Bioscience High School students win chemistry award for nanoparticle tattoo research

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Courtesy of Craig Pletenik

Bioscience High School students Liana O’Conner and Alexa Tagaban won a first-place award in a state science competition for their nanoparticle tattoo research. (Courtesy of Craig Pletenik)

Two Bioscience High School students won a first-place award for their research on a substance that would improve the lives of diabetics — not with insulin, but with ink.

Juniors Liana O’Conner and Alexa Tagaban won first place in the chemistry division of the Arizona Science and Engineering Fair for their research on nanoparticle-infused tattoos capable of measuring a person’s blood sugar level.

The two students worked with professors and graduate students at ASU to conduct preliminary research on the development of a dye that changes colors based on how low or high a person’s blood sugar level is.

Both students said the project was still in the early stages and that they were not sure when the technology would reach the general public.

“This is a relatively new project for just about everybody,” O’Conner said. “Nobody’s at the stage where people are getting (these) tattoos.”

O’Conner and Tagaban worked on the research project through ASU’s Southwest Center for Education in the Natural Environment, or SCENE.

The organization’s high school program places students alongside ASU students and professors, where they perform science experiments in a research university environment. The program’s director, Kathryn Kyle, said the program is a great way to help students understand what is involved in a professional, science-based field.

“(High school students) learn science as vocabulary concepts and cookbook science experiments,” Kyle said. “They don’t really have a chance to experience for themselves the fact that science is a discovery process.”

Kyle said other research projects in the program have included bacteria that could help purify polluted water and metals that could make solar cell chips more efficient.

O’Conner and Tagaban chose their project due to their interest in medical technology.

The SCENE high school program acts as a sort of internship, which works out well because O’Conner and Tagaban’s high school requires all of its students to participate in an internship to graduate.

The two students attended their high school classes in Phoenix during the weekday and dedicated their weekends and spring break to the research project on ASU’s Tempe campus. Often, both students took their work home with them to complete all of their tasks.

Once they had acclimated to the graduate-level research environment, O’Conner and Tagaban set up experiments during the weekend and left them under a graduate student’s supervision during the rest of the week.

Although juggling a packed schedule was tough, Tagaban said one of the more difficult challenges she and O’Conner faced was accurately measuring glucose levels on such a minute scale.

“You have to be exact or else (the experiment) won’t work,” Tagaban said.

While the SCENE high school program is free, admission is not guaranteed. Students who are interested in pursuing a career in a science or technology-based field must submit an application through SCENE’s website. If accepted, students will work on a research project between mid-September until the beginning of April.

Both O’Conner and Tagaban said they learned a lot from the program and enjoyed the time they spent working with their mentors.

“It was a really good opportunity for us,” O’Conner said.

Contact the reporter at perry.vandell@asu.edu