UGA symposium highlights student research in nanotechnology and biomedicine

UGA symposium highlights student research in nanotechnology and biomedicine

Written by Mike Wooten

Promising undergraduate scholars from as far away as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley will present their research in the fields of nanotechnology and biomedicine July 31 at the University of Georgia. The symposium at the Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences is the capstone of a ten-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates(REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation.

The program connects undergraduate students with an interest in nanotechnology and biomedical research with two faculty mentors – typically one in the UGA College of Engineering and one from other schools and colleges on the Athens campus or other University System of Georgia institutions.

“The most important thing is the experience of research because the students who participate in our REUgenerally have little experience in the lab,” said Leidong Mao, an associate professor in the UGA College of Engineering and the program director. “This experience will give them a better idea of their career choices – from industry to graduate school.”

Mao says approximately 200 students applied to come to Athens for the nanotechnology and biomedicineREU but only 10 were accepted.

One of those students is Nneoma Okonkwo, a rising second-year student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Okonkwo is working with Mao and Carsten Schroeder of Georgia Regents University on a device that one day may allow physicians to diagnose lung cancer patients without the need for painful and expensive tumor biopsies. The device, a cell enrichment microfluidic chip, would allow doctors to monitor a patient’s blood for circulating tumor cells, or CTC’s. The concentration of CTC’s in the bloodstream is believed to be an important indicator of cancer progression and metastasis.

“I wanted to perform research as an undergraduate but in addition to my classes I’m a member of MIT’s varsity track team which is a huge time commitment,” said Okonkwo. “So, I decided to do research this summer and UGA’s program was a good fit for my interests.”

Like Okonkwo, University of Connecticut student Nicole Gay wanted an intensive research experience but wasn’t sure time in the lab would fit into her busy class load. Gay is pursuing a combined bachelor and master’s degree in biomedical engineering and decided to devote her summer and winter breaks to research.

During her time at UGA, Gay has worked with Eric Freeman and Xianqiao Wang, both assistant professors in the College of Engineering. She’s helping determine if nanoparticles can be beneficial as therapeutic agents in cancer treatment without disrupting healthy membrane function.

“Nanotechnology is an explosive field that has the potential to make a huge impact in medicine, but we first need to understand how nanoparticles interact with the body,” said Gay. “We want to know ifnanoparticles can penetrate individual cells without rupturing the cell membrane. There’s a great potential for drug delivery and other treatment options.”

Another REU student, Ishmael Rogers, wants to design more functional prosthetics that interface with the body’s nervous system through artificial intelligence. As if that weren’t challenging enough, he also wants to make the prosthetics lightweight, durable and more affordable than current options by creating them largely on 3D printers. Rogers’ mentors are Jason Locklin, an associate professor in the department of chemistry and the College of Engineering, and Cheryl Gomillion, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering.

Rogers, who will graduate from Atlanta Metropolitan State College this year with degrees in chemistry, mathematics and pre-engineering, says he’s still weighing options for the next step in his education but hisUGA experience has left a lasting impression.

“I love Athens and everyone has been extremely helpful,” said Rogers. “I’m new to research-based institutions but I love the fast pace and the hands-on experience. I want more people to be a part of this next year.”

Like Rogers, Gay has been impressed by UGA during her time on campus.

Admittedly anxious about giving up time with her family and friends in Connecticut to spend the summer conducting research in Athens, Gay says she “couldn’t have hoped for a better experience.”

In fact, Gay is now considering UGA as a potential destination for graduate school.

“I love this campus and the atmosphere of the university and the lab – everyone is so welcoming and friendly.”

Students participating in the UGA College of Engineering’s Nanotechnology and Biomedicine REU will discuss their research during an REU Research Symposium July 31. The event, which is being organized by the students, begins at 8 a.m. in the Paul D. Coverdell Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences. The symposium is open to the public but attendees are asked to RSVP to