QAEHS in Focus: Ben Tscharke

8 Jul 2019

QAEHS in Focus shines the spotlight on QAEHS staff and students to showcase the expertise and talent within our Centre.

Ben Tscharke

How long have you worked at QAEHS?

Nearly two and a half years.

How do you explain your job to people?

I tend to start with a terrible pun – some iteration of “I have a shitty job” or “I test the shit out of Australia”. Which tends to confuse people a little before I explain that I estimate drug consumption across Australia by measuring drug metabolites in sewage, equivalent to a community urine test. With UniSA we run the National Wastewater Drug Monitoring Program which estimates drug consumption rates of drugs such as meth, ecstasy, heroin, cannabis and cocaine as well as alcohol and nicotine. We do this several times per year, covering a population of 12 million Australians. It reveals some interesting trends and has benefits to Government law enforcement and health agencies. And no, if you’re wondering the wastewater doesn’t necessarily smell that bad - the preservatives we add kills most of the smell – and I do really like my job.

What is your favourite thing about working at QAEHS?

The people here are great to work with, and there is always something new on the horizon. There is a good mix of research projects in an array of research areas. We have samples archived here that go back nearly a decade, so it is a bit like a time-machine of sorts, being able to come up with a good question or a biomarker and look back in time at how community consumption of the substance has changed over time.

What has been your career path that led to your current position at QAEHS?

I am originally from in and around the Barossa Valley, South Australia. After high school I studied a Bachelor of Science, honours and PhD at the University of South Australia. My PhD topic really brought me to QAEHS, which was measuring temporal trends of drugs with abuse potential in four wastewater treatment plants in Adelaide. At a similar time to my PhD completion the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission was establishing a national monitoring program, which suited my acquired skillset and I accepted a position to work on the project here at QAEHS.  So far it has been great here (except the 22hr drive I had to do twice during the move!).

What is something you learned in the last week?

Apparently in the wastewater treatment industry “a splash you don’t taste is a good splash”. Seems fair enough to me!

What research are you working on now?

The main research/consultancy projects I work on now revolve around analysis of wastewater for biomarkers of health, lifestyle, drugs, alcohol and tobacco. One of my key areas of interest is triangulating wastewater data against other datasets; for instance comparing community drug use against socio/demographic factors such as age, education or socioeconomic status, or to social factors such as crime. We have also recently been looking into how we can deploy different sampling technologies to evaluate substance ab(use) in difficult-to-reach locations.

What is your favourite movie?

It used to be Pulp Fiction or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but I don’t really have a favourite movie these days. I am into more of these epic TV series like Black Mirror, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Westworld and the Walking Dead. But there is always room for an action or a crime thriller on a movie night in.

Random fact you would like to share about yourself.

I’m not a pilot but have flown a plane for 10 minutes. I also really enjoy snowboarding.