said.

"I found had I had an ability to visualise how the reactions happened. That is something I have brought with me to the peptide work."

It was the challenge of getting the design work right which had kept Dr Dexter interested in her task, which started in 2004.

"I am a detail person. I like the challenge. I like the fact that the buck stops here and there is a challenge to solve a real-world problem.

"I like being able to take fundamental knowledge and solve a specific problem. I am interested in seeing the potential of the technology.

"As we refine the technology and make it less reliant on petrochemicals, we can also develop lower toxicity alternatives to conventional surfactants. It facilitates a greener technology. That is important to me."

Media: Dr Annette Dexter (3346 3199) or Erik de Wit (0427 281 466)