The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the International Research Experiences
for Students (IRES) program to foster global collaboration in science and engineering.
Caryn Heldt, James and Lorna Mack Chair in Bioengineering and associate professor
of chemical engineering at Michigan Technological University, leads the IRES Singapore project. She says the program’s goal is three-fold: to give students lab experience
(going way beyond cleaning glassware), to learn techniques to improve interdisciplinary
collaboration and to sharpen their communication skills.
“Over the three years of the IRES program, it has been amazing to see so many students
grow. We have taken several students who applied for passports because of this program
and they have become confident researchers and people,” Heldt said, adding that last
year three students won awards at regional and national conferences for their work.
“I’m so proud of everything they have accomplished. I have also gotten to know many
researchers and am excited to continue many fruitful collaborations with the researchers
The students work with several bioengineering experts during their eight-week stay,
including James Kah and Justin (C.J.) Chu Jang Hann at the National University of
Singapore (NUS) and Jiong-wei Wang in the Yong Loo School of Medicine. The crew also
works with Erin Smith, director of the Humanities Digital Media Zone and a principal
lecturer in digital media and cinema in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Tech.
“Often, those new to research conceive of communication as a last step, rather than
as an integral part of the research experience,” Smith said. “It’s been a pleasure
to introduce the IRES students to new tools, platforms and approaches that enable
them to think more broadly about how to extend the conversation to new audiences and
create new networks with colleagues across disciplines and continents.”
Follow the students on social media — @IRES_Singapore on Twitter and Instagram — and
keep up with all their lab work and adventures.
“We’ve made progress on the gold nanoparticle project, but we still have a lot to
do. There might always be new things coming up to test and optimize, but that’s research.”
Goal One: Lab Experience
The students work on several different projects. All are related to health science
and nanotechnology but focus on different tools and techniques. Generally speaking,
a science student and an engineering student pair up on a project to develop and share
complementary lab skills.
One project focuses on disease diagnosis using gold nanoparticles that change colors
when they come in contact with certain chemicals. The most common example is an over-the-counter
pregnancy test. But these measure key biomarkers in urine within a range of one to
two nanograms in a milliliter — and infectious viruses can be 10,000 times less concentrated.
Most samples from patients are a drop of blood or saliva, so viruses are difficult
to detect. That’s where the nanoparticles come in.
Miniscule, gold nanoparticles can form in many different shapes, which affects how
the particle might interact with a virus. Some shapes may be sensitive enough to overcome
the stacked odds. Kah’s lab focuses on using spheres and rods of gold nanoparticles
to detect viruses — and perhaps even treat them.
The make-up of the virus itself may also affect virus detection and treatment. To
this end some of the students are studying the proteins that make up the outer shells
of viruses. It’s part of what makes virology so complicated — every virus type is
a little different.
However, Heldt’s lab have found a way to get viruses to clump. They use a technique called flocculation where they take advantage of the sticky
surface chemistry of viruses. While in Singapore, the team will also be using chromatography
— a lab technique to separate mixtures — which one of the students describes as opening
a bag of M&Ms and only eating the blue ones.
“Our ultimate goal is to isolate virus like particles (VLPs) that could potentially
be used in a vaccine for hand foot and mouth (HFM) disease. My objective is to optimize
the upstream portion, the expression of the VLPs: It’s like growing a field of strawberries
and trying to get the most strawberries out of the same number of plants, except my
strawberries are viruses and my plants are hamster cells.”
Goal Two: Interdisciplinary How-To
Science is not built on big Eureka! moments enjoyed by wisened hermits in their Ivory
Towers. While the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields certainly
boast a few of those breakthroughs, the best practices of modern STEM research rely
on small, carefully measured steps.
Over time the incremental nature of research spawned many specialties. Deep dives
into specific projects helps students connect the dots between their coursework as
well as the work of their peers and international research community.
“This opportunity gives me the chance to learn about diversity; culturally, and in
the work place, to become a more versatile engineer with the ability to solve interdisciplinary
problems. I am most excited about learning how scientists in different fields approach
the same problems that I do as an engineer.”
Goal Three: STEM Communication
Global interdisciplinary research calls for finding common ground. Part of the work
requires speaking to technical audiences — using posters, papers, presentations and
more mundane workplace communication tools. Another part is distilling the research
for nontechnical audiences.
“As biomedical technology advances scientific communication becomes more and more
important. A side effect of this constant scientific revolution, especially in the
biomedical sphere, is increasing specialization. We need doctors, scientists and engineers
that are capable of bridging those gaps in specialization by communicating in a way
that ultimately produces products that are most effective and convenient for patients.”
Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than
7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than
120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering,
forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and
social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway
and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.