Engineering Students Find Success, Passion and Possible Lifesaver in Research Lab

August 31, 2016

Student Alex Li, left, works with Professor Anand Subramaniam, right, on a portable machine to diagnose diseases.A team of UC Merced engineering students — plus one from a nearby state university and two from a local high school — made progress this summer on prototypes of portable machines for diagnosing diseases while enhancing the breadth of their education at the same time.

Mentored by Professor Anand Subramaniam, the core team members began their work as part of the School of Engineering capstone class and continued it through the summer with help from the visiting students.

Working in the lab lets me use the knowledge I’ve gained in the classroom and put it toward reachable achievements,” said Alex Li, a Redwood City native who graduated in May but stayed for the summer to continue working in Subramaniam’s lab.

The capstone team furthered work the professor began under a National Science Foundation grant he received in 2014, just two months after joining UC Merced in his first faculty position.

Subramaniam began the research on density-based biosensors, and the capstone students used that work to develop a small, portable machine that can give on-the-spot results. While such quick results are already possible with blood glucose meters and pregnancy tests, this machine looks for more complicated disease targets and can potentially let users know within 20 to 30 minutes whether something is wrong.

A prototype of the diagnostic machineThe students — who won first place out of 24 teams and a $5,000 prize at UC Merced’s Innovate to Grow Grand Challenge in the spring — had to drill down on core engineering principles and design solutions that included how to deliver the right fluids through the machine to conduct the tests and how to detect the results. Li worked on creating a sensor to read the test results.

There are a lot of places where people don’t have access to labs and doctors,” said Subramaniam, who is also a founding member of the NASA-funded Merced Nanomaterials Center for Energy and Sensing (MACES) at UC Merced. “If we can develop something that works outside a lab and uses as little power as possible, it could be used anywhere — including on missions in space.”

A Real Eye-Opener’ for CSU Student

Over the summer, the team was joined by lab intern William Cheung, a physics student from California State University, Stanislaus. The mission of MACES includes educating and training students from outside UC Merced, giving them lab experience they wouldn’t otherwise get. For Cheung, that meant working on a biosensor that wicks biological fluids — similar to mopping up with a tissue — to detect disease-specific particles in liquids.

CSU Stanislaus student Will Cheung, left, and UC Merced graduate student Melissa Xu, right, continue the diagnostic project with Subramaniam, center.Coming here has been a real eye-opener for me,” Cheung said. “Working with graduate and undergraduate students and the professor has been way beyond my highest expectations. Before, I was unsure whether I had the skills to go into industry or grad school. Working in this lab has given me knowledge and experience that I can use in the real world, and the confidence to know I can go to graduate school.”

Cheung has one more year at Stanislaus State and wants to attend graduate school to continue studying physics. He’s also staying on this year as a volunteer in Subramaniam’s lab, commuting from his home in Manteca.

This is where my passion is,” he said.

Subramaniam said he’s proud of the progress the students made in the capstone class and over the summer, and he was pleased to see his graduate students mentoring the visiting students in his lab — including two undergraduates from the UC Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees (UC LEADS) program and two from Golden Valley High School through American Chemical Society’s Project SEED program.   

None of the students could have taken this on by themselves, but the project offered them the opportunity, as novices, to work on cutting-edge research and achieve something substantial,” he said. “It also gave them a glimpse of graduate school and what it’s like to work in industry, too, as part of a problem-solving team that’s expected to deliver results.” 

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