Faster medical testing possible through graduate student's NSF-funded internship

Erin Cassidy Hendrick
October 26, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To potentially make medical testing faster and more efficient, Denise Widdowson, a doctoral student in the Penn State Department of Mechanical Engineering, has earned a spot in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Internships for Graduate Students (INTERN) program.

“This internship gives me a fully immersive industry experience,” Widdowson said. “The program is really special because it helps bridge the gap between academia and industry. You can make a lot of innovations when you work together.”

With this funding, she will spend five months working at BioMagnetics Solutions, a State College-based company that specializes in immunomagnetic cell separation systems for isolating cells, proteins and other biological targets. 

“If you look at a blood sample, it looks homogenous on a large scale, but when you break it down, it is a mixture of cells and plasma,” Widdowson said.

For instance, when a lab examines a leukemia patient’s blood, technicians would first isolate the white blood cells in their sample. Traditionally, a centrifuge would be used, which uses variations in density to separate these molecules. 

However, BioMagnetic Solutions has developed a novel separation device using magnetic fields that could significantly speed up the process.

“Once you understand how these particles respond in an applied field, you can isolate the ones you care about and influence the magnetic field to separate them,” Widdowson said. “In broad terms, you can understand where in the process different biological cells, even viruses, separate out so you can collect them.” 

This is only one example, as the possible biomedical applications are vast. However, the underlying science stays constant, as does Widdowson’s goal — pursuing a deeper understanding of how magnetically tagged cells and molecules react under electromagnetic forces. 

“In the lab I work in, we are curious about the modeling portion of it and the new knowledge we can generate for the scientific community,” she said.

Widdowson is advised by Paris von Lockette, associate professor of mechanical engineering, whose work has often centered on understanding the electromagnetic responses of materials down to the microstructure. With improved knowledge on how these materials react to magnetic forces on such a small scale, von Lockette and those in his research lab are able to predict and understand the behaviors of these materials, without resorting to overly expensive and time-consuming computer simulations.

“What we want to do is create more dynamic simulations where we are incorporating the flow and the particle and separating it out into an applied field,” Widdowson said. “Then we can figure out what to expect and maybe optimize it in real life.”

The knowledge discovered in their work could be universally applicable to all biological cells and molecules, possibly even viruses like COVID-19. 

“The biggest pro I see of exploring this new technology is you’d be able to run medical tests much more quickly by not having to wait for the particles you want to study to separate,” she said. “Now, as we sit in a pandemic, increasing efficiency in lab testing is something the medical field would be very interested in.”

Balancing her internship and her research at Penn State, Widdowson said the encouragement of her adviser, professors, including Zoubeida Ounaies, professor of mechanical engineering, and lab mates will be critical.

“The amount of support I’ve gotten from Dr. von Lockette and Dr. Ounaies has created a wonderful environment,” she said. “Seeing how passionate everyone is about solving these complex and hard problems is invigorating and makes it easy to stay motivated.”

With the encouragement of her lab, Widdowson is excited to take on this new role at BioMagnetic Solutions. 

“This opportunity provides relevant experience in the medical field that directly relates to my research — that really puts a bow on everything for me,” she said.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 28, 2020