The Society for Science has announced that Michael Zhang ’21 is among the top 300 scholars in the Regeneron Science Talent Search 2021, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors. For his project, “Development of Silver Nanoparticle Decorated Zinc Oxide Arrays for the Portable and Label-Free Detection of Opioids in Liquids,” Zhang will receive a $2,000 prize and the Society for Science will donate an additional $2,000 to The Lawrenceville School. On January 21, 40 of the 300 scholars will be named Regeneron Science Talent Search finalists. From March 10-17 all 40 finalists will compete for more than $1.8 million in awards provided by Regeneron.
How did you feel when you found out your project was among the Regeneron top 300?
Michael Zhang '21: I was actually outside on my daily morning run when I got the ping on my phone: I had been named a Science Talent Search Top Scholar! I jumped up and down (and got a few curious looks from a few dog-walkers nearby). . . . Program alumni include recipients of the world's most coveted science and math honors, including 13 Nobel Prizes, 11 National Medals of Science, six Breakthrough Prizes, 21 MacArthur Foundation Fellowships and two Fields Medals. While I still have my entire career in science in front of me, I look forward to following in the footsteps of these intellectual giants and helping advance our society.
Would you please briefly explain your project?
MZ: The opioid crisis has posed major challenges for communities across America and the world for decades, with nearly 70,000 Americans dying of overdoses in 2018. Despite the decades-long abuse, however, there are still few tools for mapping and understanding this ongoing epidemic in the real world. The techniques that are available require large and expensive pieces of equipment, which are inaccessible in the places where the problem is rampant.
With this in mind, I developed a portable, point-of-care solution for quick, accessible, and efficient sensing of opioids in liquids. Specifically, I created a metal-coated zinc oxide nanostructure which detects trace amounts of opioids using light. Much as each species have their distinctive footprints, molecules each have their own unique ID, which can be revealed by laser stimulation. Just shining a laser on a molecule, however, is not enough to identify it, because the resulting signal is too weak. Therefore, I developed a silver-sprinkled zinc-oxide nanostructure that multiplies the reflected light enhancing the molecule’s signature. Thanks to this enhancement, my chip could reliably detect opioid concentrations as low as 0.1 microgram/mL, equivalent to an average Rx pill dissolved in a 1000-liter tank. These chips can potentially provide a high-throughput method for mapping remarkably detailed patterns of drug use, thereby constituting a powerful tool for detecting emergent public health threats.
MZ: This project takes my nanotechnology used in purifying water to a brand new direction. Imagine nanoscale tadpoles dispersed across a pond of muddy water, gobbling up any contaminant they encounter and turning it into harmless water and carbon dioxide. This design is great for purification (as the particles are free-floating), but optimized for chemical sensing.
I then wondered if instead we could capture those contaminants for analysis, transforming my purification technology into a detection device. Designing a palm-sized sensor with adequate detection presented two challenges: achieving a large surface area needed in a compact form factor, and leveraging that surface area to enhance the target molecules’ optical signal.
The paradox was a challenge. My design was inspired by our biology; nature has somehow fit the equivalent of a tennis court into the limited space of our abdominal cavity. I mimicked this geometry at the nanoscale, thereby creating an effectively large area for sensing.
Having cracked the challenge of surface area, I turned to the problem of leveraging this detection area to enhance my detection signal. When freckled with metal nanoparticles, the larger effective surface area offered by my nanoscale array’s geometry would amplify the target molecule’s signal and strengthen the detection.
Zhang’s other awards include: The Lawrenceville School William Welles Award, International Science and Engineering Fair Finalist, American Invitational Mathematics Exam Qualifier, USA Computing Olympiad) Gold Division, The President’s Volunteer Service Award - Gold Level, 2019 & 2020 Mercer Science and Engineering Fair 1st in Environmental Engineering, Stockholm Junior Water Prize, National AP Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Speech Competition Semifinalist, and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Award. At Lawrenceville, he is President of the Science and Robotics Club, Executive Editor of The Lawrencium, and Founder and Captain of Congressional Debate.
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