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Monday, November 1, 2010


This weekend was a lot of fun! Twice a year, the local AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) group hosts a conference somewhere in the area. This year, it was at Brown University, and the topic was nanobiotechnology. That was awesome, because it was such a great fit with the research work that I was involved with this summer. The conference kicked off Friday afternoon, and went through Saturday afternoon, so there was a lot going on.

There were five or six talks where people presented their research, and it was pretty technical even though everyone tried to keep the math to a minimum. Consequently, I lived the weekend somewhere between "that's awesome!" and "uh-oh..what are they saying now?" The photo here is of Mark Reed from Yale University. Like a lot of research groups in nanophotonics, Mark's group is into a lot of different things all at the same time. Mainly, Mark spoke about his work with biosensors. He's doing his stuff in a different way from Hatice's research group, using computer chips to sense the presence of biological agents, but he's also gotten some really good results.

When researchers say that they can now sense 10^-15 moles of a
chemical, it kind of puts it into perspective when Mark compares that to putting a single grain of salt into an Olympic sized swimming pool! That really goes to a lot of the reasons why this new sensing technology is so cool. There are new meds for diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's available, but they work the best when the disease is caught early. So for researchers like Hatice and Mark, the challenge is in trying to develop a practical way of sensing a small amount of a certain marker, like CA15.3, which is a marker molecule for breast cancer and many others. The way that his system works is that he builds nanowires from a single crystal of semiconductor. Then, they "functionalize" it by attaching a molecule that will bind with the disease molecule they're testing for. Because Mark's device is so sensitive to changes in the landscape around itself, they can tell very easily if they've got a hit in their blood sample or not. I talked with Mark after the conference, and his feeling was that human trials using his
type of technology are probably 1-2 years away, and that the plumbing of his device remains the big challenge.

That comment struck me, because I knew that our research group got itself on the cover of one of the big nanotech journals for coming up with one solution to that problem. I'll have to ask
Hatice or Ali next time I see them to see if their solution is one that he should be using or what the deal is there. One thing that I thought was funny was that he said "everyone always makes it sound so easy in their publications, but there's stuff they're leaving out!" That sounds like good old-fashioned gamesmanship to me!

There were a couple of other talks that were just awesome. I want to use them with my club's sci-tech club - totally inspiring and amazing! For a hint, google Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander - they're a wife and husband team at Rice University, and had some really exciting stuff to share. More later!