Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.
Today, the spotlight is on Bach Kim Nguyen, a fourth-year undergraduate student in the honours chemistry program. Nguyen has been conducting research in materials chemistry under the supervision of Professor Jennifer Chen with a focus on developing plasmonic nanomaterials for biosensing applications.
She was also recently a top 10 finalist for the 2016 Sunnybrook Research Prize competition, where she presented her undergraduate research.
Q. Please describe your field of current research.
A. Plasmonic nanomaterials such as gold nanoparticles could be as small as one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair. Gold nanoparticles effectively absorb and scatter light, which make them useful probes for many sensing and imaging applications. The ability to modulate their physical properties, biofunctionalize their surfaces, and conjugate them into ordered structures, has enabled the fabrication of sensors with high sensitivity and selectivity for the detection of diverse chemical species and biological agents. Another incredible advantage is that these sensors possess many design capabilities that could be tailored for various detection methods, including but not limited to, optical, fluorescence and electrochemical methods. Plasmonic nanomaterials have many interesting features, and have been used for applications in a broad range of disciplines like pollution monitoring, food quality control and biodiagnostics.
Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?
A. In one of my first-year chemistry classes, my instructor described research being done by many faculty members. I learned that Professor Jennifer Chen was developing biosensors using gold nanoparticles to detect genetic material important for diagnosing disease. Her research really fascinated me since I had never heard of gold nanoparticles before, and I could not wrap my head around how they could be used for biosensing. I began to appreciate that developing diagnostic technologies could significantly impact people’s lives worldwide. I found Professor Chen’s research very meaningful, and I wanted to join her lab group to understand more about her work.
Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?
A. MicroRNAs are short strands of genetic material that have recently emerged as promising biomarkers of numerous cancers and diseases. The demand for detecting microRNAs is on the rise, which is pushing for the development of ultrasensitive sensors. These sensors could benefit healthcare by enabling timely diagnosis of disease, early treatment, and personalized medicine. My research aims to develop a miniaturized and low-cost biosensor based on gold nanoparticle assemblies for detecting miR-210 – a key biomarker of a pregnancy condition known as preeclampsia. Preeclampsia affects 5 to 8 per cent of pregnancies and could cause both maternal and fetal morbidity, but early detection is difficult. By developing sensors that accurately detect and quantify miR-210 and related microRNAs, preeclampsia patient outcomes could be improved.
Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?
A. The clinical significance of microRNAs has only been realized fairly recently. Conventional methods for microRNA analysis require laborious sample preparation and purification, so there is a need to develop new technologies for rapid, highly sensitive and selective detection of microRNAs. Nanoparticle-based sensors show potential to meet these challenges. We are taking a novel approach to fabricate our biosensor for optical detection of microRNAs by designing unique gold nanoparticle assemblies that undergo conformational changes upon binding of targets. The dynamic responses generate unique optical signals that can be monitored by eye or spectroscopically, which we evaluate to determine whether target detection is successful.
Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?
A. Developing sensors tailored for detecting and quantifying microRNAs has massive potential to improve human health. Last year we reported a sensing platform based on gold nanoparticle dimers that showed great promise to be developed into a bioanalytical tool. The dimers were designed to geometrically extend upon binding of targets, which generated a very specific detection signal. Our sensor demonstrated the ability to detect and quantify low levels of synthetic or cellular miR-210, discriminate it among similar targets, and detect it in complex cell media. These results are significant since microRNAs in biological samples are naturally in low abundance, have highly similar sequences, and are intermixed with many interfering proteins and species. My current project is focused on engineering gold nanoparticle clusters that can disassemble upon binding of miR-210, which would amplify our detection signal and simplify our analysis. Our sensor could potentially be adapted for detecting other nucleic acids, or perhaps developed into a microarray for screening many microRNAs simultaneously. These capabilities would further reinforce the potential of advancing our sensor into a powerful bioanalytical tool for diagnostic applications.
Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)
A. I was quite excited that our dimer sensing platform was able to detect cellular miR-210 in extracts of human trophoblast cells, as well as cell media. It really supported that our work could have real world applications.
Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?
A. Through working as an undergraduate researcher, I have learned that despite thoughtful planning and meticulous experimentation, unexpected problems always arise that require adjustments to experimental designs. I try my best to troubleshoot problems when they arise by thinking about the root causes, adapting to changing dynamics, and being resourceful when seeking solutions. I am currently doing my undergraduate thesis and have spent months trying to optimize conditions for my experiments to work effectively. It turns out that going back to the fundamentals and changing the design of our nanoparticle assemblies was the best measure we took! Critical thinking and perseverance are key to overcoming the challenges presented in research. I am hoping to make more progress on my project, but of course there is bound to be many obstacles that I will have to find my way around!
Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?
A. I have always wanted to pursue a career in dentistry or medicine, but this entire experience has shown me that conducting research is another meaningful way to contribute to healthcare. Actively engaging in undergraduate research has opened my eyes to how novel ideas can materialize into scientific innovations that have potential to make a difference in the world. Perhaps this research experience could be a stepping stone to an enriching career in science.
Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?
A. There are many interdisciplinary aspects to the research I am working on. The fundamental theory behind the functioning of plasmonic nanomaterials is described by physics. Fabrication of our nanoparticle assemblies requires understanding of the chemistry behind molecular binding interactions. Furthermore, we work with biological probes like microRNA and DNA, so it is important to know about their biogenesis and functions in the cell.
Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?
A. During my first year I was unsure of whether I wanted to continue doing a major in chemistry, or switch into biology. At one point I was really intrigued by research in epigenetics because it could be very important for understanding human disease, and developing biomedical interventions. The following year I decided to stick with my chosen major, and I am quite content that I ended up doing research in materials chemistry.
Q. You recently were selected among 10 finalists to present your undergraduate research for the 2016 Sunnybrook Research Prize competition. Can you talk about that experience and how it has influenced your research or your approach to research?
A. Participating in the 2016 Sunnybrook Research Prize competition was incredibly rewarding. I delivered a talk about my research project titled Plasmonic nanoparticle assemblies for the detection of microRNA biomarkers. Receiving positive feedback from graduate students and esteemed scientists about my talk, and how well I performed during the question period, made me very happy. I also learned about interesting biomedical research being conducted by my peers at institutions across Canada. And furthermore, I had the opportunity to tour state-of-the-art research facilities at Sunnybrook Research Institute. This entire experience just really opened my eyes to how fascinating the world of research is, and made me appreciate more how advancements in science can improve quality of life. I could say that I have been inspired to adopt a more thoughtful approach to research. I have realized that sometimes you need to think beyond the scope of your work to see the broader applications, and propose means to which you can improve your system.
Q. How long have you been pursuing a career as a researcher? Where are you hoping to go once you have finished your undergraduate work?
A. I have been doing undergraduate research for nearly two years. I began working in Professor Chen’s lab through a summer NSERC term after my second year. I continued working in her lab during my third year by taking two research practicums, and also doing another summer NSERC term. Then I jumped right into doing my fourth year undergraduate thesis. I have applied to professional school programs like medicine and dentistry, but I may also consider applying for the graduate chemistry program at York. I am not exactly clear where life will take me yet once I finish my undergraduate work, but I am excited for whatever awaits me.
Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?
A. When embarking on a research project for the first time, conducting new experiments and operating unfamiliar instruments and programs could be very overwhelming. The advice I would give to students is to keep very detailed and organized lab notes, and not being afraid to ask for assistance when needed. I found that this helped me be much more comfortable and efficient working in the lab.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?
A. The movie The Human Experiment on Netflix has made me more vigilant about all the chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis in our household products. It has made me realize that we need to be very educated consumers in order to safeguard our own health.
Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?
A. I am currently devoted to reading academic papers in preparation for writing my thesis, and for a fourth-year guided reading course. I just cannot make time to read fiction, or watch many television series lately.
Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?
A. I would choose to have dinner with my grandma. She passed away when I was 12 years old, but I want to share with her all of the experiences I have had. She was a very supportive figure in my life, and I would really like for her to know about how far I have come.
Q. What do you do for fun?
A. I like to go skating, do Escape Game challenges, and go rock climbing with my friends. During my own leisure time, I like to play finger-style guitar and do yoga to relieve stress. I have also been quite involved in extracurricular activities throughout university. I was an executive of a student health club for three years, and just this past year I started up a cultural club at York. We have held many fun social events and outings, and it has made my undergraduate journey far more enjoyable!