Biology majors Abbas Khan’18, Suxian (Suzy) Lin ’18, and Angel Pichardo ’17, along with biochemistry major Katherine (Katie) Guzzetta ’18 spent the summer exploring the application of nanoparticles in biotechnology at the National Tsing Hua University (NTHU) in Taiwan. The research is under the supervision of Associate Professor of Biology Wei-Jen Chang and in collaboration with Professor Zung-Hang Wei’s mechanical engineering lab at NTHU. In addition to the academic challenge, the research group has described the experience as a cultural adventure.
The team is working with protozoan eukaryotic single cellular organisms called Tetrahymena thermophila. They are cultured with iron based magnetic nanoparticles, which are found inside the cells just within minutes of feeding. The team intends to bring to light how these small particles get into the cells, and attempt to manipulate the movement of the particles within the cells. “As they (particles) are normally localized in the phagosomes upon ingestion, we hope to be able to move the nanoparticles into the cytoplasm and other organelles using chemical and physical methods,” Khan explained.
So far the team is still coming up with protocols for the experiment. They propose that the tiny particles likely enter the cell through phagocytosis and/or endocytosis, energy-dependent transport processes that engulf molecules. However, they have to run further experiments to support their hypothesis.
While the research is still in the beginning stage, Chang briefly mentioned its prospective applications: “We are trying to see if we can develop new methods using these magnetic particles in studying Tetrahymena, and maybe other protozoan organisms if we are successful.”
Comparing to most human cells, Tetrahymena "eats" a lot through phagocytosis. If the process can be used to deliver drugs, for instance, through this process, it would be simple, and much more effective than any other methods found so far. Furthermore, because the nanoparticles are magnetic, it gives another avenue to manipulate the experimental system to study different aspects of biology of Tetrahymena, and maybe other protozoan organisms, too. One interesting experiment to watch, Chang said, is that Tetrahymena can be pulled down with magnets after fed with nanoparticles.
Outside of the laboratory, the group has taken advantage of the NTHU’s location by exploring Taiwan. Guzzetta admits that the language barrier undoubtedly presents some challenges. However, when in need of assistance, she was moved by the kindness of the local people. Pichardo remarked: “I have been able to explore Taiwan and have been exposed to a completely different culture, which has undoubtedly impacted the way I look at the world and interact with others.”
The team members are grateful with how much they have learned from the experience. They have developed many essential skills, including hands-on work, scientific inquiry, teamwork and adaptability. Khan noted: “My research experience has allowed me to learn more than I was able to in regular coursework, by giving me hands-on experience in designing the experiments, and simply learning and figuring things out as I went along. It has also stretched me in learning to be a self-starter and to manage my time better.”
After Hamilton, Lin and Khan are both planning to go to medical school. They believe that the skills acquired during this research experience will be beneficial to the future careers. Guzzetta, interested in both the microbiome and epigenetics, intends to go into genetics research. Pichardo wants to go to graduate school for biomedical engineering.