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Students Showcase Work in Research Symposium

Annual Event Draws Young Scientists from All Campus Colleges, Schools

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From left, undergraduate student Yang Zhang, doctoral candidates Xiaotian Zou and Ye Tian present their work on protecting soldiers’ heads during the 16th annual Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Imagine a software platform that can visually define the course of dementia progression in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Or ultrafast fiber-optic pressure sensors that can help prevent concussions or traumatic brain injury in soldiers and athletes. Or nanocrystals measuring billionths of a meter that can be used to track and obtain images of living cells in real time.

These are just some of the exciting projects by UMass Lowell student researchers recently highlighted during the 16th annual Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium.

“Each year, undergraduate and graduate students from our six colleges and schools gather to present their research in oral and poster presentations to their peers, faculty and guests,” said Prof. Julie Chen, vice provost for research. These include creative work, internship and co-op experience, community service-learning, study abroad and thesis research in sciences, engineering, humanities, health, management, education and community engagement.

The two-day event provides an opportunity for students to prepare for graduate school or professional careers; to learn to present and communicate scientific investigation to a wide range of audiences, including non-scientists; to exchange ideas with other scholars from multiple disciplines in a supportive atmosphere and to receive feedback from faculty and colleagues in their respective fields.

“Since 1997, the symposium has grown to involve more than 400 students from all the departments across the University, making it the most inclusive event on campus for students,” noted Chen. 

Visualizing the Progression of Alzheimer’s Disease

Ekaterina Galkina, a Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering and biotechnology working in the University’s Institute for Visualization and Perception Research, explained her study on Alzheimer’s disease using Weave (Web-based Analysis and Visualization Environment), a powerful, interactive open-source platform developed by a team of UMass Lowell researchers led by computer science Prof. Georges Grinstein.

“More than five million people are currently living with Alzheimer’s in the United States alone,” noted Galkina.

Galkina used Weave as a visualization tool to help analyze differences in patterns of dementia progression between individuals. She also applied the program in conducting preliminary analysis of clinical datasets from the U.S. National Institute on Aging’s National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center.

“Tracking subtle changes in a person’s cognitive ability may lead to a better understanding of how to manage healthcare costs, help reduce the burden on caregivers and provide aggressive interventions for patients that show rapid cognitive decline,” she said. 

Watch this YouTube video of last year’s symposium showing Galkina explaining her research on using Weave to analyze gene-environment interactions in Alzheimer’s disease. 

Helmet Sensors to Help Prevent Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, is just one of the many dangers facing American soldiers in the battlefield. It can occur when the head is struck suddenly and violently by the blast wave from an artillery shell or roadside bomb. Moderate to severe TBI can cause a host of neurological problems, including headaches, confusion, slurred speech, memory loss, convulsions or seizures, loss of coordination and coma.

A team of electrical engineering students — Yang Zhang, Nan Wu, Xiaotian Zou and Ye Tian — are working with Assoc. Prof. Xingwei Wang to design helmet-mounted fiber-optic pressure sensors to better monitor and detect severe to life-threatening brain injuries.

“Our sensors have fast response time and large dynamic range and are compact in size,” said Zhang. “They work by detecting interference patterns due to changes in the sensors’ silica diaphragm. They are faster, cheaper and smaller than the piezoelectric sensors currently available in the market.”

With modifications, the fiber-optic sensors can also be used to evaluate and improve helmets in sports, especially for football and hockey players as well as for race car drivers who are prone to repeated head trauma and concussions.

Quantum Dots Encapsulated Colloids for Imaging Live Cells

Over the past two decades, investigations on fluorescent semiconductor nanocrystals, or “quantum dots,” have evolved from materials science research to clinical applications in cell and animal biology.

Quantum dots are now used for studying intracellular processes at the single-molecule level, for high-resolution imaging of living cells and for tumor targeting and diagnostics, as well as for long-term “in-vivo” tracking of molecule and cell migration in real time.

One of the remaining challenges with using quantum dots as bio-imaging probes, however, is their potential toxicity in living organisms.

Plastics engineering graduate student Soujanya Muralidhara — working with biomedical engineering Ph.D. student Krishnakumar Malu, biology Assoc. Prof. Peter Gaines and plastics engineering Asst. Prof. Bridgette Budhlall — has developed a new technique, involving polymer-quantum dots colloids, for live-cell imaging that reduces the risk of toxic leakage by the quantum dots without significantly affecting their fluorescence properties in vivo.

“The delivery and uptake of colloidal particles into live cells is an important area of biological research in itself because it also relates to the cells’ communication,” explained Muralidhara. “In order to achieve higher levels of biocompatibility, the quantum dots have been encapsulated within polystyrene colloids stabilized by laponite nanoparticles.”

Muralidhara said the team further developed a method to combine, or “bioconjugate,” the polymer-encapsulated quantum dots to biomolecules for labeling cellular targets using the exceptionally strong interaction between biotin (vitamin B7) and the protein streptavidin. 

“This work, hence, opens up a new pathway for employing polymer quantum-dot bioconjugates for live-cell imaging that minimizes toxicity to cells,” she said. “It also maximizes the monitoring of fluorescence of specific proteins and organs inside the cell so we can observe them in real time.”

Muralidhara will present her findings at the 87th ACS Colloid and Surface Science Symposium to be held in June at the University of California, Riverside.