URI chemist awarded $400K ‘early career’ grant by NSF

UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND assistant chemistry professor Jason Dwyer was awarded a $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Faculty Early Career Development Program.
Posted 9/27/12

SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Jason Dwyer, an assistant chemistry professor at the University of Rhode Island, has been awarded a five-year, $400,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation.

Dwyer intends to use the grant, offered through the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, to combine elements of chemistry and engineering in order to develop new methods for diagnosing medical conditions using hand-held technology, according to URI.

“The focus of my research is to build next-generation devices that are cheap, reliable and easy-to-use so that they can be used equally well for routine medical diagnostics in the clinic, at home, and in more challenging environments such as a roadside accident or a makeshift clinic in a disaster zone,” Dwyer said in prepared remarks.

According to Dwyer, the trick to inventing diagnostic devices like these would be a chemical sensor able to detect low levels of molecules in the blood, molecules that are indicators of a disease.

In a URI release, Dwyer said he will follow two main design principles to meet his goal. “We want to sense individual molecules, so we’ll build molecular-scale tools - in this case, nanofabricated holes that can fit only a single molecule at a time,” said Dwyer. “And we want to let special molecular recognition agents, such as antibodies, do the work of identifying the molecules present in a sample.”

This technique, which Dwyer called “catch-and-release fishing,” is apparently a pathway to personalized medicine.

“It can lead to personalized medicine if we search for clinically relevant DNA sequences,” said Dwyer. “When the test is reliable and cheap, we can also imagine routinely monitoring a patient’s health at the molecular level.”

After building the sensor, the challenge will be to turn it into a user-friendly, hand-held device.

“You can build a $500 million machine that can reveal details about how molecules interact with each other,” Dwyer said. “But that’s like trying to look at something as small as a molecule with a machine the size of a football stadium. We’re after really small things, so we want our tools to be small, too. And then we have to package it like an iPod so users can push buttons to get useful information.”

Part of the NSF Faculty Early Career Development grants is to link research with teaching and outreach. According to URI, Dwyer intends to involve many of his students in his project and “teach them how to share their enthusiasm for chemistry and engineering with the general public.”

“New technologies need champions, and there’s nobody better to be a champion than the student researchers who developed it,” said Dwyer. “My students will not only be able to design better biomedical diagnostics, but they’ll be able to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

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