Michael Zhang ’21 Qualifies for Regeneron International Science & Engineering Fair

Congratulations to Michael Zhang ’21, who has qualified for the Regeneron-sponsored International Science and Engineering Fair. While the 2020 event has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the honor of being chosen for this highly selective Fair remains. His project, “Metal-doped Zinc Oxide Nanochip for Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopic Sensing of Opioid in Water” placed second overall and first in the Environmental Science and Engineering section in the Mercer Science and Engineering Fair (MSEF).
 
When and how did the competition take place?
MSEF took place on March 22, 2020. It was hold online due to the current pandemic situation, but the overall process was quite rigorous. I had to prepare an extensive list of documents from research plan and protocol, to the final presentation of data in both poster and ppt format. I was interviewed by a review panel of eight experts, which was intensive but quite fun.
 
What challenges did presenting your research virtually present?
Due to the regulations put in place by the CDC in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the fair was moved online and my presentation time was restricted to a 15-minute block. This was a shocking change from last year’s fair, in which I had the better part of three hours to impress a host of judges. To compensate for this restricted time window, the fair allowed the judges to preview our presentation material and allocate the 15-minute block for mostly questions. In a way, however, this made it even more challenging as the judges had time to analyze every detail of my project and came in with full force with their questioning.
 
What inspired the project?
I worked on a water purification project last year. I have been thinking about extending my work towards detection of chemicals with significant societal impact. After some thoughts, I decided to take the direction of mapping the opioid crisis through screening the related drug molecules in water. The opioid epidemic has presented major challenges for communities around the world for decades, with over 130 people dying of overdoses per day in the U.S. alone, not to mention the millions of others around the world that suffer from the adverse effects of opioid abuse. Current approaches to detecting opioids require long processing times on top of bulky and costly lab-based equipment that most of America does not have access to. Attempts at portable opioid detection still face challenges regarding their materials and designs, and still are not very sensitive. I chose to tackle the detection aspect of this epidemic in the hopes of putting numbers to this crisis and to ultimately enable more targeted care.
 
The results of my work are in the process of being patented and being compiled into a research paper
 
Can you share a brief description of your project?
The technique I developed provides a new, portable, and reliable way to detect the presence of opioid substances in liquid samples, including wastewater. Specifically, it uses silver-coated zinc oxide nanoparticles to enhance the light signal in order to detect the presence of opioids, a process known as Raman spectroscopy. Much like humans have fingerprints that are unique to them, molecules also have their own sort of unique ID. Just shining a laser on a molecule is not enough to identify it because the signal is too weak, so I developed a nanoscale chip (using the previously described nanoparticles) that acts as a sort of “magnifying glass,” enhancing the molecule’s “fingerprint” and allowing us to reliably detect trace amounts of opioids in solutions. In fact, my technique is so sensitive it can detect your average-sized pill dissolved in a 1000L tank of water.
 
For additional information, please contact Lisa M. Gillard Hanson, director of Public Relations, at lgillard@lawrenceville.org.
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