“Engineers are the people who connect science and society,” says Hyun Kwon, assistant professor of engineering and technology, as she describes the philosophy of her current research. The discoveries biologists make have practical and beneficial applications in human life, but how does that knowledge become tangible and helpful? One application in this interdisciplinary approach is the field of biosensor technology. Biosensors use living organisms or organic molecules to detect the presence of any given substance. Kwon and her team of students are currently working on a biosensor that will detect viruses and genetic disorders from a small sample of human fluids.
Currently, this process often requires many complicated and time-consuming lab tests. A biosensor of the type Kwon’s team is developing could make testing for viruses or disorders as simple as a tool touched to a small sample from the patient. The team is currently running tests on consistently smaller concentrations, in order to see accurate results in the smallest possible samples. The science behind this technology relies on the properties of the protein calmodulin, which controls many biological functions by binding to hundreds of other proteins. Calmodulin “changes its configuration depending on the presence of Ca2+,” as a recent research presentation states. In Kwon’s research, calmodulin molecules are placed on a quartz crystal disk and can indicate abnormalities in the bloodstream or genes.
Together with researchers at the University of Maryland-Baltimore and the University of Notre Dame, she hopes to make an already-tiny device even smaller. Utilizing Notre Dame’s nanotechnology laboratory, she envisions biosensor technology being developed at the ultra-microscopic level. In addition to shrinking the size of the device, she intends to reduce the amount of sample needed to obtain accurate results.
Kwon’s student assistants are primarily senior undergraduate students, with one notable exception: Michael Hernandez, an incoming freshman from Andrews Academy, who recently began working on the project. He believes that the project will give him “a headstart into the next year,” when he plans to enter the mechanical engineering program. “I plan on learning a lot,” he says. Sandra Prieto, a graduate engineering student, is currently working as a lab assistant on the project. She “helps with the solutions and experiments,” but will also learn “how to read and interpret the data,” she says.
In addition to numerous applications in the medical fields, specifically neurobiology, the research Kwon conducts has lasting academic and professional impacts on her student assistants. Sandra Prieto has “discovered a love of research” she didn’t know she had.
Kwon has been working in the field of biosensor technology since her PhD studies in 2002. She has been at Andrews for the past five years, and in that time has developed a laboratory specially designed for her research. Experiments are conducted primarily in the summer, and papers are published throughout the year.
The team hopes to present papers on their current research in the fall, and Kwon is currently working on a manuscript. The team has presented their QCM-D sensor research (quartz crystal microbalance with dissipation) at the annual meeting of the Biomedical Engineering Society in 2008 and 2010 (planned), and the Comsol Conference in Boston, Mass., in 2009. Undergraduate students participated in writing the paper. Because the field of biosensor technology is continually developing, Kwon’s team will have no shortage of research opportunities.
Photo: Michael Hernandez (left) and Sandra Prieto assist Hyung Kwon (center) with her research