You are here

Rising with Qiuyin Ren

The Whiting School alumna speaks about designing a novel DNA indicator alongside APL experts through a summer internship supported by philanthropy
Posted February 9, 2017

Before graduating from Hopkins last December, Qiuyin Ren, a biomedical engineering major in the Whiting School, helped design a low-tech device to facilitate battlefield cricothyrotomies and a paper-based DNA indicator that can be transported for use in the most remote locations in the world.

Last summer, she participated in the prestigious and competitive paid summer internship program at the Applied Physics Laboratory that began three years ago as the Summer Program in Undergraduate Research, or SPUR.

Now known as Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE@APL), the program was established in 2014 by a generous gift from university trustee, APL and Krieger School board member, and Rising to the Challenge campaign co-chair, Heather Murren, A&S '88, Parent '17 and '20, and her husband, Jim Murren.

Below, Ren describes her work at APL and how the internship impacted her career plans.

The project I worked for falls under the umbrella of paper microfluidics, which generally works this way: You cover a piece of chromatography paper with patterned wax. When the wax is heated, it impregnates the paper, which creates channels. You can put chemicals into those channels, where they're dried into the paper. Then, in the field or the lab, when you drop a liquid sample onto the paper, a color change will develop that determines what the liquid is. A pH strip or a urine-test dipstick is an example of this idea.

In traditional microfluidics, pumps move fluids through a device, controlling when the fluid starts and stops. With paper, you don't have that control. Our research involved building a chemical compound onto the paper that would keep a liquid sample on the surface, not moving through and coloring the paper until another fluid came along to trigger that movement.

When we created a stable and repeatable formula, we applied that to a procedure called nucleic acid sequence-based amplification (NASBA) to amplify a small amount of DNA in a liquid sample. The process is similar to a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), the standard amplification technique for DNA, but PCR requires a heat source, which requires equipment. NASBA only requires a few reagents, a constant temperature, and about 45 to 90 minutes of incubation time.

Because paper is cheap and easy to transport, this kind of instrument could make lab tests requiring the amplification of DNA, like a tuberculosis test, a lot easier to use in the field, where carrying heavy and expensive equipment isn't usually possible. It could also be used in hospitals where large quantities of a specific test would be needed.

At APL, I worked with people from many different backgrounds — organic chemists, physicists, and engineers, like me. When you have people who have insights from many viewpoints, and you can apply people’s abilities, knowledge, and expertise to one goal, you can move a project along so much quicker. APL has given me more conviction about how incredible and necessary goal-driven work is. I realized I don’t want to just do one kind of research. I want to keep exploring different technologies, and solving as many problems as I can.

Rising update: Ren completed her undergraduate studies in December 2016, but she's still making her mark at Hopkins. She is conducting research in The Green Lab at Johns Hopkins Medicine and working as a teaching assistant in the biomedical engineering department.