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High school student starts research career early by focusing on nanoparticles found in sunscreen


March 02, 2007

Sunscreen is something most folks can't live without in the Southwest. But the very product that is protecting human skin from harmful solar rays could be wreaking havoc on the environment because of one ingredient.

Researchers at ASU have been studying the impact of nanoparticles, such as titanium dioxide/oxide (TiO2), which is found in sunscreen and many other products, on aquatic organisms. With so much to study in the way of nanoparticles, they agreed to enlist the help of a rather curious high school student.

Jingyuan Luo, a Hamilton High School senior, volunteered her time during her junior year because of her love for research.

“I wanted to do something that I did not have to do for a grade,” Luo says. “I wanted to do it for me, because research is somewhat of a hobby for me.”

Luo initially contacted researchers at ASU's Biodesign Institute – but, because of her interest, she was forwarded to Qiang Hu and Milton Sommerfeld.

“She contacted us, and we liked what we saw in her résumé and ideas presented,” Hu says.

After some direction, she studied the effect of TiO2 on one species of green algae in Hu and Sommerfeld's Laboratory for Algae Research & Biotechnology (LARB) on the Polytechnic campus. Her work is part of the larger study being conducted by both ASU researchers, looking at the potential toxicity and bioaccumulation of nanomaterials in the aquatic ecosystem.

“Micro-organisms are a good indicator of toxins in the water,” Hu says. “That's why algae are used.”

“If the algae are negatively affected by high levels of the nanoparticle, then it could affect the entire food chain, and it would be ecologically significant,” Sommerfeld adds.

Hu and her post-doctoral mentor, Jiangxiang Wang, studied varying levels of TiO2 on Chamydomonas reinhardtii (a green alga) over five-day periods, tracking the stress based on cell appearance and population growth. Several tests were conducted to examine stress response at the gene level, and to gain a better understanding of the effects of nanoparticles on the algae.

Their findings showed that the higher concentration of TiO2 nanoparticles, the slower the growth rate and the smaller the cell population. Furthermore, some stress genes were overexpressed in response to the presence of nanoparticles. This demonstrates that nanomaterials can be toxic to algae – an indicator of a potential negative influence on the aquatic food chain. It also showed that regular or larger-sized particles are not as toxic to algae as the nanoparticles. The reason for this response is not clear, and this represents an area for further study.

While most teenagers Luo's age want to spend as much time with friends as possible, she says her experience in the lab was worth missing social events.

“I was able to apply what I learned from my advanced placement chemistry and biology classes, and the research took me out of my comfort level,” Luo says. “I also learned how to use lab equipment without killing myself. And it also helped me determine which area of science I will focus on in college.”

The research also has helped her succeed in taking first place in local and regional fairs, and second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She also received the Governor's Arizona Young Innovator of the Year award in 2006.

In addition to her interest in science, she is a member of the speech and debate team, the Model United Nations, National Honor Society and We the People. In her spare time, she volunteers at the Carl T. Hayden Veterans Affairs Medical Center .

“I wanted to try a lot of different things in high school, so by the time I was ready to graduate, I would have a better idea of what I wanted to study in college,” Luo says. “I'm still unsure of my major, but I plan to continue research in the nanosciences.”

This spring, Luo is working at the LARB on the bioaccumulation of nanomaterials using green algae and extending it to daphnia. And that's not all she has planned before she graduates in May.

“I also will be working at the Biodesign Institute once I am ready to study zebrafish, so I can understand how nanomaterials affect an aquatic food chain and if an increase in concentration of an element or compound occurs as it moves up the food chain,” Luo says.