Skip to Main Content

UMass Lowell will resume on-campus instruction, research and campus life for Fall 2020. View the plan for more info.

Engineering Prof. Talks about Modern-Day Canary in a Coal Mine

Therrien’s Research Featured in Museum of Science Podcast

UMass Lowell Image
Assoc. Prof. Joel Therrien works with a student in the lab.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Nanotechnology is making a great impact on businesses by offering new and improved products, materials and processes for diverse applications such as electronics manufacturing, the aerospace, chemical and automotive industries, defense and homeland security, food and beverage packaging, health care, sporting goods, textiles and cosmetics.

But researchers are also assessing the health and environmental risks associated with this new technology due to exposure to, or contamination from, nanoparticles during production, storage and transportation.

To detect the toxicity of engineered nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, on living cells, electrical engineering Assoc. Prof. Joel Therrien — along with biology Prof. Susan Braunhut, chemistry Prof. Kenneth Marx and work environment Asst. Prof. Dhimiter Bello — has developed a “nanocanary,” the modern-day, high-tech equivalent of the canary in a coal mine that warned miners of dangerous buildups of toxic gases in the mine shaft.

The nanocanary is an ultrasensitive biosensor designed to continuously monitor tiny physiological changes in the live cells contained within it.

In a recent podcast produced by the Museum of Science in Boston, Therrien talked about the importance of studying how nano-sized particles affect human health and the environment as well as in the safe development of commercial nano products.

“Our biosensor has a wide range of applications, from testing for toxicity in nanomanufacturing to drug development and customized cancer therapeutics,” notes Therrien.

“In testing the toxicity of carbon nanotubes, for example, since the sensor can directly detect adverse effects on living cells, we are able to identify the threshold concentration at which carbon nanotubes lead to the cells’ death,” he explains. “The sensor can also be used to test the response of normal and cancerous cells to drug therapies. In the future, this technology may help guide oncologists in selecting the most appropriate drug for a cancer patient. We also see the potential for this to partially replace animals in testing drugs and other products.”

You can listen to Therrien’s 16-minute interview, titled “Nanocanary: Sensing Small Things with Small Things,” by going to the museum’s website.

Improving Telepresence Robots

The Museum of Science’s weekly podcasts offer an in-depth look at the latest developments in science and technology through interviews with guest researchers and the museum’s own staff.

In the Nov. 10 podcast, graduate student Kate Tsui of UMass Lowell’s Robotics Lab described some of the benefits of telepresence robots and discussed her research into improving these remotely operated devices. You can listen to Tsui’s 17-minute interview, entitled “My Other Body Is a Robot,” by visiting the museum’s website.

For more information about the Museum of Science, go to