Popular Science magazine has named Asst. Prof. Hatice Altug (ECE, SE) among the nation’s top 10 young scientists and engineers. She is included in the magazine’s “Brilliant 10,” researchers under 40 who made transformational contributions to their fields during 2010.
“Our annual ‘Brilliant 10’ feature is a testament to the importance of scientific research and a salute to the dazzling young minds driving it,” said Mark Jannot, editor-in-chief of Popular Science. “Each year, we solicit nominations from hundreds of eminent scientists and whittle the candidates down to the ones whose work really blows the tops of our heads off. Over the past 10 years, we’ve celebrated the achievements of 100 scientists who are changing the way we look at we look at, and live in, our world, and I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings.”
Popular Science editors chose the “Brilliant 10” after seeking input from professional organizations, experts in the nominees’ respective fields, as well as peers and colleagues. Among their criteria were discoveries and developments that that “totally uprooted their fields” and changed how researchers, doctors or engineers go about their work.
“It is a great honor to be one of Popular Science’s Brilliant 10,” Altug said. “I am very excited that the work that we do in my lab with my students has been recognized with such a prestigious award. I am looking forward to the time when our approaches based on nanotechnologies will impact and improve human life greatly.”
Altug was recognized for the revolutionary, highly portable, extremely low-cost biosensor she developed last year. It can quickly and reliably identify dangerous viruses such as Ebola and Marburg in resource-limited settings, and has profound implications for identifying and containing pandemics in developing countries, and for assessing potential terrorist threats in places like airports around the world.
Although technology currently exists to identify these viruses, it requires a large biological sample, transportation (usually refrigerated) to a laboratory, extensive sample preparation, and long analysis times. Altug’s device requires only a small sample, little or no preparation and improves response time by more than two orders of magnitude. Since no laboratory or transportation is needed, the cost is also far lower.
Altug’s device is expected to have an immediate impact in Africa, where there are limited laboratory resources. A wide range of viral infections – some very dangerous, others not – present similar symptoms, so diagnosis is key to preventing outbreaks. Having a portable, low-cost, easy-to-use diagnostic tool on hand will greatly aid public health workers seeking to identify, treat and contain outbreaks of the Ebola and Marburg viruses. The device can easily be modified to detect other viruses, as well.
The device – about the size of a US quarter – can also be used in other settings, such as airports or customs offices, to quickly detect potential bioterrorism attacks at their source.
Altug’s biosensor uses breakthrough nanotechnology she has developed in recent years. On a gold film, Altug created an array of apertures of about 200-350 nanometers in diameter that transmit light more strongly at certain wavelengths. When a live virus binds to the sensor surface, it causes a detectable shift in the resonance frequency of the light transmitted through the nanoholes. The magnitude of that shift reveals the presence and concentration of the virus in the sample, allowing health officials to know what virus they are dealing with and how seriously the patient is infected. In addition, on the same surface by uniquely manipulating light and fluid flow at the nano-scale level, she showed that sensor response time can be dramatically improved.
As the first devices are set to be deployed in Africa, Altug has invented a new fabrication technique that can enable mass production of these biosensors at extremely low cost.
Mark Dwortzan and Caleb Daniloff contributed to this story.