School students focus on molecular engineering project

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School students focus on molecular engineering project


22 January 2013

Four high-performing high school students have spent their holidays at the University of the Sunshine Coast taking part in an exciting molecular engineering project.

The science whizzes, who will start Year 12 at Meridan State College and Immanuel Lutheran College next week, are into the final days of a six-week immersion research project at USC.

They have worked alongside some of the University’s top scientists in developing components of sensors, which could one day be used to detect pathogens and toxins.

Leading the project is USC’s Senior Lecturer in Molecular Engineering Dr Joanne Macdonald, whose current research includes the development of smart sensors for pathogen detection, such as Hendra and Australian Bat Lyssavirus.

Dr Macdonald said the immersion research project would help encourage the high school students to consider careers in the expanding fields of science and engineering.

“Molecular engineering is the manipulation and manufacturing of molecules to create new functions that may not exist in nature,” she said.

“The applications of molecular engineering are vast, with examples including computers made of DNA or the development of new smart drugs.

“The students have done amazingly well, and it was fun to see them get more excited about science and engineering throughout the program.

“They learnt basic skills in the structure of DNA and molecular engineering principles. They created their own DNA designs and tested them in the laboratory. Many of their designs were not successful, but all of them found at least one successful design. Their results are really useful, and will help us in our future molecular engineering projects.”

Dr Macdonald holds a joint appointment with USC and Columbia University in New York. Her pathogen detection project last year earned a $360,000 Queensland Government grant.

Some of Dr Macdonald’s previous projects in the United States have included developing a DNA computer that can play tic-tac-toe against a human opponent, and working on antidote technology for cocaine and nerve agents.

The project has been supported by a USC Faculty of Science, Health, Education and Engineering seed grant.

— Terry Walsh

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