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Rapid Virus Test Being Studied in Zhang Group will Differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from Other Respiratory Viruses

Yi Zhang Group
(from left to right) Guangfu Wu, Huijie Li, and Zhengyan Weng, advised by Professor Yi Zhang, are checking an array of graphene field-effect transistors.

In recent years, from H1N1 and now to SARS-CoV-2, global pandemics caused by highly contagious viral species have been threatening human life and putting tremendous pressure on healthcare services as well as the economy. Rapid testing and timely interventions for asymptomatic or mild infections caused by SARS-CoV-2, for example, would enable efficient quarantine of infected patients, thus significantly reducing the spread rate of the virus. Importantly, SARS-CoV-2 is expected to continue in the future fall/winter seasons, when it will coincide with the seasonal outbreak of other infectious respiratory diseases, including those caused by influenza virus and respiratory syncytial virus, which have similar signs and symptoms in the early stages. Considering the overlap in the seasonal peaks, symptoms, and underlying risk factors of these illnesses, having a rapid test to detect and differentiate SARS-CoV-2 from other infectious respiratory viruses will be clinically important.

In response to this clinical need, the Institute of Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering Assistant Professor Yi Zhang led the development of the most sensitive amplification-free SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic platform, the CRISPR Cas13a graphene field-effect transistor. This study, entitled “Amplification-Free Detection of SARS-CoV-2 and Respiratory Syncytial Virus Using CRISPR Cas13a and Graphene Field-Effect Transistors,” was published online on May 12, 2022, in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.

“The key features of viral diagnostics are rapidness and sensitivity,” said Zhang. According to Zhang, most virus detection techniques, including the gold-standard RT-PCR, relies on viral sequence amplification, which can dramatically complicate the detection process and increase the risk of cross-contamination, therefore subject to elevated false-positive rates. However, current amplification-free methods are still limited by compromised sensitivity. “Our work revolutionized the field of amplification-free nucleic acid diagnostics by introducing a biosensing platform with sensitivity comparable with RT-PCR,” he said.

Yi Zhang
Dr. Yi Zhang

Derived from adaptive immunity in prokaryotes, Nobel-winning clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR)/CRISPR-associated (Cas) technology leverages nucleic acid base pair complementarity between a guide RNA and targeted nucleic acid sequence and affords high target specificity capable of discriminating single mismatches. Recently, several CRISPR/Cas systems, including Cas13a, were found to perform cleavage of nonspecific bystander nucleic acid probes triggered by target detection, known as “collateral cleavage.” Such collateral cleavage demonstrates a multi-turnover behavior, turning a single target recognition event into multiple probe cleavage events, and therefore leads to signal amplification.

“The idea of our biosensor design originates from exploiting the signal amplification by translating CRISPR technology onto an ultrasensitive detection platform,” said Huijie Li, a Ph.D. student in Zhang’s lab; she is also the leading first author of the study. Graphene, as a two-dimensional material, exhibits extraordinary charge carrier mobility and thus high electrical conductivity. Thanks to its atomic thickness, graphene, when constructed into biosensors as a sensing material, is highly sensitive to the interaction with biological analytes. In this study, by immobilizing probes on graphene-based field-effect transistors and allowing Cas13a collateral cleavage of these probes activated by target detection, SARS-CoV-2 down to 1 aM level in both spiked and clinical samples, was successfully detected within a 30 min detection time.

Simply by changing the guide RNA design, CRISPR Cas13a graphene field-effect transistor platform was reconfigured to target respiratory syncytial virus with the same attomolar sensitivity. “As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, our virus diagnostic tool can be easily adapted to combat the future outbreak of unknown viral species,” Guangfu Wu, a Postdoc in Zhang’s lab; he is the co-first author of this work, said.

This study marks a significant milestone towards our goal of developing an integrated point-of-care biosensing platform for viral diagnostics. “We are aiming to offer patients a fast, ultrasensitive all-in-one tool that can streamline sample treatment and analysis and deliver results without any specialized training,” said Zhengyan Weng, a Ph.D. student in Zhang’s lab; he is also the co-first author of this study.

 

This research is supported by the University of Connecticut start-up and the National Science Foundation under the award number CBET-2103025. The collaborators of this work include Dr. Xue Gao at Rice University (co-corresponding author), Drs. Kevin D. Dieckhaus and Lori Avery at UConn Health, and Dr. Yupeng Chen in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at UConn.

IMS Faculty Members Mentor 2022 SURF Award Winners

SURF AwardsWith the assistance of faculty mentors, UConn students in all majors, across all UConn campuses, conduct research or creative projects each year in pursuit of the Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) Award. 

UConn recently announced that 39 students had been awarded the 2022 SURF Award. Two Institute of Materials Science (IMS) faculty members served as mentor to winners for this year’s cohort of winners.

Dr. Helena Silva (Electrical and Computer Engineering) served as mentor for Derek Lefcort (’23, Electrical Engineering, ENG) for his project entitled Fabrication and Electrical Characterization of Multi-Contact PCM Toggle Device.

Dr. Linnaea Ostroff (Physiology and Neurobiology) served as mentor to Rebecca Tripp (’23, Physiology and Neurobiology, CLAS) for her project, Characterizing Neurons Containing Calcium-Binding Proteins in the Amygdala of Female and Male Rats.

IMS congratulates all the winners and commends Drs. Silva and Ostroff for their dedication in serving as mentors.

Read the full announcement

 

MSE PhD Candidate Encourages Other Female Researchers to Not Doubt Their Own Voices

As of 2021, female PhD researchers like Suman Kumari are welcoming the challenge of pursuing a passion in a still male-majority field. Though representation has improved compared to decades ago, the imbalance in a classroom or lab can still be intimidating. According to Kumari, though it hasn’t been easy being a female in her discipline, this shouldn’t dissuade others from pursuing materials science and engineering.

“Though the world is changing, it’s challenging as a female in the materials science and engineering field, but nothing is impossible if you have the will to do it. I would say, ‘listen to yourself, you know what you want to do,” she says.

In much of her career so far, Kumari has not let any hesitation stop her.

Read the full story from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering

Polymer Program Student Selected for 100Plus Scholarship

Polymer Program Graduate Student John ToribioPolymer Program student, John M. Toribio was awarded this year’s Student Scholarship from 100Plus, a US based organization that provides remote patient monitoring for chronic patients. Student applicants needed to submit a presentation answering the question, “How will remote patient monitoring technology advance in the future to provide better health for the patients?” John received a $2,000 prize and his presentation can be found on the 100Plus Website at the following link:

https://www.100plus.com/blog/100plus-2021-student-scholarship-winner-john-miguel-toribio

John is a 2nd year Chemistry Ph.D. student in the Sotzing Research Group working on the development of wearable electronic devices for health applications as well as synthesis and applications of cannabinoid polymers.

Recent Ph.D. Graduate Reflects on Experience as IMS Polymer Program Student

Dr. Deepthi Varghese
Dr. Deepthi Varghese

After completing a Master’s Degree in Biochemistry from St. Josephs Arts & Science College in Bangalore, India, Deepthi Varghese joined the UConn Chemistry graduate program in the fall semester of 2014. After hearing brief research presentations from the chemistry departmental faculty, she became interested in Polymer Science with Prof. Douglas Adamson, an unexpected diversion from her initial plans for a career in biochemistry into a field in which she had no experience.

Although the lack of experience created a steep learning curve, Deepthi embraced this new research direction. While she faced challenges during the first two years, looking back, Deepthi says that she gained far more knowledge than expected, including polymer science, electro chemistry, and setting up scientific research laboratories.

Deepthi also struggled with many challenges regarding science including the fact that experiments are more likely to fail than succeed; science takes far more time than initially expected; and there is never enough time to accomplish everything. Lessons like this can be applied to all aspects of life, business, and art, as well as science.

In addition to the science, Deepthi has increased her knowledge of communications, independent learning, and keeping an open mind to feedback from all sources. She realized that you never know who will have valuable knowledge.

“Keeping an open ear and open mind allows you to learn from faculty, technicians, graduate students, and undergraduate students as well,” Deepthi says. She noted that undergraduates, especially those from outside disciplines, are also able to contribute bits of knowledge to the scientific challenges of the day.

Deepthi became involved with UConn organizations, the South Asia Community (Tarang) and the Graduate School Senate, where she was treasurer and president, respectively. This experience helped her learn organizational leadership.

Looking back on her graduate experience at UConn, Deepthi says that she grew as a scientist as well as a person. She had a number of unexpected experiences that changed her in many ways, all positive. In November, 2019, Deepthi started her professional career as a TD Etch Module Engineer at Intel, Hillsboro, Oregon.

Sonia Chavez Receives the LSAMP Fellowship

By Kelly A. Salzo

Graduate Student Sonia Chavez of the IMS Polymer Program has received the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate (BD) fellowship. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), this program provides continued support for students who participated in an LSAMP program during their undergraduate, offering up to two additional years of STEM education at the graduate level.

Sonia’s fellowship is part of LSAMP’s initiative to encourage and support “historically under-represented students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.” During her undergraduate studies at DePaul University, Sonia became involved with the Chicago Initiative for Research and Recruitment in Undergraduate Science (CIRRUS), NSF’s STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP), and the Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Each organization shares a common goal to increasing the number of students graduating with STEM degrees, particularly students from populations currently underserving in these fields.

Sonia’s participation within these programs has provided her with opportunities to attend and organize support workshops for under-represented students. Additionally, she helped implement outreach activities to expose inner city children to science. By being awarded the LSAMP fellowship, Sonia hopes to continue her outreach and professional development, while devoting the rest of her time to

Graduate Student Feature: Garrett Kraft

By: Kelly A. Salzo

Garrett Kraft
Garrett Kraft

“One of the things I really like about working in the polymer industry is that you can make a material that is tangible and has unique properties which make it different from any other material that’s out there,” Garrett explains. “This creates the opportunity to construct high performance materials for very specific applications.”

IMS graduate student Garrett Kraft realized his passion for polymer science while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin. After receiving his degree, Garrett sought out schools with strong polymer science programs and UConn’s prestigious Polymer Program caught his eye.

During his three years at in the IMS Polymer Program, Garrett has worked on a number of research projects under the direction of Dr. Douglas Adamson, which include developing adhesives that selectively bind particles in a complex mixture, investigating the use of synthetic non-peptide based polymers to mimic the catalytic activity of proteins, and exploring the applications of two-dimensional materials in polymer composites. He is also currently working on a project with ExxonMobil, creating polymers with a very narrow polydispersity and complex architectures.

Garrett attributes his current success in the field to being open to change. The materials science industry is in constant flux due to innovations in technology, which is one of the aspects of materials science he finds most compelling. “Research is always evolving and you are always finding new skills to develop,” Garrett says. He also finds his communication skills crucial to his success in the lab, as well as his constant curiosity.

In the future, Garrett is interested in pursuing green technology, specifically deriving or isolating monomers from biological feedstocks and creating materials which can break down naturally. Finite petroleum resources and environmental concerns make this area of research very appealing to polymer scientists.

Besides conducting graduate research, Garrett serves as president of the UConn Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) student chapter. Under Garrett’s direction, the UConn chapter recently applied for official status as a student chapter and since then, the student chapter garnered support from the National chapter, including a visit from the CEO and financial support. Very recently, the organization received national recognition and has been awarded the Outstanding Student Chapter Award which Garrett will receive at the ANTEC conference in Orlando, Florida at the end of the month. Garrett also spearheaded the initiative to make UConn’s chapter more engaging for its members by organizing plant tours and research seminars. “We have also been trying to connect more with alumni,” Garrett explains. “Two previous alumni came in and gave us insight on what they are doing currently, what exactly happens after grad school, and how the job searching process works so students can see what they can do with their degree.”

When asked what advice he would give to other students pursuing a career in material science, Garrett says: “Always keep on exploring. Try to find more information about areas you are interested in by talking to different people, whether they are students, faculty, or people in industry. Hopefully by talking to different people, you discover something you find fascinating enough to research for your Ph.D.”

IMS Hosts SPE CT Section February Meeting

By Kelly A. Salzo

 SPE officers, SPE CT-section members, students and faculty
Left to Right: Richard Nunn*, Robert Hammond*, Mark Corbett*, Lalit Mahajan, James Martin*, YoungHee Chudy, Russell Broome+, Sarah Sullinger+, Greg Treich, Sue Wojnicki+, Garrett Kraft, Associate Professor Luyi Sun. (*SPE CT section members; +SPE National Office)

The Polymer Program and the UConn Society of Plastics Engineers student chapter co-sponsored the SPE CT section February meeting on Wednesday, February 18th, 2015. Three officers from the SPE CT section and four members of the SPE national office attended the meeting.

The Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), an international organization dedicated to the advancement of knowledge and education for all plastics professions, organizes a monthly meeting to discuss recent developments within the organization. The UConn SPE chapter was selected to host the February meeting.

The meeting opened with a presentation by Mr. Russell Broome, the SPE Managing Director, entitled, “From a College Student to a Young Professional to an Industry Veteran” offering valuable advice to current students interested in a career in industry. Following the presentation a number of exciting announcements were made. First, the SPE Connecticut Section announced their plans to sponsor a student to attend the ANTEC and NPE national conference in Orlando, Florida, March 23rd through 25th. The SPE headquarters also expressed their intentions to partner with industry to sponsor students, eliminating the student membership fee. The current trial phase has seen student membership double over the past 6 months. Additionally, Russell Broome and SPE headquarters revealed their new networking and social media tool called the Chain. Inspired by LinkedIn, the Chain is an online forum divided into several communities including technical and social topics, and career connections with the goal to connect plastic professionals with an easy to navigate interface.

Around 40 students attended the meeting, interested in the opportunity to learn about new developments in the polymer and plastics industry in Connecticut and network with industry professionals on the SPE national board.

In addition to hosting the SPE February meeting the UConn student chapter has also organized various events and activities including tours of local plants in the industry and outreach programs increasing education in polymers from elementary school through high school. During the Polymer Program Seminar Series, SPE members volunteer by supervising equipment and setting up refreshments. Additionally, the organization arranges the SPE Student Seminar Series that invites field leaders, senior students and postdoctoral fellows from the Southern New England area to present on polymer related topics.

For more information on becoming a student member please contact the UConn SPE student president, Garrett Kraft.