IRES Facilitates Student Research in Sao Paulo
by Kate Hunger
Samir Bhakta, a second-year chemistry doctoral student spent a summer in a university research lab in Brazil learning how to make an inexpensive, fast test to diagnose periodontitis using a microchip printed on a postage-stamp sized piece of paper. Once salivated, the chip allows for analysis of nitrite levels–a marker of inflammation. Moreover, the chip adjusts coloration, which can be analyzed using software available on mobile devices.
“Currently what dentists do to diagnose periodontitis is they probe the gum lines to see receding and bleeding gum lines,” Bhakta stated.
Bhakta affirms that the procedure is painful and that the method could be improved through the use of a point-of-care diagnostic device that could send out to a remote location and made accessible at home.
Bhakta traveled to the Institute of Chemistry at Sao Carlos, University of Sao Paulo in 2012 as part of the International Research Experience of Students (IRES) program funded by the National Science Foundation. The goal of IRES is to give undergraduate and graduate students the chance to work in a research lab in another country, preparing them not only to pursue doctoral degrees in science and technology, but also to become globally engaged.
UTSA associate professor of chemistry Carlos Garcia is the director of the program. Garcia’s collaborators include Frank Gomez, professor of chemistry at California State University, Los Angeles, and Emanuel Carrilho, professor of chemistry at USP, site director of the program.
Provisions of a Rewarding and Personalized Experience
IRES funds up to four students per year, two students each from UTSA and CSULA or their areas, for a summer research experience of at least eight weeks. Students, who attend area colleges and universities, including community colleges, also are eligible to apply to the program.
The program’s projects are all in the area of microanalytical chemistry and microfluidic devices, which offer the advantage of being faster, cheaper and more portable than traditional methods.
“The project is specifically geared toward the development of microfluidic devices, but if the student is interested in any of the associated techniques, we allow them to pursue those interests,” Garcia stated.
“For example, the first year we sent them; there was a student who was particularly interested in learning about carbon nanotubes. He ended up working on the development of a sensor for chemical warfare agents. That work was just published,” Garcia continued.
Microfluidics, as the term suggests, also uses a much smaller sample volume–measured in nanoliters.
According to Garcia, with a drop of liquid you can do thousands of analyses and if you take one milliliter and divide it by a million, that’s how much sample is required. While this could not be important when analyzing water from a lake, the volume of sample required is critical for some patients and children.
Researchers in all three professors’ labs are working on microfluidic devices that could be used to analyze all sorts of molecules, from glucose, to cancer markers, to pharmaceuticals, to soil contaminants, to antioxidants. The technology enables these analyses to be done in remote locations including space.
“We are focused on the development of the technology, that later could be applied in diagnostics and therapeutic monitoring of diseases, or monitoring the environment for chemicals or pollutants,” Carrilho stated via email.
Students participating in the program should have some background in analytical chemistry, but the program offers opportunities to explore different projects.
“We have students working with all aspects of microfluidics and micro fabrication,” Carrilho wrote.
Carrilho affirms that these students design and fabricate microchips using low cost technologies such as direct printing which refers to laser printing over transparency overheads or wax printing over paper which is used to connect to a variety of detectors, such as a mass spectrometer, contactless conductivity detection, and digital cameras.
According to Carrilho, some students are working with capillary electrophoresis and some are working with cell culture inside the chips.
The three-year IRES grant was extended into a fourth year this past summer. According to Garcia, the initial program was funded for almost $80,000 and has been recently upgraded by the NSF. This expansion could allow supporting up to 12 students each summer and will increase the number of participating university labs throughout Brazil.
Among the four students who participated in the program, Kajari Bhattacharya, a third-year chemistry major at the University of Texas at Austin worked on two projects in Carrilho’s lab, one of which involved trying to grow stem cells on a microchip made of toner and polyester and the other focused on developing a test that patients could use to more accurately check for the presence and level of pharmaceuticals in a patient’s system through the use of a type of microfluidic device. According to Garcia, pharmaceuticals are absorbed differently by people depending on numerous factors and being able to quickly test for current levels would allow patients and doctors to more accurately gauge the necessary dose.
The experience has influenced Bhattacharya’s academic and career plans to pursue a doctoral degree within the field upon graduation.
“I hadn’t really considered research after finishing my undergraduate degree but being here has really reminded me of how much I like doing research,” Bhattacharya wrote via email while in Brazil.
Albeit, potential applicants expressed concerns regarding their safety while in Brazil, Garcia assured them that their security was guaranteed regardless of the socioeconomics of Brazil. The country received much exposure after the Olympics and the World Cup which resulted in more interested applicants.
Transnational Relations and Fruitful Impacts
Several students have told Garcia that their perceptions of the world were changed for the better by their time in Brazil.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming here since I’ve never been to South America,” Bhattacharya stated. “Everybody has been incredibly friendly and inviting so it’s been easy to get to know some great people.” Bhattacharya continued.
A significant benefit to studying in Brazil is developing resourcefulness in students who are accustomed to the immediate availability of supplies in the U.S.
Gomez, co-director of the program, has run similar programs for students in Ireland and Hungary, which has shown him just how life-changing the experience of traveling abroad can be for student researchers.
“It allows the students to grow and persevere under the circumstances, which makes them stronger when they come back to the United States and to their universities,” Gomez stated. “It allows them to grow as human beings. The students come home with a greater appreciation of what the U.S. has to offer,” Gomez continued.
Exposing students, especially undergraduates, to the kinds of research experiences available internationally can only expand their knowledge base and inform their choices about whether to pursue a career in research, said Waldemar Gorski, chair of UTSA’s Chemistry Department.
The program has forged connections among faculty and researchers at the participating universities, as well as, fostering collaborations and other exchanges. For example, three Brazilian doctoral students worked in Garcia’s lab last year and were funded by the Brazilian government.
But giving students a hands-on experience that emphasizes the appeal of science and the possibility of making a life in the field is paramount.
With three papers published so far from research done as part of IRES and the anticipation of more to come, Garcia said the boost in confidence being published provides is a game changer.
“I would really love to see that productivity going up because that is good for us, it’s good for the program but it’s especially important for the students. Once they see their name in a publication, they get a sense of what they can really achieve,” Garcia stated.