A new electrochemical sensor developed by Penn State researchers now can make the antibiotic susceptibility testing process simpler, while still being low-cost and portable, while also directly monitoring viable bacteria in liquid samples such as blood or milk. This development can impact a range of industries, from health care to food production. We talked to one of the researchers involved, Aida Ebrahimi, assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Penn State School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, to learn more about her work and its impact.
HappyValley Industry: What is your research topic and why is it important on a global scale?
Ebrahimi: I have an interdisciplinary research group working on engineering nanomaterials and sensors for healthcare applications, for example for monitoring bioanalytes (including, metabolites, neurotransmitters and microbes), drug screening and biomedical studies. We pay a special attention to devising low-cost, rapid and accurate sensors that are simple to use and suitable for point of care testing with minimal sample preparation, which is critical for early disease diagnosis and routine health monitoring.
We are also working on developing new sensing technologies for microbiology studies, for example for studying bacteria with minimal interference with their physiology, which is important for better understanding bacterial interaction with environmental stimuli, such as antibiotics, host immune system or other pathogens.
HappyValley Industry: How do you envision your research impacting/changing your industry?
Ebrahimi: Biosensor market size is projected to reach $33 billion by 2027. One of the main drivers in this area is point of care testing technologies that are low-cost, compact, accurate, simple to use, and require minimal sample preparation. The research efforts in my group — on developing diagnostics or microbiology tool — are all in line with these technological needs.
"One of the main drivers in this area is point of care testing technologies that are low-cost, compact, accurate, simple to use, and require minimal sample preparation. The research efforts in my group — on developing diagnostics or microbiology tool — are all in line with these technological needs."
HappyValley Industry: What inspired you to follow this line of research?
Ebrahimi: I have been always interested in making things that can help improve human life one way or another. As a kid, I got so intrigued the first time I heard about nanotechnology on TV! So, when I got to college, I made sure I can be in a field where I can make things that are tiny! That's how I got into Microelectronics and Nanotechnology.
Then, when I was a PhD student at Purdue University, I got to learn about microbiology, and in particular bacterial cells. It was fascinating to me to learn about different mechanisms through which bacterial species respond to environmental stress to survive and thrive. I wanted to develop sensing devices that can be used for studying the cells in their natural environment with minimal interference, which means without using external labeling reagents as in traditional methods. With the opportunity to direct my own research at Penn State, my group research intersects all these areas — nanotechnology, microfabrication and microbiology — to improve the quality of life through novel technological advances.
HappyValley Industry: Why did you choose to conduct this research at Penn State specifically?
Ebrahimi: My group research is by nature highly interdisciplinarity, which means we collaborate with researchers in different fields of science and engineering, from electrical engineering to materials science, chemistry, and life science. Penn State provides an excellent atmosphere for collaboration across colleges, which is what I have been enjoying a lot, and look forward to more of.
"Penn State provides an excellent atmosphere for collaboration across colleges."
HappyValley Industry: Would you encourage other researchers to make their home in Happy Valley, and why?
Ebrahimi: I have found living here enjoyable and relaxing. Things are close and there is almost no traffic to get around. It is a safe college town with beautiful hills, which I very much appreciate. Also, having Tussey Mountain was a great bonus for me when I first got to Happy Valley in 2017. I started learning skiing and being only a 20-minute drive from where I live, it is easy to get there quickly whenever I have time (and there is snow!).